Just say it's sunny

Why is global warming a forbidden topic for most TV weather reporters? Climate change is "controversial" and bad for ratings.

By Linda Baker
April 4, 2006 2:16PM (UTC)
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In 1981, Steve Schneider, then a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., was faced with what he refers to as a "real job crisis." He was offered a job as weekend meteorologist at a station in New York City, a position that would have brought him the kind of fame and fortune that can otherwise elude the hardworking American scientist.

Schneider, who is now a Stanford professor in interdisciplinary environmental studies and biological sciences, and a 1992 MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellow, says he made a couple of requests during his station interview. Instead of describing the weather to viewers -- "showers, sun breaks" -- he wanted to deliver "probabilistic forecasts," which reflect the uncertainty inherent in any forecast and the odds that any given event will occur. Schneider also wanted to discuss the daily weather in the context of global climate, as well as human activity, such as pollution.


Station managers weren't impressed. "They were interested in the idea of probabilistic forecasts, but the news consultants hadn't told them that's how to make money," Schneider says. As for including climate change and human influences on weather, Schneider was told: "'Our chief meteorologist doesn't believe in that.' I said, 'He doesn't know what he's talking about.' That was the end of the interview."

Twenty-five years later, the debate over global warming is over. "Nature," as Schneider puts it, "is cooperating with theory." Now that the data are falling into place, and scientists have affirmed humans' impact on climate, is the weather report poised for a 21st century makeover? Most Americans get their information about the weather and climate from TV meteorologists, who in turn provide forecasts to local newspapers. So the weather report would be a fitting, if not exclusive, place to inform the global warming discussion. The long-term implications are also intriguing. Historically, weather forecasters have been segregated from issues of policy and human behavior, which are considered the rightful province of the news reporting staff. Global warming, however, may be the trigger that finally brings the weatherman in from the cold.

"Every newscast has a built-in section devoted to weather," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "It is ripe for discussion of bigger issues."


Interviews with broadcast meteorologists from around the country suggest that climate change is a hot topic in the newsroom. Weather reporters have come a long way from the 1970s, when they were hired for their looks and handed jokey scripts (David Letterman was a weatherman). Today, most forecasters have degrees in meteorology or a related science. In fact, because weather forecasters are often the only reporters in the newsroom with science backgrounds, they are well positioned to report on global warming, if not explain all the complexities of climate science. "It's not like there's a Grand Canyon separating meteorologists and climatologists," says Anthony Socci, a senior policy fellow at the American Meteorological Society in Boston. "We share the same skill set."

But rescripting the classic weather forecast is no easy task. As media critic Neil Postman has pointed out, the happy-go-lucky weather report has always contained the seeds of a conservative agenda. Consider air quality alerts, which show up in the weather (not news) report as natural adjuncts to rain or shine, purely meteorological events devoid of social consequence or responsibility. Driven by ratings, station heads are reluctant to deviate from the standard three-minute forecast, much less air content that might alienate the broadest possible audience, and cause them to change the channel.

"The last thing any station wants is an activist weatherman," says Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a Washington research group. Would CNN interview health correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, to talk only about heart disease? Felling asks. "No, he talks about the possible causes, the links," he says. "Ever since Sept. 11, we've been inundated with the importance of connecting the dots. But weathermen are asked to live in a vacuum."


Meteorologists, of course, are a heterogeneous crew, with diverse talents, career goals and political inclinations. But in a country where climate change is considered the province of politicians and talking heads -- not scientists -- all forecasters, regardless of interest, are inevitably the last people on the set consulted on global warming coverage.

"It is very difficult for us to report on climate change issues," says John Toohey-Morales, chief meteorologist at WSCV, an NBC Telemundo station in Miami. "We ask, but the news directors are not inclined to do it, or they put it in on a weekend news report with the lowest ratings." Political reporters present global warming as a debatable issue, says Toohey-Morales, who is also American Meteorological Society commissioner for professional affairs. "It's tough for meteorologists to compete against the misinformation campaign."


Last year, MJ McDermott, chief meteorologist for KCPQ 13, a Fox affiliate in Seattle, pitched her news director a story about global warming in the Northwest, an idea triggered by a "wonderful class" she had taken at the University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group, a program that helps translate local climate information for the public. "I pitched it a couple of times, and the director said, 'Yeah, yeah,' and it never happened," says McDermott. It wasn't until the Seattle Times published a report on the subject months later that the station decided to have a news reporter cover the issue.

"We could have been ahead of everybody," says McDermott, who once, on air, held up an article about global warming, only to receive angry e-mails in response. "But it's not news until it's news -- until some report comes out, or until the White House is looking into it. And that hasn't happened since Clinton."

Responding to concerns about media coverage of science, the American Meteorological Society has launched an initiative aimed at promoting TV weather forecasters to the position of "station scientist," and equipping them to cover a broad range of science topics in addition to tomorrow's weather. Experts emphasize there is no way to connect a specific local weather event to global warming. But there are plenty of opportunities for broadcast meteorologists to raise public awareness, they say.


"Here's how I would use that pulpit," says Schneider, citing as an example the record drought in Phoenix, which ended March 11 after 143 days. "I would say: 'Extremes of drought and flood are the kind of events we are expected to have because of climate change, but we just don't know in any single case. Humans don't make the weather, but we are changing the forces that contribute to the weather.'"

Philip Mote, director of the Climate Impacts Group, says one of the biggest factors in a seasonal forecast is El Niño, a large-scale weather pattern that results from warming ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean area. In the Northwest, El Niño events generally lead to warmer and drier winter weather. Over the past several years, there hasn't been much El Niño activity, Mote said, and yet seven out of the past 10 winters in the Northwest have been substantially warmer than usual.

"So the main skill for a forecaster is to say, 'Well, it's getting warmer,'" Mote says. "The station has the option of ignoring the question of global warming or dealing with a scientifically sound answer."


Many television meteorologists say they are interested in playing a more active reporting role on climate change issues. But in a newsroom dominated by ratings and tightly scripted formats, breaking the mold can be an overwhelming challenge.

"We have a burden to educate the public about climate change," says Phil Ferro, chief meteorologist for WSVN, a Fox affiliate in Miami. "But the TV industry is so competitive," he says. "Time constraints keep me from discussing it, even here in Miami, where folks are seeing the effects of global warming with the hurricanes." Television consultants preach a "hyper-local" news mantra, Ferro adds. "Most local news stations sound alike and look alike. If you don't focus on your backyard, people tune in somewhere else."

Other forecasters say climate change is simply too complicated and too controversial to discuss in the context of a local forecast. "I stay away from global warming; I won't touch it," says Bill Bellis, chief meteorologist at KNXV, an ABC affiliate in Phoenix.

"People say the world is going to get one degree warmer; what the hell is that going to do?" asks Bellis, who had to postpone his original interview with Salon when drought-breaking rains continued to fall. "You can't link the drought to global warming because then people say, 'Well what about last year, we had record rainfall?' Global temperatures are rising, but it's not affecting the local aspect, and people get really touchy if you bring it up. Wait until we break 120 degrees consistently, then I'll say 'Oh my god' on TV."


Viewer feedback runs against global warming coverage, says Shannon Richards, KNXV's weather producer. "We did a story on Mount Kilimanjaro, and people wrote in saying we're not covering the fact that the ice melting will help some creatures or vegetation," she says. "Because of the negative e-mail, we're hesitant to do more on the air. We hate to run things that turn off viewers."

Then there are the contrarian meteorologists -- a minority, but not an uncommon breed in the newsroom. "The science is not definitive to make the connection between observed weather and human activity," says Gene Norman, chief meteorologist for WGCL-TV, a CBS affiliate in Atlanta. "The earth is three-quarters water and one-quarter land. It's hard for me to believe humans are making that much of a difference in global climate change." Should forecasters help educate the public about global warming? "That's a tricky question; it speaks to advocating a certain public policy," Norman says. January 2006 was warm, he says. But February was cooler than usual. "Everybody's heating bills went up," he says. "I think all of us in meteorology have to educate ourselves on what is fact and what is fiction."

As local and network news stations grapple with their approach to global warming coverage, selected media outlets are moving forward. Chad Myers, CNN's weather anchor, said he had nothing to contribute about climate change, and declined to be interviewed. But the Weather Channel, the enormously popular 24-hour cable channel, is aggressively pursuing climate reporting as a niche market. Until a few years ago, Heidi Cullen was a research scientist at Boulder's National Center for Atmospheric Research -- "an awesome gig, with steady funding," she says. Then the Weather Channel called with an offer Cullen couldn't refuse: a newly created position as in-house climate expert. "It was a fluke," she laughs. "Most of my friends don't have a TV and I'd never even watched the Weather Channel." But the former engineer was intrigued. "I felt the need to be practical, to communicate to a broader audience," she says.

Through the Weather Channel's "Forecast Earth" series, Cullen has reported on climate change and the Inuit Eskimos in Alaska, melting glaciers in Greenland and the drought in Arizona. "I consider it my job to link weather and climate," she says. "The more long-term we can link the two, the better off we will be."


"Our goal is to be the go-to source for factual, scientific information on the topic of climate change," says Ray Ban, the Weather Channel's executive vice president. "If we do our job, more attention will be drawn to the topic. It's the best way to educate the American people." Last December, the Weather Channel issued a position statement on global warming, affirming the scientific consensus that human activity affects the climate. This fall, the network will launch a new weekly program dedicated solely to climate issues.

Even at the networks, there are signs of institutional change. Echoing the accounts of other meteorologists, Pete Bouchard at WHDH-TV, an NBC affiliate in Boston, says he'd pitched several stories on climate change, only to be shot down by news directors. "If it doesn't bleed, it doesn't lead," he says. Recently promoted to the position of chief meteorologist, Bouchard is now advocating for a weekly segment on technology and science, a show that would cover everything from global warming to solar technologies. The program supports the AMS station scientist concept, he says.

"I'd like to be the clearinghouse for information on climate change and other issues," Bouchard says. "Global warming is the biggest single challenge for our children's generation, and it is the role of the meteorologist to guide the public through it." The challenge, he points out, will be taking the reins from news reporters, who currently lay claim to anything not covered by a standard weather forecast. "Everything's about branding," he says. "So it will have to be something like 'Pete's Weekly Science and Tech Exclusive.'"

Rain today, sun breaks tomorrow -- for most people, the weather is still something that comes before or after the sports. Still, programs such as Bouchard's may usher in a new era of weather reporting -- as the nexus where nature and humankind meet. After all, there's no turning back. "It isn't certain we are going to have serious global warming," Schneider says. "But we have started to load the climate dice."

Linda Baker

Linda Baker is a journalist in Portland, Oregon.

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