Responsibility of weather-related breaking news: stress of the storm, saving lives

The southeastern United States is arguably one of the most challenging places to forecast weather in the entire world. From tricky winter storms, to hurricanes, to tornadoes – the Southeast has its share of weather woes. Management at these local broadcast outlets face several challenges: personnel, infrastructure, and keeping audiences happy.

Photo above: The Southeast is a hotspot for tornado frequency, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Wiki photo

By David Baxley, SPJ South Carolina President, Assistant Professor, Francis Marion University

Over the past three years, our region has faced a number of violent storms. The Florence/Myrtle Beach television market has witnessed a bevy of major flooding events and tropical systems. Parts of the Florida Gulf Coast continue to recover from Hurricane Michael that struck near Panama City, Fla., in October 2018.  And, tornadoes touch down more frequently than you might think. Their paths are usually fairly small compared to hurricanes – sometimes only hitting a few blocks –  but, their impacts can be just as destructive and deadly.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, around 1200 tornadoes occur on the average in the United States each year. One of the “hot spots” for tornado frequency lies here in the Southeast. Studies show, and news managers in our part of the country will tell you, television news audiences watch for weather coverage. That approach to news coverage is especially during emergency weather situations.

On Feb. 23 Alex Puckett, along with the WCBI news team, broke programming to inform their viewers of turbulent weather in their area that did eventually produce tornadoes. Supplied video.

On Saturday February 23, 2019, Meteorologist Alex Puckett arrived at work knowing it could be a long day of watches and warnings for his viewing area. Puckett, an Alabama native, works at WCBI-TV in Columbus, Miss. He has been through a number of tornado events since he was hired by the station in November 2016. The station broke into programming with information on a tornado watch, and eventually tornado warnings were issued during the afternoon hours.

For most competitive broadcast news stations, the importance of delivering information on-air, on-line and on social media is now imperative. Pushing as much critical weather information out to consumers during an unfolding severe weather event builds trust. After all, the more consumers who are watching, and using a station’s products on various platforms generally translates into higher revenue coming into the station through advertisements and other means.

Just before 5 p.m., the WCBI weather team and the National Weather Service were seeing signs of a storm beginning to rotate about 25 miles southwest of Columbus. The television station was already on-the-air due to other, ongoing warnings nearby. WCBI is the only station in the Tupelo/Columbus television market operating out of downtown Columbus.

At 5:08 p.m., weather observers reported the tornado near Columbus, heading right into downtown. WCBI meteorologists were describing a wall cloud, sometimes a precursor of a tornado, with the help of their tower camera. They continued to warn their viewers to take cover.

“Two things were going through my mind: getting the most information out to our viewers and also recognizing that this thing was going to be close to us.”

Alex Puckett, Meteorologist, WCBI

The station’s news and weather staff continued gathering details on exactly where the storm was located. Around 5:20 p.m., the staff at WCBI rushed to the basement as the tornado moved into the downtown area of Columbus. Seconds later, the power went out and the station went to black.

Photo: The staff of WCBI rushed to the basement as the storm approached near the station.

“It hits close to home when it’s your city,” said Puckett. In the midst of the adrenaline rush of being on-air, he said, “the responsibility you have for your viewers is the most important thing.”

The station’s management had an idea when the station’s power went out: broadcast the latest information on Facebook.

“We realized we had to get information out to as many people as possible.”

Alex Puckett, Meteorologist, WCBI, as a tornado hit in his community

“We realized we had to get information out to as many people as possible,” as the threat moved northeast of Columbus and into rural parts of Lowndes County, Miss. For hours, the station’s news and weather personnel provided its audience with vital information on the damage the tornado had brought. From a dark studio with only limited resources, journalists delivered any bit of information to an audience now watching on social media. It was a lesson in making use of the technology available when the traditional “over-the-air” broadcast was not available.

As the hours after the tornado went by, it became clear the station’s news and weather staff might have saved lives. The up-to-the-minute coverage of where the tornado was located, the station’s meteorologists urging resident to move to safety, and WCBI journalists delivering reports from the field of what they saw likely moved people to take action. One person died from injuries suffered in the tornado, but the death toll could have been much higher with a tornado moving through a population center.

For many who work on-air, the severity of a tornado crippling your city does not hit home until hours later. The tornado heavily damaged homes and businesses within a mile of the TV station.

“You feel bad… you get really down,” Puckett said. “It’s hard to describe how you feel. During a high-adrenaline event, it doesn’t usually hit me until 30 minutes or an hour after I leave the station.”

Alex Puckett, Meteorologist, WCBI, after the storm

The tornado underscored a broadcast news station’s obligation to the public.  It also highlighted the need to embrace new technology and to utilize social media in delivering life-saving information when the traditional broadcast means is not an option.

The same tornadoes that were hitting Mississippi moved into the WVTM viewing area and WVTM was covering it on the air, online and on social media.

About 120 miles away, the staff at WVTM-TV in Birmingham, Ala. was also warning viewers of encroaching severe thunderstorms and tornadoes.  The same tornado that had swept through Columbus, Miss., was on the move, and heading into Alabama. WVTM was on-air, online and on social media with live coverage.

As the storms continued into the evening hours, station management had to make a decision about programming. WVTM is an NBC affiliate. As tornadoes moved into the area, the station chose to stay with weather coverage, preempting an NHL game.  Some viewers were not happy. It only added to the stress. Photo: WVTM 13 Meteorologist Adrian Castellano.

“We hate cutting in over programming. In fact, we make every effort not to. However, sometimes it is unavoidable. In the end, it’s our responsibility as meteorologists that everyone living in our area stays safe during severe weather. I would want the same for my family.”

Adrian Castellano, Meteorologist, WVTM

Castello, who has been with the station since 2016, was on-the-air as tornadoes touched down Saturday night. On-air meteorologists, reporters, anchors and other news personnel must make split-second decisions during severe weather episodes. Those decisions are made through consultation with station management and often involves station policy.

The added stress – besides delivering an accurate account of where the storm is and what viewers should do – can weigh heavily on meteorologists and journalists covering these sometimes long-duration events. Lives and property are at risk. Through technology, meteorologists, reporters and news anchors built trust with their audiences across multiple platforms during difficult situations that only Mother Nature could have arranged. Keeping their community safe was the number one priority.

From the left: Kris Allred, WSAV, Savannah, Ga.; Jamie Arnold, WMBF, Myrtle Beach, SC; and Wes Wyatt, WBRC, Birmingham, Ala. will be speaking at the Trauma & Stress: while working in journalism Conference in Savannah, Ga. on March 9.

On March 9, 2019, the Society of Professional Journalists – Region 3 and Savannah State University JMC will host “Trauma & Stress: while working in journalism” Conference in Savannah, Ga., will include a panel discussion with meteorologists and journalists who are routinely in the middle of making those life-saving decisions, all while keeping their composure on-air. The panel will discuss what they have seen in their respective markets over the past few years, how they work with station staff to ensure safety during severe weather, and how they deal with negative feedback as they try to keep their community safe from the storm.

David Baxley is Assistant Professor of Mass Communications, Francis Marion University, and  SPJ South Carolina President. Baxley worked in broadcast news since 1999. He is also a meteorologist. Before entering academia in 2016, Baxley worked as an investigative producer at WIAT-TV in Birmingham, Alabama, for two years. Baxley is a regular contributor to the SPJ Region 3 website, SizingUpTheSouth.com. To contact Baxley email him atdtbaxley.spjsc@gmail.com