A call for responsibility in weather journalism

What would you assume when you read a tweet from a mainstream news outlet that reads, “tornadoes this afternoon?”

That’s what “MLive Lansing” (the Twitter account of the “Ann Arbor News” and other Michigan newspapers) tweeted this afternoon (see tweet above).

Look at the 12:30 p.m. EDT “Day 1 Convective Outlook” from the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center (SPC) — a very trustworthy source of weather information. It indicates that the Lansing area has a two percent probability of a tornado occurring within 25 miles of any point (see outlook map below). The SPC considers two percent a “marginal risk.” That’s less than a “slight risk.”

U.S. map showing probability of a tornado within 25 miles of any point between 12:30 p.m. EDT today and 8 a.m. EDT tomorrow. Source: SPC “Day 1 Convective Outlook” issued at 12:24 p.m. EDT.
Probability of a tornado within 25 miles of any point between 12:30 p.m. EDT today and 8 a.m. EDT tomorrow. Green shading: 2% (marginal risk). Source: SPC “Day 1 Convective Outlook” issued at 12:24 p.m. EDT.

To put it numerically, the normal probability of a tornado within 25 miles of any point in the Lansing area on this date is approximately 0.20 percent, according to climatology data from the National Severe Storms Laboratory. Granted, today’s two percent probability is 10 times that climatology figure. But still, does a marginal risk support a tweet that reads, “tornadoes this afternoon”?

I think not. Most readers, seeing a tweet that reads, “tornadoes this afternoon,” will assume that more than one tornado is at least a strong possibility. The SPC outlook certainly indicates otherwise.

Poor journalism is rampant on social media, especially from amateur meteorologists. One of my favorite weather bloggers calls these folks “weather weenies.” I don’t expect such folks to even know what journalistic best practices are. Some of them aren’t even out of middle school yet!

Mainstream news outlets like MLive, however,  should try to separate themselves from the weather weenies of the world, but adhering to strict journalistic best practices, on Twitter and elsewhere.

 

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