Weather forecasts and warnings have no shelf life and must be disseminated rapidly to the public or else they are useless. The Media are the primary means of achieving swift dissemination. They are major stakeholders in the public interest and are both clients and partners of National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs) where public weather services are concerned. As clients they have a keen interest in the quality, format, content and timing of public weather services products since these must be compatible with their own standards and operational constraints that allow broadcasts during peak audience periods. The Media can also be effective allies in highlighting the importance of public weather services to the community and in supporting the need for meteorological infrastructure of observing networks, communication systems, and forecast offices. The Media is a tool which, when used properly can be an efficient means of increasing the credibility of NMHSs.
Media as dissemination tools
WMO survey results
A recent WMO survey to assess the state of Members' public weather service programmes confirmed that the mass media are by far the major communication channels through which the public can receive weather information, forecasts and warnings disseminated by the meteorological services. Newspapers, radio and television are all very effective means of informing the public as they reach a maximum number of people. The most common means of reception of weather forecasts, warnings and other information is clearly by radio, (100 per cent world-wide), followed by television (93 per cent world-wide). The picture is similar when analysing the means of dissemination of warnings by NMHSs, as survey results indicate global figures of 88 percent and 79 percent for radio and television respectively.
The different media
Importantly, during power outages in the aftermath of severe weather, battery-operated radio is usually the only means of access to critical warning information. Television, with its visual display capability is a high impact medium with very large viewing audiences in most countries.
Articles in the print media contribute significantly to the education of the community about risks associated with severe weather and ways to mitigate severe weather impacts. Newspapers carry weather forecasts and climate data, as well as interviews on special weather topics, World Meteorological Day (WMD) themes or post-mortems on recent severe weather episodes. However, they cannot cater for the urgency and imminence of a tornado or severe convection. The Internet is a mechanism for world-wide information dissemination and the number of NMHSs with access to the Internet has grown from 34 percent in 1997 to 70 percent in early 1999. The Internet presents both a challenge and opportunity for NMHSs. It has limitations as a medium for dissemination of urgent warnings and enables the public to have access to many more information sources, with a potential for public confusion. But at the same time, it allows NMHSs to access information to support their public weather services, and to provide information directly to the public.
Important issues in relations between National Meteorological Services and the Media
Some WMO Members have expressed concern about their relationships with the media, especially during severe weather situations. More recently, the development of technology that enables weather broadcasts to reach the global public via satellite communication has added a new dimension to the issues faced by WMO and its Members. International broadcasters disseminate meteorological products developed by their staff or by private companies. Any broadcast of different or conflicting warning messages can potentially lead to public confusion. These realities highlight the urgent need for coordination of weather forecasts and warnings between NMHSs and all disseminators of these products.
The issues as WMO Members see them
National Media Issues
- Lack of acknowledgement of NMHSs as the source of data and information presented by the media;
- The media often show insufficient interest when conditions are benign or normal; they seek out the NMHSs during severe weather.
International Media Issues
- Under-mining of the designated authority of NMHSs and Regional Specialised Meteorological Centres (RSMCs) when weather information conflicting with that from official sources is presented, leading to public confusion;
- Lack of attribution to NMHSs and RSMCs as the source of data and information used in broadcasts;
- The adverse impact of international television weather programmes on the visibility of NMHSs especially those in small and developing countries; sometimes international weather broadcasters are perceived by the public as being more skilled than local forecasters;
- The rather generalised nature of the information presented in broadcasts.
The response of the media
- Lack of adequate established procedures and mechanisms for dealing with the NMHSs, especially in severe weather situations;
- Lack of contact with NMHSs and access to individual forecasters;
- Unfamiliarity with meteorological jargon, definitions and terminology which are sometimes too technical and unsuitable for public dissemination and understanding;
- Lack of sufficient airtime for weather presentation.
- A major obstacle to effective co-operation is the difficulty experienced in obtaining observational data and weather warnings from some regions of the world;
- Increasing cost to operations due to developing national and international policies on exchange of meteorological information;
- Air time and other constraints which do not always allow time for attributions
Finding Solutions to the Media Issues
There is a lot of common ground when considering these media issues:
- Both the media and the NMHS are well-intentioned and serve the same public;
- Both are keen to co-operate and co-ordinate for the public good;
- Both place high value on immediacy: the NMHS for the urgency of warning and advisory dissemination, and the media for the news worthiness of the dramatic, fast-breaking weather event;
- Both aim to influence the behaviour and decisions of the population;
- Both admit to the intrinsic need to forge good working relationships and form a key partnership to get the message in an effective, efficient and timely manner to the public;
- There is a clear understanding of, and agreement on, the need for a ''single official voice''.
- There are some truths that both the media and NMHSs must face, as they continue to work towards removing the real or perceived problems:
- World Weather Watch (WWW) and NMHS infrastructures are essential to weather broadcasts of the media. It would be impossible for broadcasters to operate independently without access to surface and upper air weather observations, satellite pictures, radar imagery, and Numerical Weather Prediction (NWP) models;
- International broadcasters will continue to be active and influential players in the dissemination of meteorological forecasts and information as technology allows access to these broadcasts in remotest locations.
Guidelines on improved relationships with the media
The WMO survey indicates that in 1997, 95 percent of responding Members operated public weather services programmes, serving the general public and the media, and yet only 82 percent had a working relationship with the media. This statistic shows that there is room to improve relationships between the NMHSs and the media.
The following are offered as ''guidelines'' on building partnerships and developing improved relationships with the media:
- Develop better partnerships with local, and national media e.g. set up standing committees and focal points to establish/enhance and facilitate positive working relationships with the media, during any type of weather;
- Cultivate both formal and informal relationships with the media, for example through organising workshops and inviting media representatives to special events and/or social gatherings held by the NMHS;
- Develop procedures and mechanisms for contacts with the media, particularly during times of severe weather, being mindful of the needs specific to newspapers (e.g. charts, background information), radio (e.g. live phone interviews) and television (e.g. live coverage);
- Get to know the expectations, procedures, and constraints, as well as the specific requirements of the different media with respect to writing style, content, format and deadlines for forecasts and warnings;
- Assist to train non-meteorological broadcasters on basic meteorology, products and services, the NMHS, forecast accuracy and meteorological terminology;
- Ease media competition so as to promote a consistent message, by making arrangements to give equal access to them, possibly in conference format or in a media pool arrangement;
- Develop a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with different media; this ensures a commitment to act in coordination with the NMHS especially at times of severe weather.
- Reinforce the concept of a ''single official voice'' by facilitating access to NMHS information by the media;
- Encourage the international media to give public recognition to NMHSs and WWW for their essential contribution through observing networks, global telecommunication networks, forecast offices and RSMCs;
- Encourage the international media to refer the local population to their respective NMHSs for more detailed information at times of severe weather.
Benefits of harmonious relationships with the Media
Co-operation and coordination with the national media will allow:
- NMHSs to carry out their responsibility to warn and inform the public
- Provision to the media of highly desirable, newsworthy programme content;
- NMHSs to capture public attention and be seen as carrying out their duty in severe weather situations; this increases the NMHS visibility, promotes public confidence and goodwill and engenders the NMHS staff satisfaction;
- Warnings and advisories to be unmodified and as close to verbatim as possible, except perhaps for format;
- Broadcast of warnings and advisories soon after receipt and certainly not after expiry;
- The media, especially television and radio, to feel committed to give high priority to certain classes of severe weather threats such as tornadoes, severe local storms or flash floods.
Co-operation and coordination with the international media will allow all the above benefits as well as:
- Desirable access by the international media to the information produced by NMHSs;
- Attribution to NMHSs for warnings and advisories;
- Advice to the public to monitor their own NMHSs for additional information on local or regional severe weather situations.