Tony Wood on Putting Weather in its Place

Tony Wood

Anthony R. Wood has been writing about the weather since he joined the staff of the Philadelphia Inquirer 24 years ago. “I write about the things that everyone talks about and nobody understands: weather and taxes,” he says. Over the years he’s written about hurricanes, floods, blizzards, heat waves, the hazards of coastline development and the curiosities of meteorology. With weather stories dominating the news in recent months, CJR Daily asked Wood for his assessment of the coverage and about how he does his job.

Susan Q. Stranahan: How much of weather coverage, especially what appears on television, is pure marketing designed to drive up ratings, versus providing solid information?

Tony Wood: I have been astonished at the amount of time and attention weather gets. When we were kids, the weather came at the end of the show, delivered without frills by a gizmo-free nerd-ball. Now, the weather attacks you when you turn on the television. You would think it was a bigger threat to the planet than crime! When the weatherman finally comes on after the interviews with the snow plows, he is usually armed with such stunning graphics that the real weather pales in comparison.

These days, the drumbeats are all the louder and continuous, thanks to the art of speculation, which is exploring new boundaries. Computer models can see virtual storms brewing almost every day. It has become a fundamental principle of weather that what might happen is almost always more interesting that what is happening. If Philadelphia got all the snow promised by computers, this would be Syracuse.

I don’t know if any of this qualifies as “pure marketing,” and for my money that’s almost beside the point. People unquestionably are interested in weather. But I believe the main reason we see so much of it these days is pure laziness, if not ill-advised parsimony. Weather is obvious and easy, certainly easier and cheaper than dispatching reporters to rummage through public records for a piece that won’t fill air time or column inches for weeks or months.

As a business strategy, this may well make sense. The last time I checked, the Weather Channel’s profit margin was big enough to satisfy even some newspaper companies.

SQS: So how should television and newspapers “cover” weather?

TW: Very differently, obviously. Viewers will always want Spielberg, and if weather is truly dangerous they will need to know what is happening now. For that, TV is invaluable, and, of course, the amount of weather information available on the Web is almost beyond belief.

So what about newspapers? We often hear our colleagues complain that by the time the newspaper hits the doorsteps, our stories will be irrelevant because the weather we are writing about will be different, if not over. If that’s the case, then we are writing the wrong stories. Our jobs are more challenging, and potentially more valuable and satisfying.

First, we need to keep weather in its place. The over-emphasis on weather is as irresponsible as an over-emphasis on crime news. It can leave viewers and readers with a distorted view of the world in which they live — and we are paying for it. You couldn’t blame the benumbed public these days for thinking the universe has blown a circuit. Yet no evidence points to this being an especially eventful period for natural disasters, even in the very limited history of reliable records. The 1990s were a day at the beach compared with the 1930s.

We owe our readers intelligent coverage. We can’t give them an endless dose of plywood and traffic reports. That said, well-written features and solid stories that recount what happened do serve a purpose. People want to know what they lived through, the way they like to read about sporting events they’ve already watched. The coverage needs to give readers some context, however, to let them know whether what they’ve lived through was truly anomalous.

An extreme weather event — and the tsunami belongs in a category of its own — is an opportunity to tell our readers something about the natural world and remind them that civilization is quite a recent development.

We also need to remind everyone why they should give a damn about all this. Disaster is a growth industry. Look at the Federal Emergency Management Agency data on disaster declarations and disaster dollars in the last decade, compared with the 1950s, which happened to be a monstrous decade for hurricanes. This has a lot to do with where humans have been allowed to build. We don’t have storms anymore, we have disasters.

SQS: The East Coast last weekend was hit by a major snow storm that forecasters predicted accurately — it even started on schedule. How difficult is the business of weather forecasting? And has it been affected by the media’s unwillingness to hear a meteorologist say: “I don’t have a clue what’s coming”?

TW: So much depends on a given storm and the weather pattern, and it is difficult to communicate uncertainty to the public. The National Weather Service used to include “probability of precipitation” in its forecast, but I suspect most people had no idea what it meant. That concept didn’t even have what Robert Frost (who, by the way, was the best weather writer ever born) would call “the sound of sense.”

As good as computer models are at seeing things that haven’t yet appeared on the horizon, they still have a helluva time with the details of a storm that make all the difference to people who live in the nation’s population centers. Computer models have limits. For example, they rely on observations taken around the world, but the data network still has significant gaps, especially over the oceans. I’ve also heard meteorologists complain about having too many different computer models.

Last week, the evolution of the major weather features appeared fairly clear. Right now, however, no one has a good handle on what’s going to happen next week. You can see this in the government and private-sector internal weather discussions. Nevertheless, the forecast language can’t accommodate that kind of uncertainty. Would you watch a weatherman who said, “Folks, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but here’s a forecast anyway”?

SQS: You’ve become a self-taught expert in this subject. How did you go about learning what is a complicated science? Do you feel the experts are happy to talk with somebody who knows the lingo, who can then explain it to the average reader or listener?

TW: I would not call myself an “expert” by any means. Over the years I’ve read books and mined the minds of some very smart people. I feel that I’m always learning. For all the interest in weather, I am astounded that so few people know about it and have so little memory of what has happened. I don’t mean this to sound arrogant. I’m just surprised. How could you not be interested in your life-support system?

Unfortunately, with weather we have a phenomenon similar to what Jon Allen Paulos described in Innumeracy. So many people have misconceptions about weather, and this has consequences. Global warming scare stories are accepted uncritically. No doubt global warming is real, but hysteria is very bad science. Some excellent scientists have raised serious questions about the notion of a “scientific consensus” on global warming, and this is an important issue that we have to cover critically, in the best possible sense.

For reporters, it’s easy enough to learn about weather and climate. I would recommend The Coevolution of Climate and Life by Stephen Schneider and Randi Londer. (Okay, it’s not Seven Ways to Make All the Money You Ever Wanted and Sleep with the People You Want to Sleep With.) The book turns too polemical for my taste toward the end, but the first half of it offers a terrific primer on climate, what it has to do with us and how we came to know about it.

Weather experts love to talk weather, especially when drama is in the air. Unfortunately, by then they might be too busy to talk. They are all too happy to chat when times are slow, and it does help to know their language. Keep a handy list of home numbers, but be careful. Some of them work strange hours that change from week to week. As a former wire service reporter who used to eat omelettes while my friends ate osso buco, I sympathize. So find out when they’re going to be awake and free to talk. And call on a clear day.

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.