Home > Uncategorized > Hard Weather, Soft People

Hard Weather, Soft People

-first posted at RTDNA.org on January 12, 2010

I’ll say right up front that this blog will only tangentially be about journalism, news, television, or any of the other things I usually write about.  Think of it as more of an observation that my vantage point as a local television news director allows me, and as a warning about what we’re doing to current generations and the generations to come.  We’re all part of an unintentional conspiracy to rob ourselves and rob our youth of their backbones.  As I’ve said before, I’m a self-appointed expert on the Millennial generation, and this is yet another cautionary tale about the crappy way we elders are handling its upbringing.

So let’s get right to where this connects with news.  For the last ten days or so my part of the country, like much of the rest of it, has been in the deep freeze.  On top of the very cold temperatures, we’ve had three snowstorms that have left about six inches of snow on the ground.  Now, six inches is all relative.  In Dallas, it’s the end of the world.  In St. Paul, it’s springtime.  In central Missouri, it’s mostly an annoyance.  The going is slow on the roads, but none are impassable.  In the worst of it, I made the six-mile drive to work in about 12 minutes.  I did that at four in the morning. Why?  Closings and cancellations, that’s why.

Maybe it’s because I started my professional career in Florida.  Maybe it’s because I have to get up so early when the cancellations come rolling in.  Maybe it’s just because I’ve been doing it too long.  But whatever the reason, my tolerance for people closing and cancelling in a minor snowstorm is shot.  I’m not my generally positive self when I take their calls cancelling their events.  I start to question—to myself—why they’re bothering to close things down for a relatively minor snow.  I made it to work.  The guy driving the snowplow made it to work.  Heck, even the guy who has to work at the QuikTrip gas station at four in the morning made it to work.  So what’s wrong with the rest of these people?

The schools I can understand—to a point.  The men and women who lead the public districts and private schools in our area are collectively responsible for the safety and wellbeing of probably seventy thousand students or more.  If the roads are too bad for any of the buses to travel safely, or for students with other transportation to make it in, then it’s probably best to cancel.   But what if only a handful of the students—those who live in the remote, rural parts of the district—are the only ones who’d possibly have a hard time making the trip.  Should we call off school then?  It may sound cruel, but I say “no.”  Here’s why.  The students who live in town begin to relate a scant few inches of snow with a scary, don’t-go-out-or-you’ll-lose-your-life mentality.  If it’s too dangerous to have school when there are a few inches of snow, then they’ll begin to think you can’t do anything in the snow.  That’s the wrong message to send to this generation.

I see it happening already.  Twenty-four years ago, when I first started at my current station, if the snow was really bad enough the schools would call in to cancel.  We’d put it on the air, everyone would see it, and the kids would get a snow day.  Order was maintained.  But now, once the school cancellations hit, we get inundated with boy scout troops, social clubs, tae kwon do classes, and swimming lessons—all needing to cancel.  Swimming lessons?  What, were they going to have them outside in January?  The culture of fear that too often pervades the communities where we live is hard at work.  Suddenly, everyone is too fearful to travel out.  Our newscasts add to it.  Not just in airing the closings.  I can’t count how many times I’ve heard a reporter in the field doing a live shot on the road conditions tell people, “And if you don’t need to be out tonight, just stay home.”  Every time I hear that (and I have banned it from my newsroom, so if I hear it, it’s coming from one of yours) I want to drive out to the live shot, grab the mic, and tell people, “Don’t listen to her.  It’s not that bad.  Get in our cars and get out and drive in it.  Then you’ll know how to do it.”

Churches are my biggest pet peeves of the moment.  Our station got a competitive edge in the closings game a few years back by fully staffing on Saturday nights and early Sunday mornings to handle church closings.  It’s been good for us in terms of our community service image, but I think we’ve created a monster. Just think about it.  Don’t those ministers and reverends get paid to hold services on Sunday?  It seems like if the QuikTrip guy can make it in to sell gas, the preacher can make it in to save souls.  But the churches in our area cancel by the hundreds when the weather gets just a little bad.  My thought is to have church no matter what the weather.  If someone needs it badly enough, they’ll still come in.  But running the closings as we do, we’ve trained them to close.  It’s our fault.

This is all more serious than some panicky pastors.   The competition to be on top of the weather story is training our viewers to be a bunch of wimps.  I’m especially worried about the Millennials on this one.  They are not a courageous bunch.  Those same teenagers we scare out of driving in the snow will be your reporters and photographers in five years.  Wait until a real storm hits and they won’t drive into it.  Then you will have reaped what you sowed—or snowed, in this case.

So what can we do?  We still have to win the weather wars.  I’m not saying not to run closings.  But let’s pack the newscasts around them with honest assessments of the severity of the storm—not just a “don’t go out if you don’t have to” mentality.  Reporters can start by honestly saying what it was like getting to work and getting to their stories.  Weathercasters can put storms into context and let people know that two inches of snow and twenty-two inches of snow should not elicit the fearful public response.

For my part, I’m starting to spar a bit with the people who call in to cancel.  One recent caller, looking to cancel an event more than a week away when we barely had an inch of snow on the ground, heard me turn him down.  “Call me back when we get a little closer and you can assess the situation again,” I told him.  If I moved him off the panic button—even for just that scant week—then I did my duty.  Care to join me?

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