Climate Change Debate: Locally, It's Still Often Too Hot to Handle

Straight science or political football? TV station leaders wrestle with whether TV meteorologists should speak with viewers about global warming, or stick to the five-day forecast

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Views on global warming tend to run along party lines, and the GOP ties
in South Carolina run deep; after all, Mitt Romney breezed to a doubledigit
advantage in the Palmetto State on Election Day. As Jim Gandy, chief
meteorologist at WLTX Columbia, puts it, “I don’t live in a red state—I live
in a dark red state.”

Yet Gandy saw Columbia—the South Carolina capital,
located smack dab in the middle of the state—as
the ideal setting in which to educate viewers about the
perils of temperatures that are creeping up at what he
believes to be an alarming rate in Columbia and around
the globe. He offers on-air segments labeled “Climate
Matters” a few times a month on the CBS affiliate, along
with regularly updated Web dispatches on the topic.

Red state or blue, Gandy is the exception when it comes
to local TV meteorologists tackling climate change headon.
The topic is controversial and it is divisive—among
viewers and meteorologists alike. As such, most weathercasters would just as soon stick to the five-day forecast.

“It is Kryptonite for local meteorologists,” said Paul
Douglas, founder of weather information provider Media
Logic Group and a decades-long veteran of local TV
weather. “Stations are there to hold up a mirror to their
community and reflect what’s really going on. And
what’s really going on is that, in 30-40 years, the environment
has changed. It’s science. To totally ignore it,
I think, is to do a disservice to viewers.”

Gandy sought to serve Columbia viewers by localizing
the ultimate global issue. He spoke about how hotter
summers affect the local poison ivy plants (stock up on the calamine lotion), and colder winters jeopardize the
peach crop (if the trend continues, Gandy said, peaches
will no longer be commercially viable in South Carolina).
And he modeled summer temps in Columbia, showing
that “extreme heat” days of 101 degrees or more—which
happened on three days in 2010, will be around 10 days
in 2040. “If anybody needs to learn about climate change,
it’s this market,” said Gandy. “But I didn’t just want to
talk about global warming. I wanted to talk about how
climate change impacts us here in Columbia.”

Own Weather, Own Ratings

TV stations’ longtime leadership as a local news
source is slipping. According to a Pew Research study
last year, 48% of respondents regularly watch local TV
news—down from 54% in 2006. During the same period,
cable news was flat, while online news grew.

As any station executive will quickly attest, a station
needs to win the local weather battle to win the ratings—
and revenue—race. According to figures from
consulting firm Frank N. Magid Associates, weather is
the top reason, given 80% to 90% of the time, when
viewers are asked why they tune into local news.
“Weather is absolutely essential,” said Rich O’Dell,
WLTX president and general manager. “It’s the one
thing [in a station’s content mix] that affects everyone.”

And stations have had plenty of what were formerly
called once-in-a-generation weather stories in recent years,
from the Nashville "oods in 2010 to fatal tornadoes in
Alabama and Joplin, Mo. (2011), and of course Hurricane
Sandy in New York and elsewhere in 2012, along
with various wildfires, blizzards and droughts that turned
weather into breaking news. Plus, many researchers have drawn links from climate change to extreme weather.

“Many local meteorologists see themselves as part of
the local safety net of the community,” said Ed Maibach,
director of the Center for Climate Change Communication
at George Mason University. Maibach has worked
with Gandy on his Climate Matters “modules” and has
researched climate change TV reporting extensively. His
2010 survey shows that 60% of the public trusts TV
weathercasters for information on climate change, trailing
only scientists (80%) and well ahead of President
Obama (50%) and the general news media (42%).

Furthermore, some 83% of TV meteorologists surveyed in 2011 believed global warming is happening (that group
is divided as to whether they believe the phenomenon is
caused by humans). Just 9% said global warming is not
taking place, while 8% said they didn’t know.

To be sure, several TV meteorologists, including Paul
Gross at WDIV Detroit, Alan Sealls of WKRG Mobile
(Ala.) and Greg Fishel of WRAL Raleigh (N.C.), have
been singled out for significant reporting on climate
change and global warming (many scientists use the
terms interchangeably). But the large majority has, for
a variety of reasons, steered well clear of the issue. The
Center’s 2011 study showed that 44% of TV meteorologists
said they “are interested in reporting on climate
change on-air.” Yet only 3% actually do so more than
twice a month, and 5% report on climate change once
or twice a month. Moreover, 35% cover the topic just
once or twice a year, and 45% don’t report on it at all.

“Some stations are terrific about it,” said Keith Seitter,
executive director at the American Meteorological Society
(AMS). “But nationally, it’s a small fraction that
address it at all.”

The Weather Channel is increasing its coverage of the issue,
including sending reporters to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, earlier this year
to hear what the globe’s big thinkers are
saying on the topic. The cable network
is keen to add a regular series dedicated
to climate change, said David Clark,
Weather Channel president. “We
think it’s our obligation as a weather
authority to present the country with
the truth about what the science is saying
and how it impacts viewers’ daily
lives,” said Clark. “The country really
wants to know what is happening.”

There is “consensus,” Clark added, among Weather
Channel’s 220-plus meteorologists and climatologists
that climate change is legit.

Can’t Touch This

One reason cited over and over as to why climate
change gets short shrift at the local level is that the
brief window meteorologists have in each newscast is
hardly conducive to covering a vastly nuanced topic.
“We get enough weather here to occupy the guys beyond
rhetorical questions about the planet,” said one
top 25 market station GM in the Midwest.

Others argue that the climate change discussion
should be left to climatologists or climate scientists—
titles that few TV meteorologists have. “You wouldn’t
ask your dentist about your gall bladder, and you
shouldn’t ask your local TV weatherman about climate
change,” Tim Heller, chief meteorologist at KTRK
Houston, told the Houston Chronicle last year.

For many, climate change represents a political hot
potato almost on par with gun control and mandatory
healthcare. One Oklahoma general manager gets an earful
from his senator on how the science is bunk every
time he visits Washington. Another GM in the South,
who asked not to be named, mentioned a backlash when
his chief meteorologist took on the topic. “We did have
folks who took exception and didn’t believe that climate
change really happens,” he said. “We got emails saying,
‘He’s crazy—he has no business talking about that.’”

‘Inconvenient’ Predictions

In his new book, The Future, Al Gore blasts TV news
for kowtowing to vociferous protests from climate change
“deniers.” “The fear of discussing
global warming has influenced almost all
mainstream television news networks
in the U.S.,” Gore wrote. “The denier
coalition unleashes vitriol at almost
anyone who dares to bring up the
subject of global warming and, as a
result, many news companies have
been intimidated into silence.”

The Center for Climate Change
Communication (4C) noted the sensitivity
of the topic in its 2011 study, finding
that “Many weathercasters are reluctant to
engage in the conversation about climate change
as a result of perceived acrimonious con"ict between
weathercasters who hold ‘extreme’ views on the issue.”

The discrepancy between meteorologists who believe
in climate change (a strong majority) and those who actually
report on it with any regularity (a small fraction)
has given rise to the TV weather watchdog organization, which mocks climate change “deniers”
in the media. “From the halls of Congress to the
nightly news, Americans aren’t getting the full story about
human-induced climate change,” reads its mission statement.
“The media is a huge source of this problem.”

AMS director Seitter laments that such a vital issue
has turned into a pawn in the nation’s ubiquitous red
state-vs.-blue state culture war. “Unfortunately, it has
become a political issue, when it’s really a science one,”
he said. “That’s the reality right now.”

Staying Relevant

Every general manager in America wrestles with how
their station will stay relevant for the next generation of
content consumers; the Pew study reported that just 34%
of people 18-29 watched local news the day before the
survey. Some station veterans believe failing to address
climate change makes them look truly out of touch. “You
can be assured that most people under 30 take [climate
change] very seriously,” said Douglas. “If your station does
not cover it, they will go to a station that does.”

For meteorologists who say they are not given enough
airtime to cover it, Douglas said, tease it on-air—and go
in-depth on the matter online or on a multicast channel.

On March 16-17, 4C will assemble local TV meteorologists
from stations in Washington, Roanoke and
Richmond for its “Virginia’s TV Weathercasters Covering
Climate and Climate Change” event. News leadership
is invited too. “We’ll try to see to what degree we
can push the concept,” said Maibach, “and do so in a
way that involves news directors, as it’s a news story,
not just a weather story.”

WLTX’s Gandy will be a featured speaker, and WLTX
news director Marybeth Jacoby also plans to attend.
The backlash to Gandy’s climate change reporting in
“dark red” Columbia never really materialized—no
ratings dips, no ad pullouts, minimal complaints,
said GM O’Dell. After Gandy was interviewed Feb.
19 on NPR for a segment titled “Forecasting Climate
With a Chance of Backlash,” supporter Sarah Bradley
Davis credited him on Facebook for “bringing climate
science” to South Carolina. “I wish more meteorologists
would do the same,” she wrote.

Gandy is pleased to see the forecasted storm has blown
over. “We were prepared for a lot of opposition—that
there was going to be people with strong beliefs coming
out of the woodwork to say we are wrong,” he said. “But
it really wasn’t as bad as we thought it would be.”

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