The Speed Of Information (And Why It Matters)

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I often go off on a rant when breaking news happens and I can’t find anything on TV about it until an hour after the event.

As a meteorologist with many friends working in broadcast media, I often get a lot of heat for pointing out how outdated television news as an information source is. I’ve had plenty of Twitter arguments with people whose livelihoods rely on the ongoing profits of television broadcasts.

On the other end of the spectrum, I have friends asking me “who cares?”

I do. And you should too.

Earlier this week, I saw on Facebook (of all places) that a shooting was ongoing at Ft. Hood,TX (again). I texted my mom to let her know, as we used to live there and still have some connections to the place. She texted back “On what channel?”

She was flipping through the cable news stations and getting no information. At this point, the shooting had occurred nearly half an hour prior.

My mother is relatively comfortable with technology for her age. She has an iPhone as well as Twitter and Facebook accounts. But she still gets most of her news from TV or anything she catches on the radio on her commute.

She’s not alone. A Gallup poll in the summer of 2013 showed that TV is still America’s primary news source. This goes for all age groups–yes, Generation Y included.

In January 2009, a regular guy named Janis Krums broke the Miracle on the Hudson story with a simple picture on Twitter.

The picture quickly went viral, with news stations picking it up and reporting on it.

Now, five years later, social media is consistently breaking news faster than old school media.

Should technologically savvy citizens have faster access to information than less savvy citizens?

If the news doesn’t impact you directly, why do you care if you hear about it half an hour later?

Information is invaluable. I imagine this same conversation has happened throughout the millenia as new ways of getting information have been developed:

  • Who needs writing when we have spoken word?
  • Who needs the printing press when we have monks handwriting books?
  • Who needs to deliver messages by horse when we can just run?
  • Who needs the telegram when we have horses to deliver news?
  • Who needs the telephone when we can just wait for the telegram?
  • Who needs the internet when we can just call someone on the phone?

Now I’m flipping this and asking: who needs TV when we have social media?

Sure, older forms of communication are still valuable–hell, we still use spoken word more than we use the internet. But many forms of communication have become irrelevant with time, like the telegram and handwritten books, while others are struggling to keep up in a changing time, like the postal service, whose services are still necessary but less necessary than they were even 20 years ago.

Thankfully, ships no longer have to cross the Atlantic to tell us how the war with the colonies is going. Wars have been won and lost with timely and truthful (or misleading) intelligence. Who gets to decide what information is important for you and me to know?

Let me be clear: I’m all about accuracy of information. This is not about speed for speed’s sake, although I would argue that if you care about the speed of your internet and cable but not about the speed at which you obtain information, your priorities may be misaligned.

There is a lot of misinformation on social media. A lot a lot. But if a news channel can tweet about breaking news as it happens but not even cut in to their corresponding 24-hour news channel to say “We are receiving information about XYZ event, we will keep you updated as we learn more,” then why should I even turn the TV on?

Old media really seems to be struggling to merge its new media presence with the old. Almost every TV station and newspaper has a website and social media profiles. While I don’t expect the newspaper to be printed off fresh every time breaking news occurs, it is mind boggling to me that CNN can tweet about something as it happens then continue to report on something irrelevant on the air.

Unless television news can successfully integrate the information I can find quickly online into its format, I have as much need for it as I do for the telegram.

Viva la información.

news

STORM:CON, Naming Winter Storms, and Other Media Hype

A few months ago, The Weather Channel announced it would begin naming winter storms.  Today, it released a new winter storm severity index named STORM:CON.  The idea is similar to its summer TOR:CON, identifying tornado potential risk, although the latter is little more than an interpretation of the Storm Prediction Center’s severe weather outlook.

The idea of assigning unique identifiers to significant weather events is not a new one.  Most people are familiar with the naming of tropical storms; the World Meteorological Organization is responsible for the naming of the Atlantic events, and eastern hemispheric scientists take responsibility for their regions.  Personifying the storms with familiar names has allowed scientists and the media to make the general public aware of a specific storm and its expected human and ecological impacts.  Even the naming of winter storms is not uncommon; newscasters and reporters have been known to sensationalize blizzards under the headline “Snowmageddon” and Twitter hashtags like “#snOwMG.”  In the scientific community, local National Weather Service offices have assigned event names to significant lake effect snow storms and even tornadoes after the events.

What makes The Weather Channel’s approach to both names and numbers controversial?  The television network is promoting the idea as a way to raise public awareness of potentially hazardous snow events, a goal that most of the media and scientific community seem to encourage.  The primary concern of the community about this new approach is the unilateral power given to a private organization (The Weather Channel) in deciding which storms are named and ranked, and doing so with a very loose set of criteria.  Unlike the naming of tropical storms, which have very specific criteria to meet before being named, the channel has announced that storms will be named based on subjective measures like the population of a region being hit and the time of day that the storm affects an area.  Accordingly, a foot of snow dropped in the rural Appalachian mountains may not result in a named storm, but two inches of snow in a major metropolitan area occurring at rush hour may garner an identification.

From a scientific standpoint, both ideas are essentially useless without specific criteria based on a consensus from the community at large; from a media standpoint, there is no obligation for individual news outlets to use The Weather Channel’s naming or ranking conventions.  Many scientists consider the general idea of naming winter storms to be sound, but are concerned with the methods being employed here.  As was shown following the landfall of Hurricane Sandy (which evolved into a significant winter storm event of its own) very few in the media opted to utilize The Weather Channel’s naming convention for Winter Storm Athena, which followed two weeks later.

STORM:CON appears even less likely to be applied across various media outlets than the storm names, as is evidenced by the lack of universal usage of TOR:CON, which was released a few years ago.  The same problems that plague the haphazard naming of winter storms also plague this new index, as some level of subjectivity will be incorporated into the 1-10 ratings, which read as follows:

STORM:CON 1 to 3
Snow or ice occurs but does not produce significant impacts.

STORM:CON 4 to 5
Impacts would disrupt commerce or travel but not force closures.  You might see NWS advisories at this level.

STORM:CON 6 to 7
Impacts would close down commerce or travel for a day or less. Metro areas with active NWS Winter Storm Warnings might fit into this category. Recently named winter storms such as AthenaBrutusand Caesar would likely be in this category.

STORM:CON 8 to 9
Impacts would close down commerce/travel for multiple days, typically reserved for biggest storms which might occur 3 to 4 times a year.

STORM:CON 10

Reserved for anticipation of debilitating storms which might occur once or twice a year.  Complete shutdown of travel and commerce possibly for several days.  Examples would include storms such as Snowtober, Snowmageddon etc.

If The Weather Channel were to reach out to other meteorological organizations to achieve a consensus on naming and ranking storms, I (and others) would be less likely to label this as another example of media hype.  From my professional view, however, this comes off more as a quest for ratings than a quest for public awareness.