Expectations Concerning Media Performance
During Severe Weather Emergencies

(Adopted by AMS Council 14 January 2001)

Bull. Amer. Met.Soc., 82, 705

 

 

 

The longstanding collaboration between the National Weather Service (NWS) and the media has served the American public very well, especially during severe weather events. While the evolution of this collaboration has a long history, the devastating events of 11 April 1965 (Palm Sunday), Hurricane Camille in 1969, and 3/4 April 1974 (the Super Outbreak) in particular highlighted the need for effective communication between NWS forecasters, private sector meteorologists, TV and radio broadcasters, and the public. The lessons learned during these events convinced many individuals in the government, the private sector, and the media that it was in the national interest to develop a strong collaborative relationship focused on providing detailed, accurate weather information to the public. Today, this public-private collaboration continues to evolve, both responding to and driving the revolution in information technology and making use of the products and services resulting from the recent modernization of the National Weather Service.

 

The need for enhanced vigilance due to an increasingly vulnerable population, the occurrence of major severe weather events where the public-private collaboration was weak and the resulting communication with the public was not effective, and the desirability of the public receiving a clear, consistent message during periods of severe weather have prompted the American Meteorological Society to examine the media's role in providing an essential public service. The focus of the Society's examination has been on the broadcast media, however, many of the attributes considered desirable in broadcast media performance are equally applicable to any effort to provide weather information to the public, independent of the means of communication. In this endeavor, the Society's goals are to highlight the media's vital role in a region's hazardous weather warning team and underscore the need for sound media performance as an essential element for insuring a high public response. The results of this examination are expressed in terms of desirable attributes for media performance during periods of threatening weather.

 

BACKGROUND

 

It is through the dual roles of informal educator and professional communicator of warning information that the media promotes proper public response to severe weather threats. Informal education by the media in advance of severe weather occurrences helps prepare the public to respond properly during an emergency situation. Through timely relaying of National Weather Service and official emergency management information and by providing supplementary observations, interpretation, discussion, integration, and tailoring to an audience, the media communicates essential information about infrequent but potentially dangerous phenomena to the public. Through education and communication, the media have contributed significantly to the reductions that have occurred over the last 50 years in death and injuries due to severe weather events. Numerous recent incidents, such as Hurricane Andrew in 1992 in Florida and the 3 May 1999 tornadoes in Oklahoma and Kansas, have shown that an educated public, informed and advised by trusted media sources, can make wise weather safety decisions. It is the challenge to the public-private collaboration between the NWS and the media to reproduce these successes elsewhere.

 

Because of outstanding past performances in many hazardous weather situations, today's media enjoy a high level of trust and confidence from the public and have become an indispensable element of a region's hazardous weather warning team. Electronic media (traditionally radio and television but today also including cable and internet broadcasts, cell phone warnings, and pager alerts) provide opportunities for nearly instantaneous communication to the public, a vital feature in a rapidly evolving severe weather situation such as a tornado or a flash flood. Web-based media are playing a growing role in providing up-to-date information on hazardous events such as hurricanes and winter storms.

 

While the print media do not play a direct role in many short-lived weather situations, they make many constructive contributions, such as in-depth discussion of safety rules and storm definitions, and provide essential background information on longer-lived hazardous phenomena such as floods, hurricanes, and winter storms. Because the print media often are a major source of informal education about severe weather, it is vital that they provide the most current information and avoid propagating misconceptions. Because they provide in-depth analysis that is seldom available from the broadcast media, the print media have a special responsibility to analyze and present to the public the lessons to be learned from severe weather events.

 

With numerous and diverse means and formats, high degree of flexibility, and rapid adoption of technological advances such as the Internet, the media remain well positioned to further educate the public on proper responses to hazardous weather events and to even more effectively communicate official advice in specific severe weather situations.

 

PERFORMANCE ATTRIBUTES

 

Reflection on effectiveness of the public-private collaboration in many severe weather events of different kinds over the last forty years suggests that there are five desirable performance attributes for media providing weather information during periods of hazardous weather. Taken together, these greatly assist in insuring that the public receives a clear, consistent message about a severe weather event and how to respond properly to it:

 

1. Immediacy: All official advisories, watches and warnings, and Emergency Alert System messages for the area of concern should be broadcast in a timely and prudent manner, with all essential information, and with the issuing authority clearly identified. Follow-up information concerning areas impacted, time of issuance, and period of validity add value and are important to driving home the message. The NWS SkyWarn reports are of great value during an emergency and they should be made available to the public as quickly as possible.Broadcasting cancellations and "all clear" bulletins should follow suit. If media outlets using the World Wide Web to disseminate information cannot update materials promptly, then a disclaimer should so state and direct users to an immediate source.

 

2. Accuracy: Presentation of a warning or a forecast should include attribution and an estimate of the confidence or uncertainty to be associated with it. Cautionary and qualifying remarks are particularly important with long range forecasts and forecasts with high degrees of uncertainty (e.g., hurricane landfall predictions). To avoid confusion, standard definitions and terminology should be used in discussions. To assist in conveying the limitations of predictions, media are encouraged to utilize and educate the public about products that display uncertainty.(The effective communication of forecast uncertainty remains a major challenge to NWS meteorologists, the media, and the academic research community). It is very important that there be no embellishment or exaggeration of facts as these may make a situation appear better or worse than it is. There is a fine line between over-playing and under-playing a situation and while the path of least regret may seem to be the former, this decision should be the considered judgement of a professional meteorologist with experience in similar severe weather situations. Promotions or "teasers" of future weather should reflect the reality of the anticipated situation and be consistent with the forecast that is ultimately presented. Too much hype leads to loss of credibility and may lead to improper public response in a real situation. An experienced weathercaster knowledgeable about local conditions can add value to the National Weather Service forecasts and warnings, as these are necessarily directed toward a large audience. However, where it is judged necessary to depart markedly from the National Weather Service warnings, the situation warranting such a departure should be explained to the public. Real-time radar and satellite images can be exceptional tools for informing the public. However, their availability can often outpace the issuance of official bulletins. Great care should be exercised in interpreting such imagery before the public.If the presenter lacks the training and experience necessary to make such an interpretation, he or she should not do so until reliable confirming information can be obtained.

 

3. Collaboration: Cooperation, coordination, and two-way communication, as reflected in joint planning and rehearsals and the inclusion of qualified broadcast meteorologists in NWS severe weather coordination calls, are necessary to build an effective hazardous weather warning team in a region. The broadcast media and other private sector meteorologists, while retaining autonomy and independence, have much to contribute to such teams. It is important that the NWS and the media listen to one another, share plans and information, and seek one anotherís input on emergency plans and operations. Many electronic and some print media have private networks of observers. In addition, numerous broadcast media have radars and deploy storm chase teams. During severe weather situations, these private entities are encouraged to release unique reports to NWS forecasters and emergency management personal before or at least simultaneously with broadcasting to the public. In this regard, some broadcast media have established "hot lines" to NWS offices for such purposes. These are highly desirable, as experienced weathercasters with knowledge of local conditions can aid NWS personnel in fine-tuning forecasts and warnings.Broadcast of such privately collected information should always include full attribution to the originator.In addition, the media have a responsibility of insuring that the public knows and appreciates the underpinning role played by the National Weather Service.

 

4. Balance: "Being first" and "being the best" are important motivators and highly desirable in the media business. Indeed, fair and open competition based on quality of service is in the public's best interest. However, in balancing market forces with the public good during periods of severe weather, the broadcast meteorologist and higher management should always place the interests of the public first.Every effort should be made to restrain unwarranted claims and to avoid exploiting an emergency situation for competitive advantage.

 

5. Professionalism: A high level of professional expertise is required to perform properly during a weather emergency. While professionalism begins with meteorological education and training, it also includes experience, understanding, and the ability to remain calm under pressure. In addition to technical skills, professionalism in providing weather information to the public includes ability to balance public interest with competitive forces and adherence to the highest standards of journalism, with its constant striving for accuracy and quick correction of errors. Many variables such as time of day, the phenomenon being reported, company policy, staffing, emphasis of response, frequency of response, and telephone reaction from the public, may impact on the media person responsible for communicating with the public. These variables make it necessary for a company to have well thought out plans for dealing with a variety of hazardous weather situations. These plans should be coordinated with the NWS and emergency management agencies, give an on-site professional meteorologist ultimate decision-making authority, and be approved and supported by management. Since major severe weather situations are relatively rare, weathercasters and their support teams are not likely to have as much experience as would be desirable. Consequently, it is very important for maintaining public trust that the media practice implementation of their severe weather plans and share experiences. It is understood that not all media providing weather information have meteorologists on staff(see the Society's White Paper entitled "What is a Meteorologist?"). Even in those that do, the meteorologist may not establish company policy for dissemination of weather information. Nevertheless a meteorologist with weathercasting experience should be involved in planning and operations if a media company has decided to enter into the business of providing information to the public during periods of severe weather.

 

CONCLUDING COMMENTS

 

For over forty years the American Meteorological Society has fostered high standards for weathercasting through its Board on Broadcast Meteorology and its Seal of Approval program. The Seal is awarded to those applicants from the broadcast media -- radio, television, and cable -- who meet AMS standards in Technical Competence, Informational Value, Explanatory Value, and Communications Skill. The AMS Seal is widely recognized as an indicator of professional competence. While the Society does not offer a similar program for many of the new dissemination media, such as Web sites, it encourages individuals responsible for the development and maintenance of such media to adhere to the high standards of the Seal of Approval program.

 

The Society appreciates the competitive nature of the media business and understands the tremendous pressure on staff in both the media and the National Weather Service during the height of weather emergencies. It also recognizes that even with the best technology and expertise, there will be unexpected weather disasters -- recent history contains numerous examples of both successes and failures of the public-private collaboration in its efforts to educate and communicate to the public the information necessary for proper response to hazardous weather. However, the Society believes that through adherence to the attributes discussed here, the public-private collaboration will continue to improve and better meet the challenge of conveying to the public information relevant to critical decisions related to severe weather.

 

[This statement is considered in force until September 2013 unless superseded by a new statement issued by the AMS Council before this date.]