As weather forecasts move online, credibility still counts
The map posted online last month showed a streak of hot pink with an icy blue center, enough "liquid equivalent snowfall" for some to envision South Jersey under some 30 inches of white overnight. The post was reposted, and reposted, and reposted. People panicked.
Snowfall topped out at less than 3 inches. The map was experimental, misunderstood. By the end of what was later dubbed the Great Facebook Blizzard of 2014, two things were clear: forecasts on social media can be tricky, and more people are turning to social media for weather news.
Oh. And getting it wrong in the country's most densely populated state affects the lives of millions.
As more social media outlets move into what was once territory of television, radio and newspapers, the potential for similar miscues would seem to increase. After all, weather forecasters are known to put the hype in hyperbole. Won't more competition simply ratchet up the volume?
The region's TV and online forecasters say no. In fact, from professional meteorologists to enthusiastic amateurs, they all say they're after the same thing: credibility.
"Today there's definitely a lot of noise out there, and because of the great accessibility to weather data that exists . . . we hope our accuracy is the hook that keeps people loyal," says Michael Phillips, a meteorologist at Weatherboy Weather.
On Jan. 29 Weatherboy reposted on Facebook the experimental version of the so-called European model – originally posted on the page of an AccuWeather meteorologist – that predicted potentially "epic" blizzards over a 10-day period ending Feb. 9.
Weatherboy discounted the prognosis, but the map nevertheless was shared by some of the page's 164,000 followers, among them Mid-Atlantic Storm Watch, a Facebook page with 15,000 followers whose owner, a teenage amateur, misinterpreted the map as a single storm.
The map was shared online by tens of thousands, prompting the Mount Holly office of the National Weather Service to call the serial sharing "the antithesis of public service," punctuating its message with: "It was nonsense then; it's nonsense now."
By then, though, even emergency responders were sharing the map.
It wasn't the first time errant forecasts and social media collided. Around this time four years ago Glenn Schwartz, the chief meteorologist at NBC10, turned to the online Eastern US Weather Forums to trace the origins of a long-range forecast that called for 40 inches of snow for the greater Philadelphia area.
Schwartz, in glasses and a red bowtie, blasted the prediction as groundless and lacking any sort of scientific understanding.
"We don't change the way we forecast the weather in response to what's happening in social media," says Kathleen Butler, NBC10 spokeswoman. "That said, social media is a big part of how we reach our audience. It's now very integrated into what we do."
Kelly McBride, an expert on media ethics at the nonprofit school for journalism, the Poynter Institute, says news organizations traditionally have ignored rumors because acknowledging them was seen as giving them credibility. But in an age of social media, she says, addressing what's not true is sometimes part of providing people with the best version of the truth.
Moreover, McBride says, a mistake by one forecaster can taint an entire industry.
"TV, just by a smidgen, is still the most popular option for news, and weather is still the top reason that people go to television news," she says. "Anybody who's been in the TV weather business knows that when you get it wrong there is hell to pay, especially when you cause people to panic unnecessarily so, or when you underestimate the severity of a calamity."
"You get a lot of criticism, and your credibility is injured."
Weather news services only really got started in America after the invention of the telegraph. Then came radio, and weather broadcasts on the hour. Then came TV and, now, social media.
"Each one of these revolutions is sort of a little bigger than the last, and social media . . . is reaching literally millions of people who are interconnected globally, so the amount of information, or misinformation, just grows exponentially," said Bernard Mergen, professor emeritus of American studies at George Washington University and author of the book, "Weather Matters."
The new medium presents new problems in conveying weather news to the public.
"How do you communicate fairly complex technical information when what people really want to know is if it's going to rain tomorrow, or how much snow there's going to be?" Mergen says. "We've shifted from the weather map style of forecast to computer models. Nobody looks out the window anymore to see if the sun is shining, . . . they just run the models. And I don't think that gap between the old style and the new style has necessarily filtered down to the public."
It is precisely that gap that social media is now filling, says Jonathan Carr of Severe NJ Weather, a Facebook page with nearly 185,000 followers.
Carr describes himself as a weather enthusiast – "I hesitate even to use the term amateur" – who simply enjoys sharing what he learns. He attributes his following to credibility earned organically over time, particularly among those living in areas of South Jersey – Cape May, Atlantic and Cumberland Counties – that he says are neglected by major news networks in Philadelphia and New York.
"It's not so much that I'm doing it better than the pros, I'd never make that claim," Carr says. "I think my success is due to the frequency that I update, . . . plus I'm able to break down complex science into layman's terms."
TV broadcasts travel one-way, Carr says, whereas social media is collaborative – a give and take.
People ask him questions on his page, and he answers. They share what he shares. He often refines his forecasts several times between the moment of his initial prediction and the moment people are experiencing the weather he predicted.
If social media outlets like Carr's eventually unseat TV as the prime source of weather news, observers say it will come down to the social dimension of the new media – people.
"It's not necessarily who yells the loudest, but its more about who's right the most," says Weatherboy's Phillips. "It should all come down to accuracy."