Climate Change Debate:Locally, It's Still OftenToo 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 ForecastTheFacts.org, 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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