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Weather Reports That Scream

Are forecasters trying to make you feel anxious? Yup.

The weather report on Tucson, Arizona’s KVOA-TV Channel 4 features a logo that conveys alarm: “4Warn,” it says. I noticed that one morning online last December over this forecast: “Another BEAUTIFUL afternoon! Tons of sunshine with highs in the mid 70s.”  

The forecast was no surprise in a city that averages 286 sunny days a year, and it made me wonder about that incongruous “4Warn” logo. I’ve since learned that it accompanies weather reports on many TV stations around the country that happen to occupy a Channel 4. 

Instilling anxiety via the daily weather forecast—by far the most popular TV news segment nationwide—has become a key marketing tool on many stations. It’s a result of the broadcasters’ desperate attempt to “grab attention” of viewers, says Jamie Moker, a researcher on weather modeling at the University of Arizona. 

Competition for that attention is fierce. Private weather-forecasting companies, which now constitute a $7 billion industry, are busily monetizing free data from the National Weather Service and academia while generating custom analytics for business and private consumption on social-media and other digital platforms. Clamoring for attention, some TV outlets, including cable powerhouses like the Weather Channel, tend to speak “in all-caps even when the weather is calm,” noted an article in GQ last year. 

There is some pushback. Joe Crain, a veteran weatherman on WICS-TV in Springfield, Illinois, created a storm last June when he lamented overuse by the station of its “Code Red” alerts to dramatize weather events, including routine ones. On air, he explained to viewers, “We want you to know it’s not us. This is a corporate initiative, this ‘Code Red’ alert.”

Oops. “Corporate”—in this case the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which operates TV stations in more than 100 markets—promptly fired Crain. Many consumers protested. “Overuse of Code Red,” one wrote in the local paper, is akin to “the boy who cried wolf. It makes the viewers skeptical of anything the weather people say.”

There’s also some pushback from the travel industry. “Overhyped Weather Forecasts Are Bad for Skiing,” read the headline in the Outside Online magazine last February. The article reported that ski resorts in the Northeast U.S. have mobilized to protest TV weather reports that treat “normal winter weather like a crisis,” such as by reporting the wind chill rather than the actual temperature.

That’s on the ground. In the air, of course, there has never been tolerance for weather hype. There’s robust innovation, including new private-industry systems such as so-called 3D weather radar, and the detailed weather information component in the FAA’s NextGen satellite-based ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast) system, which has been operating for many years.

General aviation is attuned. A 2017 report by the National Business Aviation Association said that “weather is a contributing factor in 35 percent of general aviation accidents, 75 percent of which involve fatalities.” The NBAA created a weather subcommittee “to interact with the broader aviation weather community to discuss and collaborate with the FAA and National Weather Service” on new forecasting capabilities. 

Meanwhile, the TV weather reporters plow on. “In this 24-hour news cycle, they have to talk about something to keep people’s attention. So they sometimes can hype the weather on TV—though that’s definitely linked to real concern about climate change and the significantly different weather we seem to be getting,” says Bruce Hedlund, whose cockpit time spans a career in the U.S. Air Force, 20 years with American Airlines, and seven years in general aviation with his own airplane, a Cirrus SR22.

He remembers when pilots used to get preflight weather data off of Teletype printouts Scotch-taped to the walls at airport flight service stations. Today’s real-time cockpit weather technology is extraordinary, he says, adding that “there is a world of difference between the emotion-free weather reports and forecasts received during flight planning or in the cockpit and those we in the general public see on TV news. 

“At the end of the day, we’re all essentially getting the product from the same source,” Hedlund says. “In the cockpit, you just get it straight, without the song and dance.”