It is no secret that meteorologists are often the number one reason viewers tune in for newscasts. Still the weather section of rundowns is not always getting the numbers it used to. There are several reasons for this. Let’s take a look at one that can be tricky to solve: Trust. Research keeps showing that viewers, even though they still watch newscasts do not always think they are getting accurate information. In fact, a recent survey by George Mason/Yale Universities on climate change showcases some of the issues for weather coverage. It interviewed more than a thousand Americans in May, 2011. 52 percent said they trusted “television weather reporters.” 48 percent said they distrust “television weather reporters.” Nearly 50/50 isn’t bad you say? Consider this: The trust level for TV forecasters is down 14 points since a poll in November 2008.
You might be saying this was specific to weather climate change, a small element in our day-to-day coverage. It still points to trust levels for a perceived large weather event. Trust over severe weather coverage is a make or break for many stations and, therefore, its staff meteorologists.
Now let’s talk news icons. The people you trust when you watch. Here are two names to consider: Charles Kuralt and Bob Dotson. Both master storytellers, who took facts, gave them meaning, and made you think of your world a little differently. (Dotson is still doing it for NBC News.) “Television weather reporters” have the same burden, despite being the scientists on staff.
So how do you connect the two? Let’s take some basic storytelling principles and apply them to weather coverage.
Storytelling Principles for Television Weather Reporters:
- Start with an image.
- Be able to explain story in one sentence.
- Showcase how it impacts people.
- Find an Ah-ha moment. Let viewers see the situation in a way they haven’t before.
All of these bullet points are aimed at helping you provide perspective. For all elements of television news this means identifying and clearly explaining an image. This is why, when there is severe weather clean up, you hear management asking for the most compelling picture of the damage. The goal is to burn an image in the viewer’s mind of what the storm meant for people. Using visuals has to be more than calling up a weather map, full screen. That’s because, for most viewers, weather maps look pretty much the same. If you see something interesting on radar that you want to make your “headline” for a weather hit you need to be able to explain it in one sentence right away. Spell it out. Then expand on it. Be visual while you do it. Draw diagrams, telestrate, ask for interesting video or animation to spell out what the viewer should watch for. This helps the viewer relate to the weathercast more.
The easiest way to pick your headline and spell it out is showcasing how an element of the weather will impact people each day. Yes, you already sort of do this with hourly forecasts, school bus stop forecasts, game forecasts etc. But it all looks the same, usually falls at the end of the weathercast and in a very predictable manner. I know research shows holding those graphics helps with the all important meter points. This means making the beginning and middle of the forecast more personal with mentions about how the weather will impact certain activities and neighborhoods while showcasing it in a more visual way than just putting up a map like viewers are used to seeing.
Often you are asked to give themes to each weathercast when you have multiple hits in a news show. Frankly, many of those themes are not obvious to the viewer until the final outlook is put up with the weekend forecast, or a look ahead to an event. The beginning of most weathercasts seems the same and can be confusing to viewers. To viewers, the information is not clearly supported with visuals. Remember, after a while, maps can appear like video wallpaper to the viewer: Always there, no reason to stare at it. That’s why I mention telestrating, animations and video to explain your headline along with those maps.
If you take away one suggestion for storytelling from this article make it this one: Give viewers an “ah-ha moment” out of your weathercast every day. Storytellers call this their “surprise.” Often it is an ironic twist or a very interesting fact that you didn’t know, or did not see coming, and makes the story relatable. Weather has universal appeal, but forecasts often are not easily relatable for the viewer. You watch all the graphics and hope you are actually guessing correctly where your location is on the various maps so you can figure out the impact. I understand a meteorologist cannot give every person across the ADI a personal twist specific to their area. But you can give them a headline that has impact and explain it in an extremely relatable way. A recent example: Florida got a bunch of rain for a week this summer. It lasted all but a few hours a day. Usually Floridians see a couple of hours of rain late afternoon or early evening. Many meteorologists focused on where the rain was in a broad base and what the next day would look like. Helpful yes, because I was trying to figure out when to hit the amusement parks and beaches. But everywhere I went I kept hearing: “Why is it raining like this?” I watched the news for several days. A few off hand comments I could not understand. I went onto the weather channel website and searched “Why Florida rain?” Bingo! I found a great explainer on why this was happening. It was a change in a low over Texas and part of the midwest that drifted over. Too often weather reporters are told to put so many graphics up for futurecasting etc, that the “why” gets glossed over in the middle of the weathercast. You don’t need extra time to showcase the “why”, you just need to define it clearly in a sentence, with an image then, expand a few lines. Here’s a big secret from storytellers: The “why” in a story is often your most compelling and potentially ironic element.
Yes, many of the things I am mentioning technically exist in weather hits already. So, what’s the big deal? Too often the message is lost in the delivery. The comments are thrown in as asides or transition lines when talking with the news anchors. The perspective and the “why” elements need to take precedence. This is where you establish that you are keeping watch, wanting to make sure the viewers are safe. These elements will build your trust with viewers. Storytellers are trusted. They know the facts and can let viewers see those facts in a way that wasn’t clear before. So learn from the storytellers and provide more “ah-ha” moments. Your credibility in your market will soar!