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Tonight at 11: News, sports, and climate change

“Local TV meteorologists have the weather expertise, the trust of their local communities, and the visual explanatory skills and graphics tools to tell this story in a way that will have impact.”

I believe 2019 will be the year that reporting on the local impacts of climate change will finally go mainstream, and I expect local TV meteorologists to lead the way in transforming how the story of climate is reported.

On Black Friday, a cohort of federal agencies released the National Climate Assessment. The economic impacts of climate change detailed in the report aren’t vague or far off — they’re widespread and personal, affecting everyone from farmers to skiers to beer-makers. In 2019, journalists will overcome the worry of “taking sides’ and show the courage to tackle this complex story.

But why your local meteorologist? A combination of threats and opportunity combine to make your favorite TV forecaster uniquely positioned to break through the politics of climate and make meaning out of the complexity.

First, the threat. Who needs the local TV mainstay of old — the 7-day forecast — in a digital era where “there’s an app for that”? Absent a redefinition of their role, local TV meteorologists are at risk of the same fate as TV traffic reporters, who can’t compete with the real-time, turn-by-turn personalized traffic solutions from apps like WAZE. As Rob Carlmark, local meteorologist for KXTV in Sacramento puts it: “Every day, I ask myself: ‘How can I be better than an app?'” That’s the right question, and here is where opportunity intersects with need.

Local newspapers long ago ceded weather to their TV brethren. It wasn’t “real news,” and its visual, personality-driven nature was a better natural fit to the medium of television. Fast forward to today: While overall TV news viewing is slowly declining, viewers still flock to local TV whenever a big weather event hits. The top local TV meteorologist is often one of the most recognized and trusted personalities in a community. In addition, many hold meteorological degrees and are certified by the American Meteorological Society. They are capable of far more than just telling you whether or not you’ll need an umbrella today. And they’re often masters of visual explainers. (Have you seen some of the new augmented reality visualizations?)

We’ve reached a point in climate reporting where we don’t need more studies. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. We need impactful, visual, explanatory reporting. We need storytellers who can connect the large and complex story of climate to the local community. Local TV meteorologists have the weather expertise, the trust of their local communities, and the visual explanatory skills and graphics tools to tell this story in a way that will have impact. They also have the audience. The past two years have seen strong tune-in for local weather events like hurricanes, blizzards, flooding, and wildfires. Local TV is at its best covering these highly visual stories that directly affect their communities. Climate news is hitting home, and hitting harder.

There are signs that this shift toward connecting climate change to the story of weather is already underway. Brad Panovich, a local meteorologist at WCNC in Charlotte, was recognized nationally by the AMS. in 2018 for his efforts. There are also resources available. Climate Central works to help local meteorologists to report on the effects of climate change.

This is the year local TV meteorologists reinvent their roles from merely weather predictor (remember, there’s an app for that) and reclaim their relevance by using their expertise, community trust, and visual skills to add meaning and context to the ways climate change is affecting their communities.

Frank Mungeam is Knight Professor of Practice in TV News Innovation at Arizona State’s Cronkite School of Journalism.

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