Making complex weather simple? Take your time

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.


About Nate Johnson

Meteorologist, instructor, blogger, and podcaster.
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3 Responses to Making complex weather simple? Take your time

  1. Kevin Selle says:

    Excellent post as usual, Nate. I’d like to us take the discussion beyond TV to digital.

    (If readers have not figured out my position on TV yet let me say this. The local television model is dead from a growth standpoint. We will, and should continue to, fight for our slice of the ratings pie but there is no question that even if the pie does not get smaller, it will not get bigger, and more efficient opportunities for advertisers will increase.)

    The old model assumes one delivery mechanism, while digital and the web mean infinite choice for users. One of the main lessons (for me) from The Long Tail was that you can no longer (and shouldn’t) say, “People want X.” You must now say, “Some people want X, some people want Y and some people want Z.”

    As we create new digital products the problem you raise goes away. The user who prefers the Tom Skilling presentation should be able to find it as easily as “Partly Cloudy, 72”.

    A viewer comment from a research project from some years ago has always stuck with me. “Give me access to all the data and let me decide what to do with it.” This way we can teach those who wish to be taught, and keep those pesky news directors and consultants happy too.

  2. Morgan Palmer says:

    Great post Nate.

    I do think that many of the decision makers and consultants across the business still focus myopically on “People want X.” It seems that folks are still trying to just simply corral enough people with meters and diaries into a stable, smack the dust off their hands and go about their way, e.g. “Women 18-49” or “P 25-54.”

    Does it really measure our impact?

    Back in my news days there was a command (from our consultant, yes): “In every newscast, have a memorable moment.”

    We try to focus on events and individual communities in our weathercasts, but it’s often hard in the time allotted. But the only way people are going to continue to tune in is if they feel they’re getting information tailored directly to them; to their lives and where they live. Some people call the younger folks the “me” generation. I contend that we now live in a “me” society. And you can add to that to read, “Me. Oh, yeah that and like, right now.”

    Unfortunately, many of these folks think they’re getting that when they type their zip code into or another place where their forecast is largely untouched by man.

    Our challenge in all our platforms is to make the viewer/user feel as if Nate Johnson or Kevin Selle or Morgan Palmer, a) is the only one who knows where I live, b) is trustworthy and is going to be available with the information anytime of the day or night when I need it (mobile/web/broadcast), and c) is dependable for the long-haul — that is, I can trust the product I’m using is not going to change.

    That takes:
    a) longevity and local expertise, which with the industry upheaval doesn’t exist everywhere anymore (so they go to Yahoo weather or TWC);
    b) a stable online/mobile platform that users are familiar with and is easy to navigate (so many stations bounce to the next big widget or app);
    and c) continuously-refreshed information (if it’s 2 a.m., they darn well don’t want something that was last updated after the 6 p.m. news).


  3. Mike Cox says:

    In my radio world, I have 30 seconds to get a forecast out. Thankfully I have two forecasts each for daytime, evening, and overnight. So that gives me a bit of a chance to drop as much info as I can into one, and say what I left out in the second.

    Even in radio, I sometimes get questions like “Why don’t you do X because everyone else does?” or “Can you do your forecast in a shorter amount of time?” I got the latter from my station manager two weeks ago. I’ve tried a 15-second forecast, which was suggested, and that doesn’t work well at all!

    Thankfully, I have a couple outlets added to my on-air duties, my own twitter, one for each station, and both station websites. Lately I’ve started posting a link to the “full forecast” in twitter so people can check our website for more detailed information. The more I read posts like this and watch what other guys do, I get ideas on how I can up my game more and more, hopefully gaining more and more trust with my listeners in the process.

    One of better blogs I’ve read recently is one by Brad Panovich about the local expertise aspect of meteorology in TV, and how the quality and quantity of a local forecaster is better than the “Enter your ZIP Code here” forecast. Here’s the link, the post was from December 9.

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