Saturday, February 5, 2011

From the TMF Soapbox: A Weather Watcher's Bill of Rights

While TMF doesn’t presuppose it’s speaking for the weather watchers of the world, let alone those residing in the country’s second coldest state, we’d like to set a few expectations for Minnesota’s weathercasters. We’d love to hear your thoughts.

1. Use social media for all it’s worth. It doesn’t take an expert futurist to see that local television news broadcasts – indeed the concept of watching the news at a particular time of day on a big screen – are going the way of the dinosaur. Providing timely information in an electronic space is both “good weather” and, alas, good marketing. In our market, we’ve noticed that KSTP has escalated its commitment to providing timely, online updates with new video forecasts that are announced through tweets and Facebook updates. This makes good sense: Why should we have to stay up to watch a forecast when a new has already been developed. There are forecasters in our area, such as NovakWeather, who provide their services solely through non-traditional media.

2. Be consistent in the media you employ. The weather information provided on television or radio should match what’s posted on your website. There’s nothing worse than dialing up your favorite station's website only to see Friday’s forecast posted front and center when it’s Sunday. Worse yet, is when the site shows the morning forecast (which might not mention any possibility of storms) when an evening forecast has just been shown on TV that is markedly different.

3. Walk the talk. Keep information on your electronic media current. If you’re going to say “check out our website for the latest weather information whenever you’re on the go,” please live up to your end of the bargain.

4. Employ confidence ratings in your forecasts. Everyone knows that some forecasts are more slam dunks than others – or as the weather gurus might say sometimes there’s “model agreement” and sometimes there isn’t. The phrase, “I gotta tellya, this forecast has big bust potential,” are words we should hear a bit more often.

5. Dare to be different! It’s no secret that weathercasters (indeed, the public) has access to the same large universe of weather model information. We wouldn’t suggest that the Geico gecko could predict the weather, but it’s easy to become routine and formulaic in your approach. Use a hunch now and then, and stick yourself out. Sure, you may miss a forecast (and pay dearly on TMF – that’s a joke), but if you explain your reasoning, we admire it. For example, when studying the various forecasts for the long-range predictions of the first major cold wave, we noted that KSTP’s temperature prediction stood out like a sore thumb from the consensus. In the end, they had the best prediction by far.

6. Be creative. Present information in a fresh and unorthodox way. It’s more entertaining for the viewer or reader, and can be a better way to illustrate a concept. Our favorite weather site, the Capital Weather Gang, provides rather unique forecasts when snow is in the offing. Here’s an excellent example of a logical, yet uncommon, way to depict possible storm outcomes:

Here’s an excerpt from the blog entry:
Here are the current accumulation possibilities that will certainly evolve in the next several days:
30% chance: A dusting or less
30% chance: A dusting to 1"
20% chance: 1-5"
20% chance: 5"+

To us, this should be a standard tactic in communicating weather scenarios.

7. Give us the love all the time. Yes, the interest in weather is much higher when severe summer storms threaten and when mighty blizzards are aiming in our direction. You should be all over that, both because it affects the most people and because it reflects your presumed love and passion for weather. But if it’s 9 in the morning and a surprise, post-newscast storm has suddenly popped up that will threaten an outdoor lunch or a golf outing, get the word out! There’s real, practical value there, though it may not make for sexy headlines. Finally, weather doesn’t take the weekend off, and neither should weekend weather updates.           

8. Send your written forecasts past a proofreader. There’s no reason to think that a meteorologist specializing in science knowledge is necessarily going to be a good writer, but as long as information is provided through a literary medium, please check your spellings and the flow of your phrases and sentences. Ultimately, your business is detail-based and sloppiness in communication suggests potential sloppiness in the way you go about your job.

9. Present information every six hours (online). Why every six hours? Because that’s how often the key weather models are run. The schedule of television news broadcasts shouldn’t be the governing force behind how often you present information.

10. Spare the gimmicks. Do we really need to know that Johnny’s parents wrote in to find out the forecast for his birthday party in Glenwood on Saturday? In our mind, a better change of pace is to employ a small science presentation. KARE’s Sven Sundgaard’s “Simply Science” segment is a good example.

11. Forgo the misleading teases. Don't allow the news anchor to say, "Snow is coming our way tomorrow," and be left having to explain that distant Mankato or southern Minnesota may get a coating of snow. It’s insulting to us and puts the weathercaster in an instant uphill battle for credibility.

12. Tell us when you blew it. People dig honesty and it’s the best way to earn long-term credibility. If a forecast was missed, don’t skip over it or pretend it didn’t happen. Tell us why it happened – and that you’ll never make the mistake again. (Insert joking smiley face here.)

13. Accurate forecasts. Notice we put this one last? While ultimately, of course, this is what matters most, it’s really part of the whole way that a weather outlet should communicate with its followers. We believe that a well-explained and well-reasoned forecast is simply good communication. And that in the end, people may remember the way you communicate as much as the accuracy of your forecast. That’s our feeling, anyway.

Agree or disagree with these ideas? Please share your thoughts.


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  2. Agree completely. Good post. I also really like number 10, WCCO has lost me watching their forcastes purely for the reason that they are doing the "On the Spot" thing. It makes no sense, is boring, and wastes time.

    My number 1 Weather Station I tune into is KSTP, because like you stated, they are the best at online updates

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  4. How about use your maps effectively. Not sure I phrased that quite right, but here is what I mean. On ch. 11, whenever they run a future radar graphic or a snowfall accumulations graphic over a map of the region, the map is laying back at the top. It's literally tilted away from the viewer so that you can't make out where the county borders, rivers, lakes or for that matter where exactly their forecast criteria are predicted to be. It's almost like they don't want the viewer to see exactly where their predictions are so that perhaps they aren't held to that standard. Not saying it's just Ch. 11, but that's the one that I've noticed it on.

  5. 14. The people living outstate have a right to weather forecasts as much as people living inside the 4/694 freeways.

  6. Good feedback! Hope the various weather outlets are listening (or reading).