Dear Beloved Twin Cities Television Forecasters,
It’s snow time, and a winter-obsessed populace turns its blue eyes to you. If you’ll follow a few of our pointers, we’ll get through this season with a healthy appreciation for meteorology and a minimal amount of misunderstandings.
Ditch the Snow Meter
It’s certainly tempting to use all the tools that WSI and other weather providers give you to wow us. But remember, we’re generally lazy, literal simpletons who glob on to whatever we see on the screen (especially if we’re not listening closely). If we see you point to a graphic showing 7.5 inches of snow in Mankato, 11.6 in Maple Grove, and 5.1 in Rochester, we’ll take it to the bank.
Here’s the problem. The snow meter suggests a level of preciseness that the science can’t yet support. It’s hard enough to get snowfall forecasts right to within an inch or two; why make it more complicated by displaying forecast amounts to the tenth of an inch?
Go Barry ZeVan on Us
Sometimes, old school is the best way to go. There’s nothing wrong with hand-drawn general estimates of snowfall amounts presented in colored gradation bands (just proof them to make sure no bands are missing, something that happens surprisingly often). Yes, this may be more time consuming than simply slapping up a pre-programmed depiction, but it’s worth it. Knock yourself out by using fancy colors but keep the presentation simple.
Keep Model Data Behind the Green Screen
These days there’s no shortage of weather models, whether proprietary or public. And access to the information is equally unprecedented. But please keep the model data to yourself. And never, NEVER, display the one outlier model that shows gargantuan amounts designed to make us drool. We’ll take it the bank and that’s no good for anyone. Ultimately, model data is your domain and should be kept under control of those who know how to interpret it.
(Major Exception: Weather Bloggers)
It makes more sense for weather bloggers to show model data, though even they might want to be careful as well. Just as true foodies might like to hide out in the chef’s kitchen, weather enthusiasts might enjoy a little inside baseball when it comes to weather. Weather bloggers also have the luxury you don’t: unlimited time. They can educate us to their heart’s delight and update essentially continuously.
Use Snowfall Probabilities to Communicate Uncertainty
There’s no such thing as a sure bet in snowfall forecasts, so why not communicate uncertainty? Tell us there’s a 20% chance of 4+ inches of snow, a 60” chance of 2-4 inches, and a 20% chance of less than 2 inches. This may threaten your inner macho, but it’s all about communication. When it comes down to it, it’s your communication abilities that we judge, almost as much or more than your actual knowledge of meteorology. The Capital Weather Gang, a weather blog produced by the Washington Post, sets the standard for communicating uncertainty.
Stand Up to the News Director Who Wants to Play Up A Storm
OK, this may tread on job security, but if you’re honest with yourself you know you’ll be doing the right thing. We know that snow sells almost as much as sex. You’ve probably been asked at some point to “play up the snow possibility” either explicitly or subtly. When the anchor leads with, “Hey Eddie, big snow coming our way, eh?” nip the hype in the bud with, “Ginger, this one will barely cover the grass!” Viewers will appreciate the straightforward approach.
Here’s where you can earn gobs of credibility. If the storm didn’t pan out as forecast, as often happens, come out and say so directly. A simple phrase like, “It was less than we expected and here’s why,” is all that’s needed. Better yet, if you communicated storm uncertainty with pre-storm probabilities, you can say, “the concern we had that thunderstorms in Iowa would steal the system’s energy materialized.”
By following these tips, you can become a truly trusted resource in this mother of all Minnesota seasons.
P.S. – Go easy on the non-weather tweets or consider setting up a separate Twitter account for non-weather tweets. The more extraneous stuff you throw in, the harder it is for us to sift through the important stuff.
If you're a meteorologist or consumer, what are your thoughts? Agree? Disagree?