Weather Reporting in the Age of Information

May 16, 2017

There was a time when most people got their weather news in one of two ways: either from a broadcast meteorologist on TV or radio, or from the weather page in the print edition of the daily newspaper.

Of course, those sources still exist today, but they exist alongside a myriad of other sources - from 24/7 TV weather networks and to apps on your smartphone, to an icon in the lower corner of your computer monitor and to the dashboard of your car. And for people who are especially motivated, there are countless websites that promise levels of weather sophistication that weather geeks could only have dreamed of 20 years ago.

And that makes the once simple business of delivering weather information  a bit more complicated.

"Everybody who is an individual user has a different set of expectations. That, I think, becomes one of the biggest challenges," says Mike Westerndorf, operations manager for Innovative Weather and an occasional Lake Effect contributor. 

"For just our listening audience, we have people who are going to be out on Lake Michigan and we have people who are going to be playing softball or volleyball, and we have people who are going to be inside all day," he continues. "And all of them, when they say, 'What's the weather like for me?' It all has different connotations." 

Often when people are looking for the forecast, they're not presented with the full picture. Westendorf advises people to be more critical of the information they view, particularly online and through apps, which might not be representative of the weather that will impact them. 

"That's one of the things that we don't really think about," he says," who the made the forecast? Where did it come from? Was it looked at by a human being, is it just model data? What does it mean?" 

He says the numerical representation of the weather isn't always a sufficient indicator of what the weather will actually look like, and people aren't always equipped to interpret those numbers for themselves. 

"I think the important thing for us as a public to remember is: there's a difference between data and somebody who walks with you to interpret that data," says Westendorf.