Dan Satterfield is the Chief Meteorologist for WBOC TV in Salisbury Maryland.

TV Weather is Changing, and for the Better

  • Sep 15, 2015

The media landscape is undergoing the same radical transformation in the Internet age that so many other fields and industries face, and that includes the job I’ve been doing for 35 years. I started forecasting weather on TV in February 1980, and was working as an intern two years before that, so I’ve seen the TV landscape (and the science of meteorology) change dramatically. 

The change now has reached the speed of a careening roller-coaster, as more and more people get their news and information online, and I find that the time I spend servicing my stations news and weather apps and other web-based platforms increases every year.

Some of those who do on-air weather seem to resent this, but I love it because it gives me more and more ways to share my love of Earth science than a 3-minute weather-cast ever could! Young people be warned: Anyone thinking of a career in TV as a weather-caster will need to have not only a solid education in atmospheric physics, but in all aspects of Earth science. In addition, you’ll need to be a skilled communicator in front of a camera, with above average writing skills (something I’m still learning!).

The Elephant Behind The Weather Map

All of these changes are even more complicated due to elephant in the studio. It stands behind every green Chroma-key wall that my colleagues stand in front of every night, and while many weather-casters and even some news directors try to ignore it, it’s getting more and more restless.

It’s climate change.

Make no mistake about it, our climate is changing, and the science says that this is almost certainly mostly due to rising greenhouse gases. Failing to communicate this to our viewers is like leaving the chapter where the killer is identified out of an Agatha Christie novel.

I, and many other colleagues, have long since decided that we owe our viewers accurate and professional science journalism about this issue. Most of the weather-casters who are doing this have science degrees, but you might be surprised at how few TV weather-casters have at least an undergraduate degree in atmospheric science. In Oklahoma City, the nation’s number one severe weather market, only one of the evening weather-casters has a degree in atmospheric science (Damon Lane at KOCO).

There were some rather laughable comments about climate science from TV weather folks a few years back, but almost all of that is gone now. What’s changed? I think there are three reasons (though others may disagree).

1. Education.

Synoptic weather forecasters have educated themselves about the related (but different) field of climate science. This is most true among those with a solid background in earth science.

2. Fear of being embarrassed.

Those that repeated myths popular on political blogs found they could not back up their statement with any peer-reviewed science and had to admit they were wrong. Not something that makes management happy when they spend great effort on promoting the scientific knowledge of their weather person.

3. Fear of alienating viewers.

This is especially widespread in the Deep South and Plains where science fact conflicts with political and deeply held fundamentalist religious beliefs. This is changing, though, and since the Pope’s Encyclical on Climate, sales of the AMS published “Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change” have tripled. This is a good sign.

It’s not only the TV weather folks who have this fear, but often management as well. I know of more than one weather-caster who is forbidden to mention anything about climate change at all. This is not only biased and self-serving, but leaving important facts out of a story to keep from offending viewers is at its worst writing with yellow ink.

As the planet changes and the media landscape changes, the need for good weather and science reporting will increase. A great democratic nation requires voters who are scientifically literate about the issues facing them, and if that ceases to be the case, the nation will not long stay great. That’s why I think the future of my job is bright, and why I look forward everyday to driving to the news studio.