If I had to pick a moment when weather reporting went from the most casual and mundane aspect of the daily news report to the epicenter of honest to goodness “action news” reporting, with an emphasis on action, I’d say it all started with the 1996 film “Twisters.”
“Twisters” starred Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton as a pair of tornado-chasing weather reporters who risk their lives throughout the film to stuff a weather testing device into a huge and lethal tornado. It may have been the first time weather reporters were portrayed as action heroes.
From that moment on, TV weather reporting, boosted in no small way by the burgeoning cable news business (CNN and The Weather Channel) featured action stunts whenever possible. Reporting from the corner gas station as a winter storm dumped a foot of snow on the region, or from riverside while flood waters began to crest, and live from the beach as a hurricane touched land. It was the dawn of weather men and women as The Justice League.
CNN’s most well-known reporter, Anderson Cooper, made his name covering Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.
It’s not just the live reporting, either. The printed weather reports also take the drama of the weather to maximum.
Newspaper articles on the current cold conditions that have made large portions of the U.S. and Canada feel like the Arctic Circle contain language in headlines that sounds like it might be describing the plot to a new Michael Bey, Hollywood action spectacular. With top-notch adjectives and violent action verbs, you can almost hear the breathless male voice of an action trailer voice over.
“Unforgiving cold has punished the eastern third of the United States for the past 10 days. But the most severe winter weather yet will assault the area late this week.”
So goes the lede of a Washington Post story this week. Later in the story:
“In the storm’s wake, the mother lode of numbing cold will crash south – likely the last but most bitter in brutal blasts since Christmas Eve.”
“Punished,” “assaulted,” “crash” – are we expecting a storm? An invading army? Godzilla?
I can appreciate several things about weather reports. First, I understand the need to make what might otherwise be mundane reporting interesting. There’s only so many ways to say, it’s really unpleasantly cold.
Also, I understand the fact that the weather really is important. When it’s cold like it has been for the past week, it can be very much a life or death thing. For people without homes or in homes with inadequate weather proofing, the current climate is dangerous.
I won’t pretend to know if there’s a better way to do it. Getting people to pay attention to the weather might be difficult. Dressing it up as a battle of good vs. evil is fine – as long a we don’t treat every weather event as an impending natural disaster to the point where the warnings of real impending disaster sound like fake cries of wolf.
Understanding the weather and the changing climate is more important than that.