Epic Failings in Recent Weather Media

Tonight we examine recent failures in journalistic coverage of meteorology.

EXHIBIT A: A story, written by Mitch Weiss of A.P., has been making the usual wire-service rounds regarding the tornadoes in North Carolina a few days ago. In every case I’ve seen so far (out of about 30), the headline was some variant of the most common one: Killer storm system caught N.C. by surprise. Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Get your facts straight!

The truth: this event was well-warned and well-forecast! Not only were all but one of the tornadoes in advanced warnings, the area had been highlighted in some form of official severe weather outlook for days prior, culminating that morning with a highly uncommon “HIGH” risk at 1630Z, driven by the extreme probabilities for tornadoes. A “Particularly Dangerous Situation” tornado watch was issued before the first tornado. Fortunately, author and private meteorologist Mike Smith, followed by the Washington Post weather BLOG, stepped forward to set the record right. They shouldn’t have had to. Better knowledge and awareness on the part of the reporter would have saved others’ time and his own credibility.

EXHIBIT B: The ongoing Texas wildfires and their contributing drought are insanely destructive, the blazes having torched over a million acres so far this year. That definitely deserves media attention, not just in the USA but worldwide. This photographically stunning story from the (London) Daily Mail is an important one; but it is disappointing to see the British media getting as sloppy as American news outlets with poor writing technique, factual errors, overgeneralizations, and misspellings. One would be tempted to credit the English for mastery of English. Apparently, that’s a fallacious assumption.

I could nitpick or even cavil over a non-trivial quantity of flaws in that piece. Instead, I’ll go after one particularly head-turning whopper: “Texas usually receives up to 15 inches of rain a year…”, as if it were a point location instead of a land area extending over 600 miles in different directions. Get your facts straight! The reality is that average annual rainfall in Texas ranges from over 50 inches in the Golden Triangle area of the southeast to less than 14 over most of the Trans-Pecos and far west. Indeed, far more of the state averages above than below 15.

EXHIBIT C: Finally, this story, “Are We Getting Better at Predicting Tornadoes?” by Matthew Philips of Freakonomics, is a steaming heap of pseudo-journalistic dog dung. The best I can say is that the intent is noble; from there, the story festers with malodor.

First, the headline asks a question that long ago has been answered with a resoundingly loud “Yes” that screams forth in booming echoes across every square millimeter of this land. What kind of skill is there in being the town crier of the obvious? I would expect their next headline to be, “Is the Sunrise Somewhere in the Eastern Sky?”

Next, the story violates a basic ethical tenet by using a blatantly bogus, altered “photograph” apparently supplied by some outfit called “iStockphoto”. Someone quite obviously took this actual tornado photo from 1981 in Oklahoma, changed its coloration, flipped it horizontally, and pasted it onto a different foreground and background. That is grossly deceptive and unethical image manipulation! Even if Freakonomics didn’t know they were being given a bogus tornado image by iStockphoto, they should have known. It’s called verifying your sources. That’s Journalism 101.

[There goes iStockphoto's credibility too, while we're at it.]

Proceed into the text. Glossing through the hackneyed old clash-of-airmasses oversimplification, using a “blend of arctic and tropical air currents” to explain tornadoes, emits screaming warnings that this story is rolling around the bowl and down the hole, right from the outset.

They mention dual-polarization of Doppler radars as “specifically designed to improve tornado spotting”. Get your facts straight! That’s a load of contrived rubbish on two fronts:

  1. Dual-polarization technology actually is aimed at better identification of various forms of precipitation in storms, as well as airborne biological targets such as birds.
  2. Tornado spotting is done with human eyeballs, not radar.

At best, dual-polarized radar will aid in ascertaining lofted debris, assuming the tornado is raising detectable debris high and wide enough to be sampled. Unfortunately, by then the tornado is ongoing, and the radar-based warning for it becomes a projection and not a true forecast.

Lastly, we encounter another made-up whopper: “The current master of tornado prediction is Dr. Greg Forbes of the Weather Channel, whose recently developed Tornado Condition Index system, or TOR:CON, is widely seen as the most accurate at the moment.” By whom, exactly? Not in the atmospheric science community, it isn’t. Hey, I know Greg. I like Greg. He’s a very smart guy and is respected in the field. But “TOR:CON” hasn’t seen a sniff of formal, scientific peer review (nor has Henry Margusity’s differently aimed “TS Scale” for tornadoes, mentioned earlier).

By contrast, such statistically established indices as the Energy-Helicity Index and Significant Tornado Parameter have (e.g., scroll down to begin at pp. 1255-1259 in this formal journal paper). I doubt Greg himself would be very comfortable with being called the “master of tornado prediction” either. Such a person probably doesn’t exist, even if it were possible to devise a consistent and objective basis to assign that title. Who is qualified to crown anyone as “master of tornado prediction”? Absolutely, positively not the writer of this story!

Finally, the addendum appears: “Post has been amended to remove mention of meteorologist Kevin Martin”. Why? Could it be some backtracking after discovering stuff like this? Inquiring minds want to know.

After reading those stories, I feel the strong need to take a shower and scrub off all the grime. Where can we instead find consistently true, representative and reliable media coverage of weather stories?



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