March 31, 2008
Storms ‘remind us we’re not in control’
By Carol Clark
Kris Wilson has always been fascinated by the weather, but in the summer of 1981 he really got a charge out of it. He was hiking with a friend on Humphreys Peak in Arizona when a storm moved in. “We were 1,500 feet above the tree line,” recalls Wilson, a senior lecturer in the journalism department. “The hair started to rise on my head and my arms and then I just heard, ‘BOOM!’”
Getting struck by a small bolt of lightning did not injure Wilson, although he does have some lasting effects. “It changes your polarity,” he explains. “You become more positively charged. I fry my watch batteries and I sometimes have trouble with my computer because of it.”
He remains passionate about storms. “There is such an energy about them,” he says. “I have this deep appreciation for weather. It reminds us that we’re not in control. We’re at the mercy of nature, even though we may have some tools to help prepare us.”
Wilson has devoted much of his academic career to studying the role that weather — and weather reporting — plays in the well-being of people and the planet. His paper titled “Television weathercasters as potentially prominent science communicators” recently appeared in the journal Public Understanding of Science.
“TV weathercasters are perhaps the most visible and least understood science communicators in our culture,” Wilson says. “Their potential impact is really kind of extraordinary. Good weathercasters can save lives in an extreme event, such as the recent tornado in Atlanta. And they are increasingly a news source for environmental issues.”
The field of TV forecasting suffers from a history of sexy “weather girls” and clownish weathermen who hammed it up on the air, starting in the 1950s. Improved technology and forecasting methods helped raise respect for the field in recent years.
Today, many viewers choose the local TV news station they watch based on the weathercaster, who is often the highest paid person on the news staff, Wilson says. The American Meteorological Society now issues credentials to qualified weathercasters, and is working to organize ongoing training programs for them in a wide range of science topics.
Wilson views these moves as promising. His ongoing research involves surveying weathercasters on their views and knowledge of global warming. He hopes his data will lead to ways to help weathercasters better communicate the issue to the public.
“I’m interested in effective journalism, which, to me, means empowering citizens with the knowledge they need,” Wilson says. “I’m not saying that weathercasters should take a proactive role, but they should present the science in an accurate manner.”