People get weather warnings from sirens, see the text at the bottom of the screen and watch reports on television; they hear alerts over the radio, and receive notifications on their smartphones. Still, there are deaths each year not just from tornadoes, but also hurricanes, flooding, and wildfires. But, many may be prevented if people better understood the role the local media plays before, during, and after severe weather.
In late April 2011, a tornado outbreak hit the Southeast with 362 confirmed tornadoes, resulting in 321 deaths and $11 billion in damage. Since then, I have researched and recorded interviews with more than 150 radio and television journalists, meteorologists, news and station managers, survivors, and emergency management personnel. Many in newsrooms sacrifice their own safety and time with their families during a major weather event to help save lives.
And journalists are being asked to make those sacrifices more frequently. In 2019, the National Weather Service reported 145 tornadoes in the U.S. in March, 303 in April, and 556 in May.
After a tornado hit Beauregard, Alabama on March 3 of this year, journalists were officially allowed into the disaster zone following the recovery of all 23 victims. I was granted access and worked alongside reporters and videographers as they gathered content throughout the day starting with a news conference with local officials, a tour by the governor, interviewing survivors, the dedication of a memorial, and compiling their content for live and packaged reports. I worked with local stations in Alabama and Columbus, Georgia, to interview crews while in the field and compile footage illustrating their roles and mission while covering a disaster. The interviews and observations gave me new insights into those whose job is to bring us the story from the front lines.
Through that work, I’ve seen journalists criticized for capitalizing on other people’s misery or I’ve heard people complain about meteorologists providing “bad information.” In my fieldwork and analysis of interviews with stakeholders, I’ve now identified seven common misconceptions about the media when it comes to disaster reporting.
- There’s a difference in the information delivered by local media as opposed to the networks and cable news outlets. Local meteorologists and their stations are more knowledgeable about their viewing areas because they live and work there. They are familiar with landmarks, parks, and big venues because they visit and report on them on a regular basis. When reporting, they can paint a better picture for the audience of locations by helping them visualize the addresses.
- Local reporters consider themselves community informers and try to serve as best they can. They work to grow their social media followers, in part, to share critical life-saving information with people in their communities.
- Designated market areas have 2-5 local TV stations and potentially even more radio stations, depending on the market size. News stations are required by the Federal Communications Commission to serve their communities. They are responsible for informing you before, during, and after the storm and for keeping the audience advised on recovery and relief efforts. They have staffs that work 24/7, so there is always someone monitoring email, phones, and police scanners for critical information.
- Weather predictions are not an exact science. While meteorologists and the science community freely admit they can’t fully predict the weather, many viewers still expect them to be precise in exactly how a storm will impact them down to the hour and minute.
- The relationship between the media and civic officers is developed daily, not just during disasters. News stations partner with local law enforcement and emergency personnel to give you the most up-to-date information. Firefighters, law officers and emergency managers go through media training to learn how to make their information more relatable to citizens when they are interviewed on camera.
- Journalists are sharing real stories about real people. There are enough facts and emotion from the actual event that they do not have any reason to stretch the truth or give their opinions. They are observing and engaging with those who are hurting the most, and it’s evident that empathy for that survivor’s situation may surface. If people do not talk to them, they have no stories to share. If people do talk to them, those people have a platform for sharing their challenges and their efforts toward recovery.
- Ratings matter, but people matter more. Out of all the interviews I have done, no journalist ever talks about ratings and promotion. Their focus is making sure that they serve the community, represent their profession and their stations by getting the story right and to be able to sleep at night knowing they did their job.
There is plenty of evidence that weather coverage matters. In March 2019, the Pew Research Center released a survey of 35,000 adults and found that television remains the most popular outlet for local news followed by digital sources. Weather was also found to be the favorite topic by a wide margin.
Local stations know people care about weather and media corporations make a huge financial investment in support of their local stations by providing equipment including specially-made weather vehicles, interactive radar maps, and real-time storm tracking tools.
But all the data showing weather’s popularity and all the money spent on weather forecasting tools would be irrelevant if there weren’t dedicated teams of journalists and meteorologists committed to keeping their communities safe in severe weather.
Chandra Clark, PhD is an assistant professor at The University of Alabama. Clark recently produced “Disaster Reporting: Beauregard” focused on the role of reporters in the field during disasters. Clark is also one of the producers of the “First Informers” video series. The “First Informers” video series has worked in conjunction with the National Association of Broadcasters and the Broadcast Education Association to document local broadcasting in several notable severe storm events since 2011. These documentaries include the 2011 EF4 tornado in Tuscaloosa, the 2011 EF5 tornado in Joplin, the 2012 hurricane known as “Superstorm Sandy,” a 2013 EF5 tornado which struck Moore, Oklahoma, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in 2017 and Hurricanes Florence and Michael in 2018.