TV Weathercasters as Newsroom Scientists

I’m here at the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists in sultry New Orleans. This morning, I attended a breakfast presentation by Kris Wilson, professor of journalism at the University of Texas (Austin), entitled, TV Weathercasters as Environmental Sources.

Wow, this talk was intriguing! Kris summarized the results of his recent research (Forecasting the Future: How Television Weathercasters’ Attitudes and Beliefs about Climate Change Affect Their Cognitive Knowledge on the Science, and other studies, available on his faculty Web page).

In a nutshell, Kris found that at many TV news stations, the weathercaster is the primary person who presents information and news about global warming. However, what many of these weathercasters say on the air about global warming often is strongly influenced by their political leanings. Also, their knowledge of the science of global warming, particularly about the nature of scientific consensus on this issue, has some significant gaps.

What’s the big deal? I didn’t catch the exact statistic, but Kris noted that the quality of the local weathercast is one of the main considerations in how people choose their preferred local TV newscast. In other words, the weathercast is a huge draw for TV news, period. This means that TV weathercasters have a surprisingly strong influence on what people learn about global warming.

Also, as the discussion from this presentation revealed, there is a lot of room for meteorologists, environmental journalists, and TV weathercasters to mutually mentor each other on how to communicate with the public about global warming.

And finally, since weather is such a big deal in TV news, there is room for ambitious weathercasters to position themselves as the “newsroom scientist,” expanding beyond the weather into a wide range of climate and environmental topics.

We’ve come a long way from the days of the “weather bimbo,” I think!