By Erica Thomas, managing editor
BIRMINGHAM — After spending countless hours on severe weather coverage this week, local meteorologists are dealing with the aftermath of more than the storms. They are also dealing with the backlash of their on air coverage during the deadly storms.
Any time a tornado warning is issued by the National Weather Service, meteorologists are obligated to warn viewers with live television coverage. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has a mandate requiring the broadcast of warnings. Although a crawl at the bottom of the screen is sufficient, individual weather departments have policies when it comes to wall-to-wall coverage. In all cases, the FCC has the right to pull a station’s license if the organization does not act in a way deemed necessary to public interest. Warning the public of a potentially deadly tornado would qualify as a necessary interest. However, that means interrupting regularly scheduled programming, which can be offsetting to otherwise loyal viewers. If meteorologists feel the need to warn viewers during tornado watches or severe thunderstorm warnings, they often break into programming with the message.
While one area could be experiencing a life-threatening thunderstorm or tornado, an area far from the threat could be enjoying sunshine and clear skies. Still, each station has what’s called a “DMA” or designated market area. That area can be broad and anytime there is a warning in that large area, there will be live coverage. Many in the television news industry understand the importance of this coverage. Historically, it has saved lives by alerting people of the impending danger heading their way. It can be a lifeline for those who are unable to hear tornado sirens or get alerts from smartphone technology.
As deadly and destructive storms ripped through the state this week (April 14 and April 18), local meteorologists were tracking storms for hours on end, predicting what could happen, educating the public on what was happening and broadcasting the reality of tragic situations. Homes were torn apart, property damaged and lives were taken. The meteorologists worked long hours and overnight to keep viewers in their DMA aware, and just like clockwork, the online hate began pouring in just as fast as the floodwaters.
ABC 33/40 Chief Meteorologist James Spann received messages on Twitter during Thursday night’s coverage. The station did a minute-long cut-in during Grey’s Anatomy and one viewer voiced his disappointment online. Spann said this type of reaction comes with the territory.
“We live in a society full of very selfish people that have no concern over anything other than themselves and that is reflected in the messages we received,” said Spann.
Even before the cut-in, some viewers threatened Spann with physical harm if he were to break into their beloved television show.
WBRC Fox6 News Chief Meteorologist JP Dice was also dealing with hateful messages. He responded on Facebook with a public post about the hard work that goes into covering severe weather. That post has since been removed. When Dice was thanked for the coverage, he responded by saying he was “taking a beating for it.”
Multiple storm reports came in Thursday evening and Friday morning after the storms left Alabama. The National Weather Service will survey areas and release information at a later date. On Sunday, April 14, the National Weather Service confirmed at least 13 tornadoes with the potent weather system touched down in Alabama.
As survivors pick up the pieces, some are thankful for the warnings they received on television. Spann and Dice are both getting support from online followers.
WBRC Fox6 will re-run programming on Sunday, April 21:
11 p.m. Gotham
12 a.m. The Orville