Amid Media Storms, a Weather Man Confesses to Imprecision

What a TV meteorologist (and Anthony Bourdain) can tell us about the future of news

If you’re reading this, hello and welcome to the firstish installment of National Insecurity! There’s so much we can talk about here, but today I want to go essaying about the true confessions of a TV weatherman, a few confessions of my own, and Our Ongoing Media Credibility Crisis.

First, read this fun fun piece by South Florida weather broadcaster and hurricane whisperer Bryan Norcross, “If forecasters really want to reach their audience, they should consider the art of numbers,” published Wednesday by the Washington Post. His basic premise is that news-weather forecasters regularly round temperatures up or down and exaggerate modeled forecasts in order to make them more useful to more viewers. He argues that a weather man’s credibility is more bound up in this usefulness than it is in technical precision: “If users gain confidence in the forecaster, either because they favorably remember the heat alert while sweating through the day for which 90 degrees was forecast, or because the 82 simply sits better in their mind, should we fight against that reality?”

I admit a bit of bias here, having grown up with Bryan as the voice that steadied my family through many storm seasons. If you asked me who I would most listen to on any meteorological media topic, my list would begin with “Bryan Norcross” written three times.

But besides being a fun bit of insider dishing — like Anthony Bourdain’s famed original 1999 print piece, “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” but for TV weather — Bryan’s column points at a larger challenge all journalists have: how best to articulate complex situations for large audiences in a simple medium. How does the media actually intermediate this relationship between people and their world? And if it involves elevating certain facts or downplaying others, telling only part of a story, how does the media do it credibly?

There aren’t a lot of perks to being an aging journalist, but one is looking at a published story and getting pretty good at understanding what’s *not* being printed in it, and why. Of course, in recent years, most astute news readers, too, are good at grokking who “a person familiar with X’s thinking” is, or how that front-page story about Y’s latest expansive national scandal owed a lot to a beleaguered local reporter’s banal, terse dispatch on Y’s weird LLC that seemed like a biased nothingburger when it came out three weeks ago.

These readers today grasp what many in our business are loath to accept: Every time you write a story or a listicle or a package for an audience and lay it out on paper or a CMS, you engage in interpolation. How you interpolate very much depends on who you are and where you work. (Take the headline on this post, for example: What publication does it mimic? For whom are its headlines written that way?)

We’re loath to acknowledge this because of how much of our professional ethos is still wedded to a model of credibility that was the best practice for much of a century. That’s Natural Objectivity: “The things we tell you are indisputable facts and nothing more.” The closest thing to an ideal news form in this model was AP wire copy: shot around the world, self-contained, in “inverted pyramid” style. The lede gives you the facts. Next sentence gives you the context of the facts. Next comes a quote from a principal subject. After that, some details and quotes and a kicker.

I learned this form in high school: It was a natural law that this was how you write news. If you wanted flowery ledes and feature stories, you went to the local paper’s Sunday magazine. (All the papers had one back then, when Objective Journalists Ruled The Earth.) I assumed this was how news readers wanted their information, because I was told so.

It was only later, as a copy editor, the local-paper equivalent of a good restaurant’s back-of-house chef, that I learned the inverted pyramid had a far different utility to newspapers: economy of space. Some nights, my job involved filling inside pages of the paper with state or national news stories. If I had six inches of newshole on 2A and this wire story was 12 inches long, I had a problem! “Objective” inverted pyramid stories solved this problem. All the key facts were in the lede; everything after was expendable. So you chopped it from the bottom and jammed it in your hole. Bye, heart-rending kicker! So long, “X has faced five previous ethics complaints”! Telling but nonlinear details just didn’t fit sometimes.

Most newspaper readers had no idea how much of a story had been cut to size for their eyes. If you grew up as I did, reading the sports recaps or national capsules in the paper, you were jarred the first time you realized these were decapitated heads on display, the torn ledes of 900-word stories you’d never see.

This practice spurred other weird, esoteric practices. Some wire editors, before sending their reporters’ copy to newsroom hacks like me, would insert “<<<OPTIONAL CUT HERE>>>” to guide us in our trimmings, as if to take back some control over how much context readers got: “Fine, cut here, but not there, please.”

When pulling from the wires, you also saw how many times a breaking-news lede got a “writethru” — an edit with additional, sometimes *key*, information to a story. Often, the latest important writethru came too late to make the paper. 

And then, sometimes, in addition to the inverted-pyramid “news” report of an event, the reporter would send along a “feature lede,” a colorful scene-soaked entree that usually incorporated the news story, usually verbatim. So it was possible to read a paper in Tallahassee that gave a state politician’s arrest two paragraphs, and to read a paper in Miami that had the *same* story, by the *same* writer, in magazine form, taking up a whole page beneath a photograph. 

That’s a lot of weird, quirky stuff, but my main takeaway was that our pretense to objectivity — the bargain we made with readers to be credible and useful to them — was also driven and shaped by a lot of other outside factors, often material ones.

Those factors seem quaint now — and, in an information glut, so does the pretense to objectivity. No one trusts a storyteller that isn’t laying it all out there anymore. But laying it all out there is never easy, for many reasons, some of them good.

So we all intermediate when we tell our stories. We connect dots the best we can. We strive for facticity, even when many facts are unreportable for whatever reason. We exercise our judgment. Why not be honest and transparent about *how* we do that?

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Now, back to the weather. Bryan’s topline is: The weather you get from TV is not *The Weather*, but it explains The Weather in a way we believe is useful to you. Here’s how. 

Some of those “hows” *do* seem problematic to me. Part of that is because they seem outmoded, like avoiding reporting temperatures that end in odd numbers because studies show people react faster to even numbers — in an age where anybody can download a freemium app on their phone to access all the the weather and temperature models the TV weather reporter uses. 

Part of me also worries that some of the practices in Bryan’s retelling reinforce the same behaviors they seek to address, the ones that make it hard for people to grasp The Weather in the first place. After several generations of only seeing even number temperatures on TV, how much *less* responsive will we all be to odds?

A small example, but it gets at the fact that when we intermediate info for our audiences, we are also *conditioning* them to be audiences in ways big and small. We need to be more honest about our role in that process, and more transparent about why we do what we do, and more solicitous of input from our audiences — the way that Norcross does here for weather reporting, and Bourdain did for restaurateurs. 

Is there danger in being so open about how journalists exercise their human judgment? Will it open the door for media critics to attack our reporting, while themselves injecting fictions into the body politic? Sure. A lot of the bad-faith but ascendant attacks on the media are aimed not at what the media reports, but at its very existence, at the act of intermediating information. 

But my gut tells me that a shirtless Alex Jones screaming that the media lies about global warming doesn’t look any more credible because TV weather guys admit they round the local temperature up to an even number. You can still be honest about the limitations of your work and the reasons for them. You can still be the bigger intermediator. And to your audience, he’ll still just be a hairy kid stomping and bitching about the weather.

Tangentially related reading: Pragmatism: A Reader, edited by Louis Menand

(Photo: zooey/flickr