What is it about the weather?

Storm1

Image via Reuters

 

Something about major weather developments, whether they are real or over-hyped, has the ability to bring us all together. More importantly, it focuses people’s attention like almost no other news event. What is that special magical quality?

Today it’s the “Chiclone.” Search Google and you’ll find over 6,400 results (18,000 results by the time I finished writing this :-)) The hashtag #Chiclone on is trending in Chicago and the United States as a whole. The latter is somewhat surprising. Yes, these storms are affecting more than one state. But a top trend in the entire nation? Really? Does anyone know that there are, oh, I don’t know, some political campaigns going on? If politics isn’t your bag, there are bound to be some album releases today (this is Tuesday after all). Or how about some tech news?

Weather trumps it all every single time. The question is why and how can we apply these lessons to rally news consumers around other news?

So far as I can see it, weather is news that interests almost everyone because:

  • it is EASILY OBSERVABLE – one need only look outside one’s own window;
  • it AFFECTS EVERYONE – even if you don’t go outside, your home might be damaged, you might lose power, your flight might be delayed, etc;
  • CAUSE AND EFFECT is easy to understand – if a tornado touches down on my house, it will destroy it;

In addition to a high level of interest and demand for this news, people love to talk about it. It is a common experience that almost everyone in a certain geographical area has shared. People may have nothing else in common, but if they went out that morning and it was raining they both used an umbrella.

So how can we use what we know about why everyone likes weather news to promote interest in other topics?

If you know me at all, you probably know I am a politics junkie. And like every other addict before me, I lament the lack of interest among many people on matters of public affairs, policy and elections. I am not alone. Every politician (with some exceptions), every activist, every pundit, every political reporter and every high school social studies teacher would like you to be more engaged in the political process.

We all want you to understand issues beyond basic talking points. We want you to think carefully about who you vote for. If you don’t vote, we’d like you to start.

How can we accomplish this?

Using the weather as a guide, how can we make politics more easily observable? How can we make the effects on you clearer? How can we make it easier to see why things happen; if this, then what?

With these lofty goals in mind, I have a few ideas. Please feel free to add your own in the comments.

 

1. EASILY OBSERVABLE: News organizations should provide streaming video of local government meetings.

 This speaks to the goal of making politics more observable.

Every news organization has a website. Instead of making people rely on the reporter’s write-up the next day, offer video of the meeting to all who come to your site. Your reporter can still write a story, but now citizens will be able to see exactly what the reporter saw. For instance, In many suburban municipalities in the Chicago area, residents are able to view their local city council meeting on TV at home. The city governments do this, not the local newspapers.This is helpful, but not the same as offering the same video on the local news website. Not everyone knows about the channel or will watch it, but most people will visit the newspaper’s website. If you have a print edition, point readers to the video online at the end of the story that came out of the meeting.

Also, not every meeting has a story written about it. The video should still be available in those cases. Just because the editor or reporter didn’t think there was anything newsworthy doesn’t mean individual citizens will feel the same way.

The reporter at the meeting can also host a live chat alongside the video using CoverItLive or Twitter. That way, citizens can chime in with questions and the reporter can answer them on the spot. Many people do not understand the way these meetings are run. If they’re even going to the trouble of watching them on TV at home, they may not understand what’s happening.

Surely not every community videotapes the proceedings. A local news organization could fill that role and make the videos (and live chat transcript) available later on in case someone wasn’t able to participate live.

All of this would make political events more observable and more of a shared experience. It’s not exactly like looking outside and seeing rain, but it’s a vast improvement on the current way things are done.

 

2. AFFECTS EVERYONE: More needs to be done to explain how policy decisions directly affect citizens’ lives.

When it rains, everyone gets wet. When a city council enacts a new policy or when the U.C. Congress votes a bill into law, what happens? The answer is often unclear to the average person.  

When things seem too complex and when the cost of understanding an issue is perceived to be too high, people tune out or allow opinionated pundits to form their opinions. 

I think this can be dealt with as simply as sometimes using more plain language in a news report. Here’s an example where a local government announced a new policy regarding residents’ water bills:

 

The Water and Sewer Department would like to make residents aware of a new policy.  

There had been some debate when it came to their water forgiveness policy.  

If residents had a leak, or something to that affect that caused a significant increase in their water bill, the committee would decide, case by case, whether to reduce the bill or not.  

Due to legal obligations, they are no longer allowed to forgive the water portion of your bill.  

They will however be able to review each case, and if necessary, be able to reduce part of the sewer charges if needed.

Spelling and grammatical errors aside, did you understand after reading that what the new policy is and how you will be affected if you live in this community? I read it three times and I still don’t understand it. Still, I’m going to take a crack at re-writing it in a way that may have been more effective:

Currently, a resident is able to appeal their water bill to the city Water and Sewer Department. The department decides in each case whether it will reduce the bill or keep it as is.

Under the new policy, residents can still bring their bills to the department for review. However going forward, only sewer charges will potentially be lowered. Water charges can no longer be lowered due to new [are they new? what are they?] legal obligations on the department.

Better, right?

Now imagine if there was a chart accompanying the story which showed some typical families’ water bill and how they will be affected (or not) by this new policy. Some people have a hard time understanding words and sentences, but everyone understands dollar amounts :-)

On a national level, much more of this kind of thing needs to happen. The Washington Post took a very complex topic and distilled it into an interactive infographic. Everyone, no matter their income level, could now see how exactly they would be affected by proposed taxing policies. Not every news organization can produce these kinds of things, but they need not all be so grand. Simple visual representations (like the aforementioned water bill chart) can be just as effective.

 

3. CAUSE AND EFFECT; Show a direct link between a policy and its effects.

Closely tied to #2, this goal also means being more direct with readers/viewers/listeners.

The trouble with this (and I think the reason we see so little of it in the press) is that doing it requires a fairly deep understanding of the policy in question and a great deal of research in many cases. Thus it often falls to think tanks and university professors to study the effects of government programs or lack thereof. Their work isn’t available to the general public as readily as newspapers and magazines so most people will never see it. If they do see it, they will likely find it impenetrable. Reporters’s clear duty is to explain things to people as simply as possible. Why can’t this be done with public policy?

One of the problems is of course that a discussion of a policy’s effects can itself be politicized. If it must, a news organization can present all the competing viewpoints. But it would be much more useful to the reader if a reporter searches for the truth and concludes that a certain viewpoint is the most likely one.

Another issue is that reporters themselves don’t understand the policy, thus they cannot explain it to readers. I’ll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions on how to fix this problem.  

Beyond all this and I’m repeating myself, WRITE IT PLAINLY. If a new policy will have immediate effects on your readers, perhaps that should be in the lede. If the effects are not yet known, talk about all the possibilities.

You can also tell readers exactly what action they can take, if any. So many times, citizens have no idea a policy change was even being discussed. Now it’s too late and the impact on their lives will come whether they want it or not. News organizations are complicit in this, but they should not be. Again, not everything has to be a full story. Post the agendas of governmental bodies’ meetings and indicate exactly how a citizen can oppose or support a policy, which elected officials to contact, etc. I’m going a bit off track here, but I don’t care :-) News organizations should directly enable, as much as possible, active citizenship. Currently, people are mostly passive observers of their political bodies and both the politicians and the newspapers seemingly want it that way.

 

All of this speaks to the point that I’ve long tried to make. News organizations cannot just tell people what happened when, who said what, etc. They need to explain why it matters. Everyone understands why a hurricane or tornado matters. We must seek to convey the same kind of clarity in matters of politics and public policy.

3 Comments

  1. Reply
    Anonymous October 26, 2010

    A fourth thing about the weather, that would even hew to the point in your post: It inspires awe, a feeling we are witnessing something bigger than ourselves.

    Think back to the populist campaign of your choice: Like a monster storm baring down, it carried enough power to affect everyone. It inspired verbs, metaphors, similes. It was beyond the control of any observer, and within the reach of everyone.

  2. Reply
    Anna Tarkov October 27, 2010

    Great point James. However, I think we all know that most political news on a day-t0-day basis is not awe-inspiring. That’s the challenge; to make THAT stuff interesting and engaging and like I said, I think we can do a lot to help that along. I feel that stopping short of making this concerted effort is really to fail our readers. We profess to want to inform them in such a way as to enable participation in their government, explain complex matters of policy and thus enable to them to be more effective citizens. Right now, these goals hang in the balance. It’s just not happening. That’s not an indictment of the reporters, editors, web producers, etc who are currently trying to do the job. It’s a challenge :)

  3. Reply
    Anonymous February 10, 2011

    A fifth thing about the weather: It has that News of the Weird quality. The commuters trapped on Lake Shore Drive in the Snowpocalypse. The wind gust powerful enough to sink the Edmund Fitzgerald in the Chiclone. Everybody loves to tell and retell and one-up each other with those kind of stories.

    Not that local politics don’t have that News of the Weird element, too. Case in point: My favorite public comment ever, from my days covering the Carpentersville Village Board: http://youtu.be/m2RaAo1QACY

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