Up to two feet of snow hit the Mid-Atlantic and New England states last week, the second storm within two weeks. Wind gusts of up to 50 miles an hour and temperatures in the 20s created severe wind chill and extreme hazardous driving conditions. Pennsylvania ordered all commercial trucks off many of its major highways and Interstates. Schools and colleges throughout the Northeast cancelled classes, many for two days.
We were warned that this would be a severe storm, because days before we received minute-by-minute predictions from TV weather persons. The snow will be two feet deep. Or maybe only 3 to 5 inches. No, wait, that was last hour's prediction. It's now going to be 5-9 inches. Or, maybe 10 inches. No, wait. That's wrong, it'll be 15 to 20 inches. It'll bury buildings and wreak a path of destruction unlike anything seen in the past four thousand years! It might also be only a half-foot. We'll be revising our prediction to some other number as soon as our assignment editor throws a dart at the Snow Inch Board.
Most residents, unless they were forced to work, were smart enough to stay home. Also smart enough to stay indoors were TV news directors who sent their reporters and camera crews into the middle of snow-covered roads. Deep-voiced anchors introduced us to the infotainment promotion that has become TV news: "Now, LIVE from the middle of the Interstate, and bravely facing blizzard conditions with EXCLUSIVE coverage ONLY on Eyewitless News 99, your hometown station for LIVE EXCLUSIVE weather coverage is our LIVE reporter, Sammy Snowbound."
Reporters and meteorologists were soon entertaining us with wooden rulers, which they pushed onto snow-covered tables and snow banks to report snow accumulation, not unlike a radio reporter doing play-by-play announcing for a high school basketball contest.
The previous week, the local news stations and TV all-news networks identified a crippling snow as "Snowmageddon" and "Snowpocalyse." This week, with its winds, we learned about "Snowicane."
And so for two back-to-back snow-somethings, we had almost unlimited Team Coverage. The teams interviewed business owners—"So, how's the snow affecting your business?" They interviewed residents—"So, how's the snow affecting your plans?" They even interviewed public officials—"So, how's the snow affecting your budget?"
If Jesus came to the Northeast, he'd be watching all-snow all-the-time coverage, and waiting in a green room for his one-minute interview. "So, Jesus, how are you surviving the snow?"
The problem of the extended coverage is that when there isn't any snow, local TV news gives us a five-minute weather report on the Evening News. Excluding commercials, teasers, and mindless promotion, that's more than one-fourth of the news budget. We learn all about highs and lows, Arctic clippers, temperatures in obscure places, and the history of snowflakes. When a weather "event" occurs, TV has to ramp up its coverage, 'lest we think we can learn what we need to know in only five minutes.
Every weather person will tell you no two snowflakes are the same. But, we can always count on the same coverage, storm after storm, from the same flakes covering the weather. While the reporters are in the middle of a blizzard showing us snow—and how brave they are—they aren't giving us significant information about how to prepare for and then survive a storm, which may cut off electricity for up to a week. Nor are the TV crews telling us what happens to the homeless, or how the storms are affecting everything from insects to black bears.
Long after the storm passes, we'll still be seeing TV weather reports of about four or five minutes—"It'll be sunny tomorrow, and here's a history of sun." It would be nice if local TV news would spend as much time as it does delivering semi-accurate weather reports to discuss significant governmental and social issues along with its diet of car crashes, fires, and the latest Pickle Festival.
Walter Brasch was a reporter and editor before becoming a professor of mass communications and journalism. He is an award-winning syndicated columnist and the author of 17 books, including the recently-published third edition of Sex and the Single Beer Can: Probing the Media and American Culture.
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This story was published on March 3, 2010.