Hey, ABC News! Last Week’s Deadly Tornadoes Were NOT A “Surprise”

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Three cheers to WBMA Birmingham, AL Meteorologist James Spann for taking on the big dog of ABC News last week and telling Diane Sawyer to “Get a clue,” after she reported that last Monday’s tornadoes came as a surprise. You can read Spann’s blog and see the ABC News report here. The severe weather outbreak was advertised by meteorologists well in advance — days in advance — of the actual storms, yet Diane Sawyer, anchor of ABC News’ ABC World News, declared the tornadoes “…took the South by surprise; no warning.”

James Spann. Photo: Alabamawx.com

Spann — a bit of a celebrity across the South for his devotion and dedication to his passion for all things weather, for being in Alabama broadcasting since 1973 and for his suspenders — wasn’t the only meteorologist to communicate his criticism to ABC News. A quick look at Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn showed this was not an isolated case of one meteorologist taking offense. Many meteorologists not only showed their support of Mr. Spann, but contacted ABC News, as well.

In fact, ABC admitted at least a partial misstep. Though the statement from ABC was far from effective damage control, back-pedaling, or even an apology, an ABC spokesperson said, “The report that aired Monday was referring to the fact that many families were surprised because they were asleep when the tornado hit in the middle of the night.” ABC also promised to clarify the report the next day.

Nobody watching Sawyer’s report would connect “no warning” with the middle of the night and sleeping families. Her words clearly implied the tornadoes came from nowhere and with no advance alert from meteorologists. But at least Spann and our colleagues were able to get through to ABC and shed significant light on the situation.

Dianne Sawyer. Screen grab: ABC News

Meteorology often takes a bum rap for being an “inexact science.” Every professional meteorologist has heard the countless jokes about a blown forecast or a surprise “whatever,” so it’s easy to blame meteorology and the meteorologist when weather kills people as it did last week in Alabama. However, the science of meteorology has made steadfast improvements over the decades. These significant improvements are due to advancements in computer processing, but it’s not just computers. With each passing season meteorologists gain a better understanding of the atmosphere and a better understanding of the pros and cons of the computer modeling data we rely so heavily upon. It’s rare today that a television or radio meteorologist doesn’t possess a meteorology or atmospheric sciences degree at a minimum (or, as in my case, the U.S. Air Force meteorology school). A meteorologist today is a highly respected member of the community with the ability to influence — even save — the lives of every resident with access to a TV, a radio, a phone, Twitter, Facebook, etc., etc. Who else can do that? The chief of police? The mayor? The governor?

Mr. Spann is well known to his viewers for his wall-to-wall coverage of severe weather events, often pulling marathon events lasting 10 hours or more. With sleeves rolled up and sans suit jacket, his suspenders have become his calling card.

Ms. Sawyer’s remark was subtle and it went by in the blink of an eye; many viewers may not have even noticed. And why would they? It was just another cheap shot (disguised as fact) directed at an industry that has already seen more than its fair share. Yet her message was clear: the general public was let down.

I agree: the general public was let down. However they were not let down by the meteorologists, but by ABC News.


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