With the end of the hurricane season still two months out, South Florida remains on guard, even if the tropics have been quiet.
In fact, the only real scare we’ve had so far was back in August when Tropical Storm Erika was positioned to possibly hit the state. Fortunately, the storm fizzled out before doing any real damage to the area, but I was reminded yet again of the media frenzy that comes when a hurricane is approaching Florida, especially with local TV news coverage.
For TV stations, covering a tropical storm, hurricane, etc., is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” outcome. Their job is to provide updates, but if they are wrong, they’ll never hear the end of it. Similarly, it seems difficult to determine how much coverage is too much. They’ll have viewers who will say how tired they are of all of the reports, while others will complain they aren’t getting updates often enough. Complicating things even more is the insanely competitive media world in which we live. Not only is it difficult to beat your TV competitors, you now have to beat the Internet, Facebook and some guy reporting from his back porch.
To provide some perspective to all of this, I reached out to Betty Davis, meteorologist for WPLG-Channel 10. Below are her thoughts on what it takes to be a weather prognosticator in this current day and age and the challenges that come with her position.
rbb: With all of the new technology and forecasting models, is your job easier or more difficult than it used to be? Are people less understanding if/when you make a mistake or when a prediction is off? Do you take it personally if a forecast you make turns out to be off?
Betty: I believe my job as a broadcast meteorologist is made easier with new technology. However, no matter how advanced and sophisticated forecast models may be, they don’t always yield perfect results. The art of forecasting is challenging, and at times complicated. One does the best one can with the information available. I believe people are more understanding when mistakes are made or a prediction is off. Many South Floridians are weather savvy; they understand that meteorology is not a perfect science. I do not take it lightly when my forecast is “off.” But, I try not to beat myself up about it. I give it my best shot and try to learn from my “miscalculations.” Forecast models are an excellent tool, but sometimes the models don’t quite nail it right away. Or, one model may yield one solution, while the other model yields another solution. As mentioned earlier, one does the best one can with the information available.
rbb: As people receive news these days in many different ways, the news business is very competitive. When it comes to reporting on a hurricane or tropical storm, how do you balance being first vs. being right? And, how do you find a balance between being an alarmist vs. being a source of information?
Betty: In the age of the 24-hour news cycle and stiff competition, everybody wants to be first! So, when you take the leap to be “first” you must choose your words and the information you convey, carefully. To strike the balance between being right and being first, I communicate to viewers what I know for sure and I make every effort to be transparent regarding “uncertainties” in a forecast (uncertainties such as the “exact” track of a tropical system or its intensity). When you are conscientious about what you say and how you present the information, I believe you immediately distinguish yourself as a trustworthy source of information and not an alarmist.
rbb: Social media has become such an important part of the news business as both media and reporters utilize it to engage and build their brands (I know WPLG is in a big push for this right now). What are your feelings about how social media has changed the news business? How has it improved it? What challenges has it brought?
Betty: Social media has changed the news business and the art of relaying weather information in some fantastic ways and in some not so fantastic ways. Social media is a great tool for staying in the “weather know” on a real-time basis. From weather pictures to “right now” weather chat, social media is a great way to know what is happening weather-wise outside everyone’s front door. However, one major challenge is weeding through what is real and what is not. Social media is a “land of make-believe” for some people. So, you have to be able to discern what is real weather information and what is not.
rbb: It has been 10 years since South Florida got hit by a hurricane. Do you think this large break has hurt us because people don’t take the threats as seriously?
Betty: I, like so many South Floridians, am extremely thankful that South Florida has not been hit by a major hurricane in the past decade. Because the area has not had to deal with a major system for a while, I am certain there are many who have been lulled into a sense of complacency. That is unfortunate. Hopefully, the majority of South Floridians understand that we still have to take the potential of a land falling hurricane seriously. Everyone should have a preparedness plan. We will continue to hope for the best each hurricane season, but everyone should have a preparedness plan.
It seems as though the tropics may still pose a threat as Hurricane Joaquin just formed in the Atlantic Ocean. Even though it likely won’t threaten Florida, it will still be part of the media coverage for the next few days and it will be interesting to see how the perspective shared by Betty colors how I react to the media stories I see.
What do you think? Is TV hurricane coverage too alarmist? Too sensational? Or just about right for what viewers need? Share your thoughts with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.