Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Controlling Nature: Weathercasts on Local Television News

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Controlling Nature: Weathercasts on Local Television News

Article excerpt

I get the news I need on the weather report. Oh, I can gather all the news I need on the weather report. Hey, I've got nothing to do today but smile.

--Paul Simon, Bridge Over Troubled Water, 1969

Weather has become more than small talk. Storms have been the biggest news stories in recent years, and controversies have swirled around the coverage. In blogs and online discussion groups, charges of sensationalism abound. After flooding in New Jersey, one reporter during a live broadcast got caught exaggerating: two men walked between the camera and her canoe, which sat in just two inches of water ("Media Sensationalism," 2005). Weather announcers, who previously turned up as buffoons in bit parts in popular fiction, also became central characters. In the 2005 Paramount movie, The Weather Man, Nicolas Cage plays a popular Chicago television personality trying to maintain professional control.

Previous studies of weathercasting are out of date and treat their subject as a set of professional techniques or as elements of industry history and economics. To advance research on a neglected topic, this case study asks what the rhetoric is of daily weather reports on local television. What roles do on-air personalities take for themselves and assign their audiences while telling stories about nature? Based on a close reading and content analysis of morning weather segments that ran on local outlets of three major broadcast networks, the authors examined the differences between narratives when reporting and making small-talk about weather, as well as the relationship between weather rhetoric and the station's market position. By looking at the conditions forecast over several days, some preliminary clues about accuracy in forecasting the weather in a case study of U.S. television were developed.

Weather as Media Talk

Media studies and rhetorical studies have usually existed as separate domains, but they do find common ground in the study of narrative (Fisher, 1987). Early information-theory models of mass communication, in which a sender transmits a message over some channel to a recipient, contain the main elements of narrative: a teller conveying a story to a hearer. Rhetorical analyses show that those elements are much more complicated in actual discourse (Booth, 1983). Recipients may have multiple manifestations, from merely implied to directly dramatized. The same is true of the sender, who can also be distinct from the narrator (Martin, 1986). Rhetorical studies of narrative also reveal that the third element in the model, the message itself, can be a complex iteration of other kinds of communication, whether public or private, talk or text. The message conveyed through the language of the media also refers outside the model to an external world (Bell & Garrett, 1998). These three dimensions are the focus of this study: the first persona announcer engaged in public speech; the second persona (Black, 1970), a projection of an audience or public listener-witness; and the third persona (Wander, 1984), Nature, represented by the scientific world of weather.

The bulk of news speech is made up of acts of assertion (van Dijk, 1988), that is, the on-air speaker formulates meanings, not only to make these intelligible but also to encourage their acceptance as truth. Weather reports in the media are a particular subset of science communication, because they call on meteorology to buttress their claim to truth. One survey found that weathercasters say their forecasts teach audiences about science as a public service (Wilson, 2008). Early scientific scrutiny, however, found that media weather reports generally fell short of scientists' expectations (Murphy, 1975; Tannenbaum, 1963). Today, weather news relies on standardized national data, and agencies expect advances in the accuracy of forecasts ("Report 2," 2006). But no recent, non-proprietary media studies examine weather forecast accuracy. …

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