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Eroding the Trust One Flake at a Time

My previous life found me in the news rooms and control rooms of various Boston TV stations producing the days' news. And yes, I produced the occasional snow show.

Snow shows don't exist much anymore, but back then when a big storm came to town we'd do "wall-to-wall coverage" of this snow event. We'd put reporters on highways and in emergency bunkers. They'd stand out on street corners and on beaches. We'd jump from live-shot to live-shot warning viewers to stay in side, make some hot chocolate and continue watching our coverage.

On one level this was born out of public service. Following the Blizzard of '78, everyone in Boston knows that snow can be dangerous and being in it can cause problems. So TV found itself in a great situation of having a positive message that actually brought in viewers (and advertisers).

Also, people just love talking about the weather. So when you put snow coverage at the top of the newscasts and warn people of a pending storm, it brings in viewers. Will they cancel school? Will I make my flight? Can I skip work and justify a day in my jammies watching wall-to-wall snow coverage of fools in the snow while sipping hot chocolate?

The danger here is pretty simple. You become the boy who cried wolf.

Predicting the weather isn't easy. In fact, it's downright hard. The problem is that the TV stations promote their weather forecasts as accurate, so when they turn around and say "oops, we got it wrong" it erodes the trust they've built with the audience.

Right now I'm sitting in my kitchen and watching the snow NOT come down. Sure, more may come later, but my school district closed schools early today. Men and women who normally would be working had to take time off to get their kids. Kids who would be in school weren't and really, for what? A 1/4 inch of slush? This is Boston, we can handle that.

I don't mind being prepared, but TV stations please don't throw us into a panic. Because when you really do have a warning and it's something we should worry about, we won't.

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5 comments to Eroding the Trust One Flake at a Time

  • It made for an interesting day. Moved all my meetings until tomorrow. Hope I can get shoveled out in time to make them-if and when the snow shows up 12 hours later than originally predicted. Did have a very productive day today putting the touches on a more advanced social media workshop to complement my “getting started” version…

  • There is a good teaching moment in all of this – namely that in this card game, Mother Nature always has the house advantage. It’s wise to realize this and be humbled by it once in a while; as individuals, as a community, as a species, as life on earth.

  • Steve Rollins

    This is what comes from having weather forcasts that are accurate almost all the time. I come from the Pacific Northwest where the weather reports are wrong more than half the time (except in the summer when the weather is sunny and warm every day). This isn’t meant as an insult of West Coast forcasters, but it is just harder to predict the future when the future is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean someplace. They also have mountains and microclimates that mean your weather is different from the weather down the street. Here, I have been amazed when the forcasters not only predict precipitation, but how much precipitation and the actual hours it will fall. Bostonians should feel lucky that they can know three days in advance if that outdoor wedding plan needs to be changed or if they should buy more salt for their steps. You just don’t have a clue what voodoo weather forcasting is in many other parts of the country.

    Maybe it comes from my not watching television much, but I think you should give these guys a break. If you can name some other profession where they predict the future with greater than 90% accuracy, feel free to critisize. Otherwise, enjoy how good you have it.

  • Hi Steve,

    Thanks for the comment. You’re right, predicting the weather is difficult and I make no bones about that.

    Unfortunately, people that head up the newsrooms create the panic because it drives ratings. It’s as simple as the old “monkey pushes button, monkey gets food” trick. Local news gets us all riled up over snow, we watch. I’ve lived this on both sides of the TV screen.

    Over on Universalhub.com Adam Gaffin has created the “French Toast” index. That is, the amount of bread and eggs people will run out and purchase at the very mention of snow. A lot of this is rooted in the Blizzard of ’78, which has a long-term grip on this region. People then were stranded for days.

    Since I’ve lived here (more than 20 years) I’ve never had a snow that kept me off the road for more than 24 hours. Most of the time it wasn’t because the roads weren’t clear, but because I just didn’t feel like venturing out and didn’t have to. The fear instilled by the ratings-seeking TV stations is mostly unwarranted.

    But it drives ratings and makes for great discussions.

  • Steve Rollins

    Good comment Chuck,

    It just amazes me that in a city where it can dump a foot of snow and then have the roads bare and wet just two hours after the last flake falls (like it did a couple of months ago) that there is anything like the panic we saw last week. Do people in the Boston area really believe that the gallon on milk in their fridge won’t last until they can get to the store? Sure, I can see if you live out in Canton (no offense to Canton, it is just one of the few cities I’ve heard of outside of Boston since moving here) or something, but Boston?

    Here is another example of how Boston has it better than the Pacific Northwest. Out there, news is meant to keep you watching so that you can see ads for recalled cars and junk food that will kill you. You guys actually assume that the TV news is there to tell you something that is true. I, therefore, assume that the trust that was broken on this occasion was actually earned in the first place?