Perceptions of Weather Warnings and By the Way, Why Do You Have to Interrupt my Show?

By Dr. Marshall Shepherd

3rd down and goal and your favorite team is about the score. Or you were just about to find out who “did it” on your favorite show when………………………..All of sudden, the TV meteorologist breaks in with a weather warning. Many aren’t happy about it either. Though more than likely, this meteorologist is conveying information that could save your life, many in the public may see it as a nuisance or about ratings.

These are realities that the meteorology community face today. How, when, and what to communicate to the public in a manner that is useful, understandable, and without the risk of the “cry wolf” reaction.

From a science and technology standpoint, weather information has gotten to the point that rarely is the public not aware of a significant weather threat like the potential for tornadoes, floods, or a hurricane landfall bearing down on their community.

If you think about Superstorm Sandy or tornadoes that affected El Reno/Moore Oklahoma tornadoes, much of the post-event discussion centered not around the quality of the forecasts but rather how the warnings were communicated to, perceived by, or acted upon by the public. For example, many felt that public response to Superstorm Sandy would depend on whether it was warned as a Hurricane or an extratropical weather system. With respect to the tornadic events, real questions centered around communication and perceptions on how to respond to the meteorological information on the table.

Let’s face it. We have some serious challenges. Though not exhaustive, these include:

-The “I made it through the last one” argument
-The “cry wolf” perception
-The “thought I knew what ‘watch’/’warning’ meant but don’t” syndrome (saw this with Atlanta Snow Jam 2014)
-The “well this channel said to do this, that channel said to do that” scenarios
-The “to name or not to name” discussion
-The “oh its just a flooded road, I can make it” decision
-The “The old folks said do this” advice

In the era of Weather Ready-Nation and immediate information via social media, the weather enterprise must engage the “social sciences.” To some degree, “social science” has become a buzzword in weather discussions and rightfully so. I recall appearing on a national network after Sandy and a woman in Manhattan said, “I was told by a friend in Florida that if Sandy wasn’t category 3 or higher, we won’t have any thing to worry about in NYC”. My UGA colleague Alan Stewart has published work on how people respond to “categories” once they better understand how they differ and has even developed a course on Psychology, Weather, and Climate at the University of Georgia. By the way, Sandy wasn’t a category 3 or higher, but the rest is history.

On Sunday’s 10th episode of Weather Geeks (WxGeeks), we address the question of how the public perceives and uses weather warning information. Social scientist Dr. Laura Myers and Charlotte Broadcast Meteorologist Brad Panovich join me for a great discussion on questions like: (1) what is the value of TV cut ins, (2) what are the pros/cons of scales or indices, (3) are we using the right words/color schemes to convey flood or hazard threats, and other questions at the intersection of communications, psychology, social science, and weather.

We also Geek Out on some “extraordinary” or very personal efforts that meteorologists have used to warn the public. And we explore the question, “ is breaking the rules or protocol appropriate to save lives?” We examine a couple of recent cases and let you decide. In our “Hail No” segment, we consider the question of where the public gets the majority of its weather information. The answer may surprise you.

This show topic is one of great importance and emerged from your feedback as viewers so thank you. Looking forward to the show this Sunday (September 21st) on the Weather Channel at Noon ET and hope you join us. And, what a great lineup of guests/topics for September and October: James Spann on whatever he wants to talk about ☺, Kevin Kloesel on Preparedness/Sports Events/etc, and Naming Winter Storms (the full treatment).

So stay tuned and continue to follow us on @WxGeeksTWC or our Facebook page.

You can also follow me @DrShepherd2013 or on Facebook

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