Panicking in a Winter Wonderland

Morgan O'Rourke


February 1, 2014


Remember back in the day when it would get cold or even snow in the winter and no one reacted like it was the first time in recorded history that such a thing had ever happened? News and weather stations didn’t feel compelled to trot out dramatic headlines and flashy graphics to drum up a little viewer panic and conversations didn’t have to center around the weather like it was the only thing going on in the world. We simply watched the snow fall, maybe with a warm beverage in hand, and shoveled the walk when it was done. If we were lucky, we got a snow day out of it, but otherwise we dressed warm and went about our lives pretty much undaunted. (For those of you in warmer climates, substitute snow for rain or some other form of common, seasonal precipitation and I’m sure you have had a similar experience.) Those were certainly the days.

Weather is no longer just weather—it is an inescapable event dominating news reports, websites and social media to a degree usually only reserved for presidential elections, royal weddings or celebrity deaths. For example, just after New Year’s Day, the Northeast was hit by the season’s first major storm. My area got about six inches of snow, while some towns received up to two feet. Obviously this was more than a dusting, but nothing historic—not that you could tell from the breathless news coverage. The snowfall, combined with single-digit and sub-zero temperatures around the country, put the weather atop everyone’s agenda. Admittedly, the extreme cold was impressive, especially when you consider that it was colder in parts of North America than it was on Mars. But, as is increasingly the case, the depth of coverage seemed out of proportion to the severity of the issue.

There are a few explanations for why even basic weather events get such an overblown response. For one, social media has a tendency to magnify the importance of an event in a way that communication via, say, the telephone never could. Meanwhile, the endless appetite for content in a 24-hour news cycle means that networks have to fill the time, so it might as well be with “breaking” weather reports that are sure to attract viewers.

This quest for ratings can take a ridiculous turn, however. Case in point: for the second year in a row, the Weather Channel has taken to giving names to winter storms, much like the World Meteorological Organization does for hurricanes. The Northeast storm was called Hercules and names like Maximus, Orion, Ulysses and Wiley are slated to follow. The practice has been met with widespread eye-rolling, but network executives claim it was designed to improve awareness and communication about a particular storm. It’s a nice sentiment but, in practice, their motives do not seem so altruistic.

No other weather authorities are following the Weather Channel’s lead since, to most meteorologists, winter storms are typically not singular events that last long enough to lend themselves to easy—or even necessary—classification. As a result, the Weather Channel’s naming criteria is entirely arbitrary. The network has said that it decides to name a storm based on National Weather Service alerts and whether it will affect large population centers or geographic areas, but these standards were not developed in conjunction with any independent, scientific authority. Couple that with names like Hercules and last year’s Nemo and Rocky that sound like they came out of a marketing focus group, and it is hard to take their initiative seriously.

Rather than simplifying storm communication, the Weather Channel’s primary objectives appear to be creating catchier headlines and using possibly dangerous winter storms as marketing tools. The hope seems to be that as more people talk, write and tweet about Winter Storm Hercules and its brethren, they will reinforce the Weather Channel’s branding and increase its audience.

Effective risk communication requires every entity involved to adhere to a consistent message. But by doing their own thing, the Weather Channel is essentially putting its marketing interests and desire to corner storm coverage ahead of scientific consensus and proper public safety protocol. Naming storms is actually not a bad idea if it will raise public awareness and encourage more people to take safety precautions. But such an initiative should be part of an organized effort among all authorities, based on proven scientific research, not one network’s attempt to sensationalize a storm just so they can gain a few more Twitter followers.

Morgan O’Rourke is editor in chief of Risk Management and director of publications for the Risk & Insurance Management Society, Inc. (RIMS)

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