Weathering the blizzard of news media bravado
Ginger Zee is an ABC News weather person. She's 32 years old, has a Bachelor of Science in meteorology, and says even in high school she wanted to be a TV network weatherperson. Not a scientist in a lab studying and analyzing weather, but a TV weather person. For more than a decade, she worked local and regional markets, mostly in Michigan and Chicago.
Her other qualifications are that she is photogenic, has a somewhat bubbly personality, wears a size 4 dress, weighs 125 pounds and was her high school homecoming queen. If she wasn't on TV, she says she'd have loved to be a bartender.
It's entirely possible she's competent. But, it's also possible that TV execs bypassed thousands of other competent meteorologists to find someone who knows weather and looks good on camera. For meeting those qualifications, ABC-TV gives her significant air time. She is the weather person for the weekend editions of "Good Morning America." If there's a snowstorm, blizzard or heavy rain, you can see her - or any of a few dozen other TV personalities. male and female - on air, under an umbrella or in a parka, trying not to freeze any of their six-figure salary assets. It's a good visual, as they say in TV.
It's also bad journalism.
There is absolutely no need to put someone onto a deserted street with a hill of snow and wind to tell us there is a hill of snow and wind and to stay off the roads.
First, it's just not the weather person who may be in danger. On local news, there's usually an all-purpose staff person who combines driving the SUV or van with responsibilities as a sound and video technician and who endures the same conditions as the weather person. On network TV, there may be a mini-crew of four others to get the picture on air. We don't see them, and none make anywhere close to the salaries of the on-air talent. But they're the ones driving, setting up the equipment, coordinating with the studio and making sure the live performance during a blizzard appears to be not only as dangerous as it looks, but that the weather person also looks good.
Second, technology has given us the ability to station remote cameras. The weather person could stay indoors, among computers, telephones, charts and maps and tell us the same thing - without being the only ones dumb enough to be blown into a snow bank.
We understand why local news gives us this visual, and leads off almost every non-prime time newscast with a weather report and usually erroneous predictions. But now network TV not only gives us the same thing, it also leads off the evening news with same information we get from local news. Last weekend, Ginger Zee and weather people from the news networks were bundled up somewhere in New England, facing the cameras and wind gusts of 75 miles per hour. Some weather people were in Times Square showing us that the "crossroads of the world" was pedestrian-free because of the blizzard. They had the easier job - there was less snow and less wind, and Times Square was a limousine ride from the network studios.
To "humanize" the story - high-paid news consultants like to throw around the concept of "humanizing a story" - some of the reporters had to find people stuck in the snow. There were many to choose from. But the questions asked were along the lines of, "So, how did you get into this situation?" or "How do you feel about this storm?" or "What do you plan to do?"
There wasn't much reporting in New Jersey. The Garden State was snowed under, but didn't get hit as bad as New England, which saw two feet of snow and near-hurricane wind gusts. But there were stories there, which didn't receive heavy coverage and didn't threaten the news crews' physical safety. New Jersey has begun to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Could someone have checked to see what the blizzard did to the people and their properties in those shore areas that were once flooded and now snowed-in and likely to endure even more water damage if temperatures increased and the snow melted before it could be shoveled and trucked from residential and commercial areas?
Getting "the story" is good journalism. Risking your safety and health and possibly putting others at risk for a weather story isn't.
(Brasch, author and retired university professor from Bloomsburg, writes "Wanderings" for each Sunday edition. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org)