There is a tension in the profession of broadcast meteorology between a desire to share something of the science of meteorology and the perception that viewers “just want to know whether it’s going to rain”. Most meteorologists I know are passionate about the weather and the science, and they want to share not only the “what will happen” but also at least a taste of “why it will happen”, too. Meanwhile, some consultants and news managers push their meteorologists to avoid technical terms like “high pressure” and “cold front” since, in their minds, viewers either do not understand or simply do not care.
In his blog entry this morning, Seth Godin cuts to the heart of this tension:
“The answer is simple” is always more effective a response than, “well, it’s complicated.”
One challenge analysts face is that their answers are often a lot more complicated than the simplistic (and wrong) fables that are peddled by those that would mislead and deceive.
Weather is often complicated, and while a deterministic forecast can always be reduced to its core elements — “just tell me if it is going to rain” — this belies the uncertainty involved in making a prediction of future events. It does a disservice to our viewers who can benefit from knowing about forecast uncertainty or the impact it may have on their lives, especially since at least one study has shown a significant number of people desire this kind of information1.
This, of course, begs the question of how to resolve this tension. Other than turning everyone into a committed weather junkie, Seth recommends we take our time:
Take complicated overall answers and make them simple steps instead. Teach complexity over time, simply.
In other words, we have to build the capacity for complexity — both our ability to explain it and our viewers’ abilities to understand it — one step at a time. I think this is exactly what both the American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association have in mind as a goal of each of their certification programs, the AMS’ Certified Broadcast Meteorologist designation (and before it, their Seal of Approval) and the NWA’s Seal of Approval. That is, over time, regular viewers of certified or approved broadcast meteorologists should grow in their understanding of the workings of the atmosphere, or at the very least, grow in their capacity to have more complex situations explained in terms meaningful to them.
Unfortunately, both certification programs have been caught up in the complexity vs. simplicity tension at various times. Both groups have had candidates who are likely capable, but whose station managers impose severe restrictions upon what they may show, essentially preventing them from showing what effective science communicators they can be. Likewise, there are misconceptions amongst many applicants that to earn the seal, you have to teach Meteorology 101 in three minutes. For example, it is still not uncommon to hear things like “if you don’t show a jet stream map, they’ll fail you” or that every submitted weathercast must contain an explainer graphic in order to be passed. The former results in building no capacity for complexity whatsoever; the latter often results in applicants trying either to do “too much too soon” or doing things they clearly do not do regularly enough to be comfortable with, possibly leaving viewers or news directors with a bad taste in their mouths (not to mention tape reviewers, who can spot this kind of thing easily!).
The point is, if we want the privilege to explain complex subjects like the weather to our viewers, we must earn it every day A newly-minted meteorologist who steps on camera at a first job and immediately attempts to be the next Tom Skilling, Greg Fishel2, or Dan Satterfield (to name a few) is destined for failure. Each of them (and those like them) has instead earned that privilege by teaching this complexity simply, day-by-day, year-by-year: By explaining the less complex subjects and routine phenomena well every day; by relating meteorological concepts as directly as possible to how their viewers live their lives; and by understanding at any given time both what their capacity for explanation and what their audience’s capacity for understanding are — and not attempting to oversell on either side of the balance.
1 Morss, R. E., Demuth, J. L., Lazo, J. K., 2008: Communicating uncertainty in weather forecasts: A survey of the U. S. Public. Weather and Forecasting, 23, 974-991.
2 Full disclosure: I work with Greg Fishel at WRAL-TV. I’d say the same thing if I worked across the street.