UPDATED 9:45AM Wednesday to reflect recent changes to funnel cloud/torndo definitions...
It's happened for years now - the national (and some local) media just can't seem to report weather-related stories without goofing something up. There are times where the goofs are minor, but many of the mistakes are substantial. It's even worse that this is happening at the national network level, where, in theory, the reporters and anchors should be "the best of the best."
That theory seems to be wrong when they try to tell stories about the weather.
In January of this year, Diane Sawyer of ABC News went on a nightly network news broadcast and reported that a fatal Alabama tornado had "struck without warning." Makes for great TV - it immediately incenses the audience and satisfies the desire to search for someone to blame. The only problem is that it was dead wrong.
A tornado warning had been issued well before the tornado struck. The average lead time that night was between 20-30 minutes.
Weather is considered by many to be the top reason that people watch newscasts - it's important, and you'd think national news networks could get it right when they file reports.
Now, after a tornado outbreak in the Great Plains over the weekend, I've seen some more lousy reporting on the weather. A national news network anchor told people to take cover in a doorway during a tornado. MANY national news networks have reported that "over 100" tornadoes struck the Plains this weekend. Both are likely wrong.
As a public service, I'm going to put together a quick primer on reporting about severe weather. Feel free to pass along to any friends you have in the national media.
1. Tornadoes and funnel clouds are not the same thing (Updated). These two terms are used interchangeably, but they aren't synonyms. Tornadoes are violently rotating columns of air - which is not visible unless it has something in it - like debris or water vapor. Funnel clouds are what you see when water vapor condenses associated with that column of air. Many tornadoes strike with no visible funnel cloud.
2. "It struck without warning!" I get it, guys. This makes GREAT copy. But, just because people didn't GET the warning doesn't mean there wasn't a warning. NWS issues warnings, which are then distributed via apps, TV, radio, weather radio and yes, outdoor sirens (more later). Occasionally, tornadoes do strike without warning, but it's rare.
3. Preliminary SPC tornado numbers are not the "number of confirmed tornadoes" This has been a big issue lately - national news networks will take the preliminary tornado report count from the SPC and treat them as confirmed tornadoes. Typically, the preliminary tornado number is MUCH higher than the actual number of tornadoes - sometimes double or triple. I know it raises eyebrows to report these huge numbers, but they're not being reported correctly.
4. Politicians aren't weather experts. I've seen this a lot lately, too. The national media will use a soundbite from a Congressman or Governor or Mayor talking about the physics or science behind the tornado. The information they pass along on weather/science is usually their attempt to regurgitate something that someone else told THEM right before they took the podium to speak and console those who were affected. Use their quotes on response, recovery, legislation, etc., but if you want a soundbite about what makes a tornado spin, go to a meteorologist.
5. You don't have to hear a siren for a tornado to strike. This one kills people. The movies and media have created this air raid mentality that a siren will sound and be audible to everyone before anything bad happens. It's not true - they are designed for people outdoors and, in most cases, if you're home and asleep, you won't hear it. The entire weather community has worked for decades on the warning system and there are MANY great ways to get reliable weather info to your home or place of work. A siren isn't one of them.
6. Tornadoes aren't caused by global warming. I'm sure this one will get someone fired up at me, and that's fine. There is zero evidence or reason to believe that tornadoes are caused by or related to global warming. I know it makes for better TV to try to tie all of this into a more compelling story about how we're destroying the Earth, but it's simply inaccurate.
7. Leave the forecast to meteorologists. On our newscast this morning, we had a national reporter from NBC that reported live from Woodward, Oklahoma. In the stand-up report at the end of her story, she said "now, these areas hit are under a warning for severe storms for the next couple of days."
Here's the NWS forecast for Woodward, Oklahoma for the next couple of days:
Today: A 20 percent chance of showers after 1pm. Sunny, with a high near 69.
Tuesday: Sunny, with a high near 78.
Wednesday: Sunny, with a high near 80.
Whoops - only a small chance of showers today and NO risk of severe weather.
8. Tornadoes in Spring aren't extreme. Oklahoma and Kansas just had a big tornado outbreak. In April. The national media calls it "cataclysmic, weird, extreme"....meteorologists call it "Spring."
9. Tornadoes happen every month of the year. How many of you have heard the national media talk about how "strange" or "weird" it is that the Southeast had tornadoes in January of this year? It's not strange. Here in Alabama, we've recorded tornadoes in every month of the year. In fact, it is well known to meteorologists in our part of the world that we have two distinct tornado seasons - one in the Fall/Winter and another in the Spring. Tornadoes don't own calendars and can affect many states in the U.S. in many different seasons.
No one is perfect. I make mistakes every hour of every day, but I do try to learn from those mistakes and stop repeating them. Here's hoping the national media will, one day, stop repeating these goofs and start accurately reporting the weather and its impact on people.