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Weathercasters Change With the Climate

TV weathercasts will be taking on a scientific bent for the better, a journalism lecturer forecasts.

“The days of television meteorologists doing little more than predicting the weather may be numbered as the forecasts of the future increasingly will include tips for viewers on how to dodge environmental threats and manage their health,” said Kris M. Wilson, a senior lecturer in journalism at Emory University.

Wilson’s paper in the journal Public Understanding of Science, “Television Weathercasters as Potentially Prominent Science Communicators,” reveals the results of his survey of television weathercasters.

“Most of them say their broadcasts are appropriate venues for teaching their audiences about science, and most of them are already doing so,” Wilson said.

In his survey, Wilson sought to find out more about the science training and expertise that local weathercasters possess. He also measured how any scientific credentials, such as seals of approval from the American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association, come into play with their work.

Wilson found that 54 percent of television weathercasters in the sample said they earned their highest degree in meteorology or atmospheric sciences, while for more than two-thirds of those surveyed, some type of science degree was their highest.

As such, weathercasters are typically the resident science experts at their stations even if reporting on science may not be their primary job function. Only about a fifth of the sample said their jobs included regular environmental reporting, while 7 percent of weathercasters said their television stations employed science or environmental reporters, Wilson wrote. However, more than half of television weathercasters surveyed said they have already reported on global climate change.

According to Wilson, actual weather forecasting accounts for 36 percent of the typical weathercaster’s day, with community service also a major time commitment. “A wide range of activities fit into this category,” he said, “but the most common are visits to schools and speaking before community groups.”

The community service time “may be a place where significant science communication occurs,” Wilson added. “On school visits, they encourage students to pursue science careers, explain the value of science to society and discuss current science issues in the news.”
The greatest increase in more on-air science reporting may come from the weekend weather staff.

Working weekends “often also requires working three days during the week,” Wilson said. “This untapped opportunity represents perhaps the greatest potential for increased science reporting in general.”

The credential organizations are taking steps to promote science reporting skills among their membership. The AMS’s Certified Broadcast Meteorologist seal, introduced in 2005, “is specifically directed at promoting the role of the local weathercaster as the ‘station scientist,’” Wilson said. “The credential requires weathercasters to earn ongoing professional credit to keep it.”

Although considered less prestigious by some weathercasters, NWA meanwhile “requires a written exam and recertification and training to keep the seal,” he said.

Another organization doing more to promote science among weathercasters is the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation. Created by Congress in 1990, the private nonprofit works to increase environmental knowledge.

Weathercasters are “the single largest cadre of trained scientists in the media today who are also highly skilled communicators,” NEETF Vice President for Programs Deborah Sliter said. “Television weather reporting shows particular promise for providing the viewing public with organized information on environmental systems and causal relationships important to public understanding of environmental science.”

With weather segments deemed the most important part of local newscasts, according to audience surveys, and many weathercasters enjoying top audience credibility scores, “getting proper training to report on tangential science issues is crucial,” Wilson said. “The sky is the limit to learn more about this potential role from a variety of research approaches.”