Identifying the Goals of Weather Instruction: Toward a Model Approach for Broadcast Meteorology

Article excerpt

For more than forty years, researchers have understood the importance of broadcast meteorology to audiences. Viewers typically list weather among their top reasons for watching the news on television. Despite weather's significance, there is little empirical evidence regarding how college journalism and mass communication programs approach the subject. This study compares how media professionals regard its importance in college education with the views of journalism and mass communication faculty. Broadcasters believe more than faculty do that additional emphasis should be given to weather principles and presentation. An integrated model combining atmospheric science with mass communication courses is recommended.

Long before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged the shores of Louisiana and Mississippi, flooding New Orleans and devastating a swath of the Gulf Coast, television news executives were aware of the importance that weather information held in the eyes of their viewers. Broadcast consultants began using survey data taken from audiences in 1963 to advise television newsrooms, and discovered how popular weathercasts translated into higher news ratings. The data showed that viewers wanted to know first how safe their world was and second what was happening with the weather, according to consultants' research in Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles.1 The viewers' interest also reflected favorably on the appeal of weathercasters, who in some cities were more popular than the news anchors.

These findings have remained fairly stable to the present day and have been confirmed by both professional and academic studies.2 Content analyses, for example, have revealed how local TV news programs assign greater prominence to weather news than almost any other type of story.3 Even though a substantial body of research indicates how important audiences consider weather coverage, virtually no empirical data exist indicating how journalism and mass communication programs address this subject in college classrooms. In the process of training future broadcast journalists, anchors, and producers, universities and colleges have long focused on writing and technical skills, including production techniques, and on-air performance. However, questions remain about how much attention should be given to the production of weather coverage, weathercasting, and the basics of atmospheric science. This study, undertaken through the support of the National Association of Broadcasters and its program of NAB Grants for Research in Broadcasting, was designed to address such questions.

Brief History

The public's appetite for weather information from the news media has been evident since the New York Times first began running printed forecasts in the 1870s. After American soldiers returned from European battlefields during World War I, including those who fought in the skies over Europe, public interest began to surge in atmospheric conditions. Daily newspapers printed weather maps for their readers in the 1920s, and not long after that broadcasters began announcing weather forecasts over the radio. An experimental television station in Cincinnati, Ohio, broadcast its first weathercast during the early 1930s. In 1941, WNBTTV (forerunner to WNBC-TV) offered New York City residents televised weather information.4

After the government-imposed freeze on new television station licenses was lifted in 1952, weathercasters assumed a role of greater prominence. They experimented with props, puppets, and plexiglass maps in order to attract viewers to their segments. In New York, WABC-TVs Tex Antoine talked with a puppet called, "Uncle Wethbee," while WBBM-TV in Chicago presented two-dimension paper props to illustrate weather conditions. The degree of seriousness attached to these broadcasts varied considerably, and the competitions often placed the weathercasters in the role of entertainer. WLS-TV's John Coleman in Chicago-who would later establish the Weather Channel for cable television -spent one Thanksgiving Day reading his forecast to a turkey, while his colleagues were coaxed into wearing costumes or working with pets to "liven up" the segments. …