Naming winter storms will do more harm than good

Heavy snows and tall drifts in this photo submitted to the National Weather Service from Feb. 2, 2011.

Heavy snows and tall drifts in this photo submitted to the National Weather Service from Feb. 2, 2011.

It was inevitable. In today’s media world where some outlets try to sell the weather as opposed to forecast it, TV weather’s only super power, The Weather Channel, will now be naming winter storms.  TWC states a few bullet points as to why this is a good unilateral decision.

  • Naming a storm raises awareness.
  • Attaching a name makes it much easier to follow a weather system’s progress.
  • A storm with a name takes on a personality all its own, which adds to awareness.
  • In today’s social media world, a name makes it much easier to reference in communication.
  • A named storm is easier to remember and refer to in the future.

While naming winter storms may have a few benefits, I strongly feel this will cause more confusion and misinformation than TWC knows, or cares to acknowledge. The main benefit left off the list is an increase in TV ratings since naming a storm almost allows it to take on its own persona. And that persona can be used as the enemy attacking the city in the weather story being told.

In Wisconsin we take winter storms and blizzards seriously. We do not need to say “Athena” or “Brutus is coming!” to catch your attention. For the few who need a fancy name to perk up and listen, they may let the name overshadow the critical DETAILS and IMPACTS of the storm, how much, how fast, what time… you know, the useful information a name does not provide.

TWC states it will name storms up to 3 days in advance. This leaves a huge window for the storm to fizzle or shift course. Once a storm is named it will be very difficult to “un-cry wolf” and inform the public there’s nothing to see here, please resume your normal business.

The third bullet point has already been touched on. Giving a storm a personality is like a shiny neon light that blinds you from reading the fine print below. We don’t need a dramatic telling of the forecast, just the facts. Let the viewers make a judgment call as to how to adjust their day when the storm arrives. At FOX6 our motto is “Be prepared, not scared”. It would seem hyping a storm with a name would be in direct conflict with this creed.

Next up is social media. Twitter and Facebook have become powerful tools in reaching the public in times of severe weather. This is especially true during hail, wind, and tornadic events when lead times are measured in minutes. Waiting around for a newscast simply doesn’t fit this schedule. But I fail to see the benefit of tweeting “Athena arrives at dawn with 6-10” of snow”. Couldn’t you shorten this to “Snowfall of 6-10” likely by daybreak”.

Finally, I am skeptical of the flexible criteria TWC has left for itself when it comes to deciding which storms should be named. With hurricanes and tropical storms there are strict guidelines the National Hurricane Center must follow. TWC it says they’ll name storms with “disruptive impacts”. Of course a storm will have a differing amount of disruptive impacts from region to region. So let’s look at an example. Winter storm “Brutus” heads towards Chicago with 8-14” of heavy, wet snow. A major metropolitan area and travel hub will be significantly impacted. So national media outlets spend 3 days previewing Brutus’s impacts on Chicago and touch on the fingerprint it will leave on Milwaukee which is only expecting 5-8” of light, fluffy snow. Not everyone will decipher the difference, all they’ll hear is Brutus is coming to Milwaukee and Chicago. When the last snowflake falls and we are left with 7” in Racine, 6” in Milwaukee, and 5” in Port Washington, attaching Brutus to a modest storm will leave people skeptical of the next one. And when the next storm eyes up Milwaukee as its main target many will ignore the warnings thinking “Brutus wasn’t so bad”.

When it comes to winter storms, or any severe weather for that matter, the most accurate forecasts can get lost in the noise of the sensational headline. As informed viewers I am begging you, ignore the “oooos and ahhhhs” of the broadcast (which we try to leave out) and focus on the content. We will provide the when, where, what, and how much, which is far more valuable than who.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,388 other followers