Fake news weather

By John Toth / Editor and Publisher

Fake news has been used many times in the political arena, and whether it applies is in the eyes of the beholder. The term has lost much of its punch - unless you apply it to hurricane reporting theatrics.

The Weather Channel does a good job keeping us posted on the path of storms and what impact they will have upon landfall. Those reporters have hard jobs. While people are evacuating, they are going into the eye of the storm and every other part of it.

I have done storm coverage during my years as a reporter. It is long and unpleasant, and after many hours, you just want to get it over with and go to sleep. But you can’t, because the storm hasn’t even hit yet.

Then it happens, and there is even more work to do. Editors want one thing, and then they want another, giving out assignments from miles away. Print reporting is different because there is no visible reporting during the storm. It all comes together in stories later, when the presses are rolling again.

But TV reporters are on the go, expected to bring you a play-by-play video account of what is happening. Most of the time they do a great job, but not all the time. Like when the storm didn’t turn out as expected at a particular time and place.

That’s when the Weather Channel reporters have taken a few liberties.

You have seen them hanging from light poles, holding on to dear life as they scream into the microphone while wind and rain are pounding them in the face.

But sometimes that wind and rain is not all that it’s made out to be.

During Hurricane Florence, one reporter appeared as if he could barely stand up as he positioned himself against the wind and fought to keep his balance.

That is admirable, I thought. I would not do that. I know what wind and rain look like, as do my readers. But when watching TV, people want to see something else other than rain reflecting off car windshields and wind blowing trees.

Then the camera zoomed out, revealing his antics as unnecessary. Two people leisurely walked by behind him, apparently having no problems with the wind and the rain. They are wearing no rain gear, just shorts and light jackets. They seemed to be experiencing a different scenario than what the reporter was describing.

Maybe it was a weird storm event, or maybe the reporter was faking it.

The Weather Channel management noticed that this video was going viral and put out the following explanation:

“It’s important to note that the two individuals in the background are walking on concrete, and Mike Seidel is trying to maintain his footing on wet grass, after reporting on-air until 1:00 a.m. ET this morning and is undoubtedly exhausted,” the network said.

We know the reporter was exhausted. But the fakery and theatrics were the equivalent of making up quotations or printing an article about something that never happened.

In print, we’d get fired for that. The image he was creating with his theatrics was not happening.
That’s fake news.

TV reporting has done this before because the video and the story attached to it has to be more exciting than the competitors’ angle.

Geraldo Rivera at Fox News did it right when he came to Galveston Island to cover Harvey last year. He stood out on the seawall as the storm surge was lapping over it. As he gave his report, a wave knocked him off his feet.

It was a real wave, and he fell down for real. Then he got up and wiped the rain from his face. A couple of emergency personnel came over to see if he was alright. He laughed about it and continued with his report.

The network anchors expressed concern about the microphone wire being in the water. “I’m not worried about that. There is not enough electricity in it to hurt me,” he responded. He was right. The wire did not pose a danger. He didn’t try to hype it.

This is not showtime. Real dangers are involved, and what reporters say and do has a direct impact on what people who watch decide to do. Stay real, people. Unless a real wave knocks you down, abandon the acting and give us just the facts. And, get out of harm’s way, for God’s sake.