- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 6, 2003

On Media:
The daily TV weather forecast may not be neutral territory.
Personal beliefs influence what a television weathercaster reports about “politically charged environmental issues such as global warming,” according to a study released April 11 by the University of Texas at Austin.
“Research showed that personal perspectives — not years of experience, market size, newscast position, science degrees and seals of approval from accrediting organizations — shape weathercasters’ views about climate change,” the study stated.
Journalism professor Kris Wilson, a former TV weather forecaster, polled 217 TV weathercasters and concluded that many tiptoe around global warming and that some are forbidden to bring it up on the air.
“I had one weathercaster tell me his bosses thought it was a ‘Clinton propaganda tool,’” Mr. Wilson said yesterday. “On the other hand, there can be pressure from the businesspeople who don’t want the weather forecast mixed up in some wacky environmentalist thing.”
His study is “not an indictment of weathercasters.”
“But you can’t filter the politics or the personal perspectives out of a subject like climate change. I’m concerned the public is not getting available facts,” Mr. Wilson said.
The study challenges the “assumption that those trained in science are apolitical,” he continued, adding that journalistic objectivity could be compromised.
“There’s no gag order here on global warming,” said Ray Ban, executive vice president of the Weather Channel. “There’s a lot of debate in the community about it and if climate change is caused by natural or human influences. We don’t know all the answers yet.”
Beginning in July, however, the Weather Channel will add a “climate expert” to its roster of specialized weathercasters who advise on severe, winter or tropical weather patterns.
“We’re trying to make climate issues on par with weather issues and tell the public what we know, what we don’t know and the discussions at hand,” Mr. Ban said.
The American Meteorological Society, which certifies TV weathercasters, periodically weighs in on the discussion. The group issued a statement earlier this year that acknowledges that the Earth’s temperature rose in the past 200 years and that greenhouse gases had also increased. The group called for more research to determine whether the cause was natural or man-made.
Kevin Lavin, executive director of the National Weather Association, calls climate change complex and contentious, and advises the public to monitor initiatives at the U.S. Climate Change Science Program Web site (www.climatescience.gov).
He also advised Mr. Wilson, a professor at the University of Texas, to repeat his survey in a few years.
“I would bet his findings would indicate greater understanding, knowledge and consensus among weathercasters,” Mr. Lavin said. “We should also keep in mind that most weathercasters are not given the on-air time to explain complex issues such as climate change, and the trend in some areas is to reduce that on-air time. This trend will not give weathercasters incentive to study issues they can’t present.”
The study, meanwhile, found weathercasters to be fairly skeptical but a little shaky on science. Twenty-two percent said they think global warming “was an accepted theory by most atmospheric scientists.” Fifty-eight percent said they think it is debated by the scientists. Forty-four percent said they think the greenhouse effect is a “scientific certainty.”
Seventy-five percent said they think climate change is a “serious environmental issue,” and 70 percent said they think the Earth’s temperature had increased. But 13 percent could identify a range for this increase, and, using a computer model, 33 percent correctly identified the influence of global cloud cover and precipitation on greenhouse gases.
“This is basic meteorology, yet apparently misunderstood by two-thirds of these TV weathercasters,” the study noted.
Contact Jennifer Harper at jharper@washingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.

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