Intensity of language in weather communication

By: Robert Prestley

During hurricanes, broadcast meteorologists take on a leading role as risk communicators. They not only provide information about the event; they also act to interpret the information in to frameworks viewers can understand, urge action among viewers, and act as an emotional support for communities in dire straits. In order to perform these varied tasks, broadcast meteorologists rely on a number of linguistic tools. They might use figurative language to explain complex meteorological phenomena, or express their own emotions (like concern, disbelief, and hope) to relate with their viewers.

Perhaps the most powerful linguistic tool in any broadcast meteorologists’ toolbox, however, is their ability to intensify their language to adequately describe an intense threat. My research on the language tactics of broadcast meteorologists in Houston during Hurricane Harvey exemplifies the ways in which meteorologists intensify their language. The most obvious way to intensify language is simply by using more threatening or scary modifiers. For instance, the Houston broadcasters described Harvey and its flooding as “life-threatening”, “dire”, “catastrophic”, and “scary.”

 

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This tactic is not new to the field of meteorology. Over the past decade, for instance, the National Weather Service has been quite interested in how they can bolster their warning messages with more intense language. I recently found myself on the other end of this communication when NWS severe thunderstorm watch and warning products informed me that I was in a “particularly dangerous situation” and that I should “expect considerable damage” and “extensive power outages.”

 

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Broadcasters during Harvey did more than simply intensifying their modifiers, however. Another way they intensified their language was through comparisons to previous events. During Harvey, most of these comparisons focused on previous Houston flooding disasters, such as Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 and the Tax Day Floods of 2016. The nature of the comparisons shifted as the storm’s threat changed. Before the flooding began, the meteorologists warned that “we’re going to see rainfall totals that are above Allison and we’re going to see worse flooding.” But, as the flooding continued to get worse and worse, eventually exceeding the levels set during Allison, the meteorologists noted that Harvey “certainly makes Allison look like child’s play all of a sudden.” It’s likely that these types of comparisons are used commonly – both in media coverage and in the decision-making processes of individuals in the path of high-impact weather. For instance, much of the pre-storm media coverage of Hurricane Barry made explicit or implicit comparisons to Hurricane Katrina.

 

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The broadcast meteorologists also intensified their language by expressing their own personal emotions over the course of the broadcast. Their primary emotion was concern, expressed for their community. When discussing a computer model forecast that continued to develop new rain bands, for instance, the meteorologists described themselves as “very concerned” and noted that the forecasts were “disturbing.” One meteorologist made their concern explicitly personal, noting that “I grew up here. This is my home. You know I’m as concerned as you are about my city.”

As the event wore on, the meteorologists seemed to run out descriptions for the historic and unparalleled event unfolding around them. The chief meteorologist stated that “it’s hard to get your head around something like this” and remarked, “I can’t remember seeing an extended forecast like ever, since I’ve been here for 20 years.” Perhaps most succinctly, one meteorologist said, “There are certain things in life you think you’ll never see. And then here it is. It’s happening right now.”

So what can we learn from understanding the ways broadcast meteorologists bolster the intensity of their language during high-impact events? Let’s start with what we can’t learn. This research was descriptive, so I can’t answer whether these tactics were successful in a) getting through to at-risk individuals, b) changing attitudes towards the storm, or c) ultimately leading to protective action taking among viewers. This is an area ripe for future study so that we can understand the best way to communicate during high-impact events.

What we can learn, however, is that effective risk communication is dependent on more than simply crafting the perfect message. As mentioned above, a great deal of research and discussion has focused on how organizations like the National Weather Service can craft messages using the right words with the right tone, issued at the right time through the right channels. This focus on the message neglects that the sender of the message is just as important in creating effective risk communication.

This research indicates the ways in which the attributes of the sender influence the language they use and (likely) the effectiveness of that language. For instance, intensifying language through comparisons to previous events is possible only because of the translational ability of broadcast meteorologists. Likewise, the intensification of language through personal expressions of emotion is only possible because of the trust and credibility broadcast meteorologists enjoy not just as scientists but as human beings. Because viewers can attach a smiling face to a meteorologist’s name and credibility, broadcast meteorologists have an innate advantage in communicating weather risk during hurricanes and other high-impact events, especially compared to faceless official sources.

A pessimist might conclude that the National Weather Service should simply give up their endeavor to communicate directly with the public. Leave the communication to the broadcasters who have more tools and training at their disposal. But I don’t think it’s quite that simple. The National Weather Service, as an organization that serves every resident of the country, has a duty to effectively communicate their science and expertise. And I believe it is possible for National Weather Service forecasters and offices to develop their own personalities. I’ve long admired the work of the National Weather Service in Nashville, who often post forecasts on Facebook in language that comes across as accessible, personable, and understandable. Judging by the reactions they receive, I would say that this tactic has been successful. It might seem silly to waste time delivering forecasts in non-standard ways, especially during calm weather, but it is what we do between storms that determines how our viewers and followers will react when severe weather strikes.

 

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