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Best practices for gathering weather information

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In January, the American Meteorological Society adopted a statement called “Best Practices for Publicly Sharing Weather Information Via Social Media.” It is basically a how-to for meteorologists who are doing their best to use digital platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to share forecasts and explain complicated topics in what are typically short-format media.

For some of us, the guidelines are common sense. Others really needed to read them. Social media usage doesn’t come naturally to everyone.

The rub for me is that communication is, or at least should be, a two-way street. We can responsibly put the information out there for the public to find, but the public needs to be smart about consuming it, too. I remind my colleagues pretty often that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink – or if he does drink, is he drinking responsibly? Okay… maybe that’s not the best analogy since it’s water, but you get my point.

There are a few things you can do as a consumer of weather information that will help ensure that you are getting accurate weather information in a timely manner.

Screen capture of snow over Scranton, PA, on radar. There is a time stamp, but no date, which may lead to confusion if viewed and shared on social media on a different date.

1. Check the time stamp, especially on social media.

I’ll use Facebook as an example since it is the platform with which I am most comfortable, and I use it the most. Facebook’s news feed algorithms default to “most popular news,” which doesn’t necessarily mean the most recent. Even if you choose to use the “most recent” option, it ranks recency by what has the most recent comments. I can look at my feed right now, and a Yankee cousin’s story about a grocery store run prior to the blizzard from yesterday is second on my feed this morning because someone just commented on it. It’s not a new story, but it’s at the top of my “most recent” feed right now. If you don’t know how the feed works, it will just add to confusion during a time-sensitive event.

2. Have more than one reliable source for weather information.

I have good friends whose loyalty I totally appreciate, but it worries me when they say they wait until they see my weather posts before they act on weather information. You have no idea how good that makes me feel on one hand, but on the other — YIKES! What will happen on the days when I’m unplugged, in long meetings without the ability to look at my radar, or suffering the same power outage as the rest of the area? That’s a lot of pressure and expectation for one person. Sure, when we can afford a whole team of meteorologists to make around the clock forecasts and updates, I’ll feel more at ease, but right now, I am flying solo and begging them to follow other resources, too!

3. Understand that 140 characters or less makes communicating complicated science a challenge, and that one post may mean there are more posts before and after it.

If you’re following thousands of people on Twitter, those posts will get lost in the feed. No matter how careful a meteorologist is about putting all the information out there, we have no control over how the platform disseminates it.

4. Don’t only use social media to get your weather information.

Bookmark your favorite forecaster’s website; look at your local National Weather Service Office’s site. Have a radar app on your smart phone. Buy a NOAA weather radio. There are multiple ways to get reliable information, and using just one leaves you open to missing out.

In recent years, meteorologists as a group have put a lot of thought into how we communicate weather information. We are partnering with social scientists and psychologists on studies of how people best understand things like precipitation probabilities, the best wording for storm warnings to be taken seriously, and even the colors we use on our weather maps and graphics. The more we understand, the better we are becoming at putting useful information out there, but we can’t do it all ourselves. You have to participate in the process, too, in a smart and savvy way.