Tuesday, January 13, 2009

They'll Always Bite You ...

Absolutes and Superlatives

I learned it, I know it, but I briefly abandoned it in this new medium, this blog. Blogs cross many lines. Many blogs don’t tell the truth or the whole truth. Many blogs have an agenda or, yes, a bias. But, when one is writing a blog about Journalism, the old tenants of the professional of Journalism must still stand.

I knew I had a reference. I went through my old style books, but they bore no fruit. Then, I found the basic book from which I taught Journalism in the early ‘80s, "The Complete Reporter", by Harriss, Leiter and Johnson. Quoting from the Third Edition (1977) [The pages are now tanned with age, but it’s still true.], Page 38, “Superlatives are usually inaccurate.”

That’s it.

Earlier this week, in a rather benign blog about broadcast weather reporting in the Austin area, I used a superlative, an absolute. The simple sentence above, “Superlatives are usually inaccurate,” shot down the supposition that I made without a total grasp of the facts. I declared, that one station “dominates Nielsen ratings whenever there is news-worthy weather. It’s been that way for years.”

It takes just one instance, although there may be many, to shoot that assertion full of holes. Frank Volpicella, news director at KVUE, was quick at the keyboard.

“Not always,” Volpicella says. “And certainly not last May when storms rumbled through Austin. On Wednesday evening May 14, we have several tornado warnings in Austin. Fortunately, nothing touched down. There was some damage in Austin, mostly in the Tarrytown neighborhood. I’m sure you remember the night.”

As a matter of fact, I do remember that night. We lost a beautiful Spanish Oak in our front yard that night, but we’re not in Tarrytown. We’re in South Austin.

“That night I made the call,” Volpicella continues. “KVUE preempted ABC prime and went on from 9 p.m. until after the 10 p.m. news was over.” Volpicella goes on to cite Nielsen ratings from that night showing that KVUE’s coverage was #1 in both the 9 and 10 o’clock hours. You can’t argue with the facts. More, importantly for this blog, however, is another lesson re-learned: “Superlatives are usually inaccurate.”

The other arguable point of the blog, however, is whether a meteorology degree and accreditation by a weather association, such as the American Meteorological Association and/or the National Weather Association really matter. One of KVUE’s early and strongest meteorologists, Troy Kimmel, while holding a Texas A&M degree in geography with emphasis in meteorology and several seals, sees seals only as a symbol of “being the best we could be.”

I pointed out in the blog that KVUE embraces those standards, and they still do. “I will always believe that the more educated and skilled the meteorologist, the better he or she will be at their jobs,” Volpicella says. “Certainly, experience is important. But I’ll hire someone with a degree in atmospheric sciences over someone with a degree in philosophy to forecast our weather. The issue becomes, do you want a personality forecasting your weather, or a trained specialist?”

I assert that it is even better to have a trained specialist who is also a personality or communicator. There, Volpicella and I reach common ground. “Communicating is important. But so is expertise,” he says.

My parting thought to my friend Frank: It’s “[It's]… sad that we have to go back to mid-May last year to find any significant weather. Man, I wish it would rain.”

© Jim McNabb, 2009

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