Controlling nature: weathercasts on local television news.

Author:Doherty, Richard
Position:Report
 
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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Previous studies of weathercasting are out of date and treat their subject as a set of professional techniques or as elements of industry history and economics.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.

Weathercasters also relate scientific data to everyday life. Their explanation of how audiences should make sense of weather data is the "most prominent rhetorical function" of media weather reports, according to an ideological analysis of Weather Channel discourse (Meister, 2001, p. 414). Weathercasters occupy a translator's position. As they convert their knowledge of meteorology into understandable language, they reproduce (and generate) stories that have political dimensions (Wilson, 2002).

Little is known about the audience for weathercasts. Studies of mediated science information suggest that public beliefs "tend to correspond with the messages conveyed in the media" (Nelkin, 1995, p. 69). One recent critical reading of cable weather discourse found that technology shaped the responses of a small group of viewers as a front passed through the United States during three days in 2003 (Vannini & McCreight, 2007). Generally, weather coverage establishes "a framework of expectations" for audiences to make sense of isolated events, often through the use of metaphors, which "reinforce one another, creating powerful images" (Nelkin, 1995, pp. 72-73). Personification of the weather has been a principal means to make forecasts accessible to audiences since the early days of television, when a meteorologist named Louis Allen began giving weather features personalities in the 1940s, as in "here's our old friend the seventy-five-degree line ... At the moment, no sign anywhere near us of that old bugaboo the ninety-degree line that kept us stewing for awhile" (cited in Henson, 1990, p. 34).

Like most professional communicators, weather announcers know little about their audience, and critical scholarship asserts they "are not just ignorant.... they are uninterested" (Bell, 1991, p. 89). Without direct knowledge about information recipients, news professionals construct their own images of the audience (DeWerth-Pallmeyer, 1997). The audience may loom large in the imaginations of weathercasters, but actual viewers have little to do (beyond audience ratings) with the audience image discernible in the texts media professionals produce. Rhetorically, the audience is universal and therefore invisible (Kinneavy, 1971), and so viewers occupy a paradoxical position of power and powerlessness.

Weathercasters have received little scholarly attention (Trapasso, Bowman, & Daniel, 1985), especially in recent empirical research. Media critic Powers says that, along with TV anchors chosen more for personal attractiveness and showmanship than for acumen, weathercasters at first represented "a radical discontinuity with journalistic tradition" (1977, p. 2). Like other elements of U.S. television news, weathercasts turned to so-called happy-talk in the 1970s, the banter designed to increase ratings. Powers says that U.S. newscasts were "built around the weathermanjester" and that the weather became "the emotional climax of the show" (p. 37). Recent industry reports reaffirm that "personality-driven" weather programming aims to "garner viewers" (Wheaton, 2006, p. 28). But meteorological accreditation marks weathercasters as less independent and lower "in the journalism pecking order," according to trade sources (Jensen, 2006, p. 34). It is surprising that so central a player in everyday news has enjoyed little scholarly attention.

Journalist handbooks tend to focus on training future weathercasters to avoid "real whoppers," such as "the thermometer is falling" or "expect a widely scattered shower" (MacDonald, 1987, pp. 42-43). These sins against usage and sense accompany the tendency to personify weather, as in "Hilda--never a lady and now no longer a hurricane," to describe a storm that resulted in 35 dead and millions in property damage (Baskette, Sissors & Brooks, 1997, p. 116). Weathercasters seek to avoid such gaffes to preserve their credibility, which makes them bankable personalities who can "reap the benefits of cross-promotion" (Thompson & Malone, 2004, p. 68). Like handbooks, consultants at trade conventions promise better weathercasts but may make reports more uniform (WSI, 2001).

The substance of television weather reports has had some attention as history (McAllen, 1979). Television weathercasting began on October 14, 1941, when cartoon character Wolly Lamb sang a jingle and experimental station WNBT-TV displayed "a single screen with several lines of text, but no map" (Monmonier, 1999, p. 179), to an audience of a few thousand in New York City. Henson (1990), a commentator on the U.S. National Public Radio (NPR) series, "The Weather Notebook," published a lively aficionado account of weathercasting. The significant cultural changes in home climate control and clothing during the mid-twentieth century accompanied the rise of television weather reports (Meyer, 2000). Home heating and air-conditioning helped foster an expectation of comfort, which television may have reinforced, although historians have not shown how media reports of weather feed back into cultural change. Although weather began with a strong link to entertainment, the reports have also allowed television to highlight and draw authority from technology. The use of chroma key (along with careful choreography) permits the announcer in front of a plain blue background to appear as if standing before and controlling maps and weather animations. Along with better national data, equipment has helped shift weathercasters from comedic to serious roles, without sacrificing entertainment values.

Weather is an economic asset, the rise of the Weather Channel on U.S. cable being perhaps its most prominent demonstration. A business history of the channel describes how initial planning focused on meteorologists as "friendly, accessible, solid citizens," as well as on "the pace of the...

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