Dire prophecies salted airwaves

Analysis: Monday-morning quarterbacking TV meteorologists' fantabulous forecasts.

March 06, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

There Rob Roblin was yesterday, part of WBAL's "Continuing Team Coverage" during the noon newscast, reporting on what he called "just a little light precipitation" - enough to cause scattered fender-benders, but not enough to cause real havoc.

So much for the Storm of the (Very Young) Century.

So long, one thought, to the Story of the (Very Young) Month.

And yet Baltimore's television stations clung to the story that they had relentlessly covered this weekend. What had been dubbed "a monster storm" Friday on WBAL became "The Snow Storm that Wasn't" yesterday on WJZ.

On WBAL-AM, talk show host Chip Franklin asked: "Are you ever going to believe TV news if they predict a big storm again? Is there pressure to hype it from upper management? Is their integrity being compromised by upper management in order to boost ratings?"

For three hours, callers vented anger at local stations. Some pointed to predictions of a blizzard in late December that never materialized.

Major storms involving more than one weather front are notoriously complicated to predict. And viewers who paid very, very close attention over the weekend would have found copious caveats about the likelihood snow would fall here. "I really didn't feel that we hyped it," says Tom Tasselmyer, WBAL's chief meteorologist. "We had told people, almost painfully at times, that it could miss."

WMAR's Norm Lewis and WJZ's Bob Turk also offered several different scenarios for how the storm might progress. There were a wealth of "mays" and "coulds."

But the images provided by the stations - including video footage of past blizzards - left a different impression. Newscasts offered several stories apiece on the potential for a crippling blanket of snow, although it was uncertain any would hit greater Baltimore. "It is far better to inform people about what their maximum exposure could be because everything else is just a blessing," says WJZ news director Gail Bending. People would be far angrier were stations to ignore or play down what turned into a major storm, she says.

Yet no one really had any idea what would happen at all, despite all the gee-whiz names stations bestow on their assorted computer technologies. From the outside, forecasting appears to be a livelihood predicated on possibilities, kind of like choosing a color during the spin of a roulette wheel.

News directors were quick to say that their forecasters were right every step of the way this weekend - right on Friday to predict 1 to 2 feet of snow, given the information they had, and then right to scale those projections back over ensuing days.

"This is the second one of these we've had this season," says Princell Hair, news director for WBAL-TV. "I don't think we should back off at all because they didn't pan out. The next one might - and I do emphasize the word `might.' "

By Sunday afternoon, a wan caption crawled across the bottom of WMAR's screen: 2 inches to 4 inches likely by late Monday. Less than an inch stuck in the metro region yesterday morning.

"Our fate as broadcast meteorologists was sealed when the National Weather Service - and I love these guys - released a statement calling this `a historic storm' " on late Friday, says Tasselmyer. "It was pretty much over, because we knew that Brian Williams on MSNBC, and CNN and the networks would feast on these guys."

His frustration evident, Tasselmyer even called Franklin's talk show yesterday to tell viewers that they need to listen to what he actually says on air.

Asks WMAR anchor Mary Beth Marsden: "Do we feed the frenzy? Are we the reason people freak out? You could make the argument both ways."

Research shows that viewers feel impelled to watch TV news because of interest in the weather beyond any other subject, she says. It serves as a form of entertainment.

"When we feel that people are tuning out because they think it's too hyped or not accurate, we will change our tune," Marsden says. "Until that happens, the weather will play a dominant role in our newscasts, especially when it's predicted to be unusual."

Or even when, as happened yesterday, it's utterly ordinary.

During WBAL's noon newscast, anchor Marilyn Getas introduced a live segment from NBC affiliate reporter Kendis Gibson in New York, where the weather was due to pound residents. Gibson said a light drizzle had commenced.

The Big Story continued.

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