Seattle media coverage of snow

Feb 25, 2011, 2:31 AM | Updated: Mar 28, 2011, 3:46 pm

Is the immediate information that Seattle TV, radio and online news sites distribute about snow and weather conditions helpful or too much hype?

Sometimes it’s interesting to look in the mirror and reflect on the way “the media” reports events. I’m giving snow coverage this week a second glance.

An atmospheric science professor at the University of Washington, who writes a popular weather blog , says we in the media exaggerate weather reporting.

“The media is always over hyping snow,” says Cliff Mass. “Exaggerating the threat may be good for ratings, but it is bad for communicating necessary information to the public.”

But did we exaggerate? I’ve heard from every weather forecaster in Seattle that geography of the Northwest makes storm forecasting tricky. What was expected to be up to six inches of snow in Seattle didn’t happen, but areas to the south, east, west and north had significant snowfall, cold temperatures and ice.

This storm wasn’t a problem for everyone. It was for hundreds of thousands of people in Western Washington. Neighbors talked about it, people tweeted updates and posted pictures on Facebook.


Photo from Dan Whittle of what this week’s snow storm looked like in Anacortes

I asked some of the professionals who deal with weather every day what they thought about the local coverage.

Rebecca Stevenson is KIRO 7 Seattle’s Chief Meteorologist . She says, “Anytime there is cynicism about potential weather occurring, there will be a claim that media hypes the event.”

Stevenson also points out snow forecasting and news coverage about snow are two different things:

I believe that we have to separate media from the weather even though they go hand in hand. I say that, because the news department functions around events that have occurred or are occurring and the weather department is working from the science of predicting potential weather events in the future. It is information that must be conveyed in a timely manner with the possibility the accuracy will expire in less than 6 hours.

Weather can become a story but a forecast is never the story, at least it shouldn’t be. The forecast should be understood as an educated estimate of possible weather events and how they impact the viewer.

Television viewers choose to watch what interests them and weather has always garnered attention. TV stations need viewers and are willing to advertise that their weather team can tell people what they need to know. That can be advertised in very exciting and hyperventilating ways.

Excited reporters and breathless anchors make listening more amusing but as long as the information is factual, then we must continue to honor the creed of the National Weather Service, informing to save lives and property. Our goal is to be accurate meteorologists in the media.

KING 5 TV‘s Executive News Director, Mark Ginther, offers this perspective on snow coverage:

I think there were a lot fewer accidents because of the amount of coverage all the local media outlets gave this event. It is an unusual weather event for this part of the country, so when something out of the ordinary happens, it is our job to provide coverage.

Our mission as broadcasters is to inform and serve our public. By the number of people who watched television, listened to radio, and logged on websites, I would say there was a great deal of interest in this weather event.

If we kept people safe and that’s “media snow hype,” I’ll take it.

Q13 Fox’s Chief Meteorologist Walter Kelley realizes people think snow coverage is “hyped” but says he can’t let that perception stop him from providing information about what’s going on:

My approach in this market is to be honest and do the best I can with my qualifications. Does the media “hype” severe weather when it comes around? Yeah, I can understand that perception. That said, it’s our intent to get the information across and educate the public for their knowledge and safety. I cannot exaggerate or “hype” for that reason. From a personal standpoint, I DO enjoy my work and if that comes across as over-doing it, then so be it!

Meterologist Scott Sistek is a weather blogger and producer for KOMO 4 News and Steve Pool. Sistek isn’t on TV, but he is one to follow in Seattle for weather information.

“Some people might roll eyes at the reporter standing out in the canned food aisle at the store, but maybe the event’s not real unless you see the people buying chains and cases of Minestrone,” Sistek says.

He adds:

I do think when you are looking at a situation as dire as this looked, you can’t get the message out enough. You look at Mount Vernon with 18-30″ of snow and realize that was a mere 45-50 miles from hitting the North Seattle area. In meteorology, that’s a whisker. So I do believe even though Seattle didn’t get several inches of snow, it was worth the warning.

There is an honest effort to get the word out, even if sometimes “compelling” crosses over into what some might perceive as silly. I don’t think a reporter ever goes out there with the mindset of “I’m going to try my best to scare the bejabbers out of everyone who is listening,” even if that is the end result.

Scaring people is exactly what one local meteorologist who worked in TV for many years says he was told to do. Larry Rice isn’t in front of a camera these days, he’s behind the microphone on 97.3 KIRO FM’s My Northwest Weekend show:

Consultants told my TV managers at my last station, “Get your people (anchors-weathercasters) to scare the crap out of the viewers, to get more viewers to watch.” That kind of mentality shows it’s not about accuracy, its about getting eyeballs on the screen to get the people meters to register. Then, regardless of how the event plays out, you can promote how you had all your reporters (more reporters than brand X hit the street) covering the threat…and the promotion department can put together topical pieces, promoting how many people “watched” your coverage. If we, the media, would treat every chance of snow, based on its merits, rather than treat EVERY threat of snow as the “second coming,” people might have more faith in the media.

You’re the one clicking a website, turning on the radio, punching around TV, and checking your smart phones for information – what do you think of the way Seattle covers snow and weather conditions?

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Seattle media coverage of snow