“First hurricane of 2015 may strike U.S. shores soon,” reads a news headline at AOL.com. The subheadline says “meteorologists suspect it will rapidly intensify.” These are desperately misleading statements that never should’ve been published.
The headlines are in reference to Tropical Storm, not hurricane, Danny, which is over 1,000 miles from the Caribbean, way out in the open tropical Atlantic. It is about five days from threatening the easternmost Caribbean islands. If it ever affects the U.S. coast, which is a giant question mark, it wouldn’t likely be for 8-10 days. That’s not ‘soon’.
The storm has numerous obstacles to overcome if it is to affect U.S. shores. It will need to survive a plume of dry air along its path over the next few days. If it manages to remain intact through the weekend, its circulation could then be disrupted as it passes over some of the Caribbean islands early next week. Then, if it hasn’t totally collapsed, upper level winds could redirect the storm to the northeast, curving it away from the U.S. mainland.
As Capital Weather Gang’s tropical weather expert Brian McNoldy put it: “It’s too soon to tell where Danny will track next week — or whether it will be a storm at all beyond Sunday.”
Officially, the National Hurricane Center forecasts Danny to gradually strengthen through Saturday, and then slowly weaken.
There’s simply no scientific support for AOL’s chosen framing of this storm and it’s an egregious example of misrepresentation for clicks.
To be clear, I have no problem with headline writers being creative and inventive with headlines. For example, as I wrote last week, I was fine with the playful metaphor ‘Godzilla El Niño’ – that directly quoted a scientist – appearing in a headline. If readers don’t click on the headline, then all of the time and energy spent to develop the actual story is in vain and an opportunity to educate and inform is lost.
But headline writers also have a responsibility to convey the truth and not to exaggerate. They need to find the sweet spot in which a headline is both credible and enticing.
Too often, with weather headlines, the importance of scientific validity is neglected. Hardly a week goes by in which I read a terribly misleading headline about a storm or weather phenomenon.
Returning to El Niño for a moment, the LA Times headlined a story last week: “A huge El Niño could devastate California.”
— Andrew Freedman (@afreedma) August 13, 2015
This headline is deeply flawed in two ways. 1) It frames El Niño as if it’s a storm or some evil force closing in on the Golden State, which it is not. El Niño simply refers to the episodic warming of ocean waters in the eastern and central tropical Pacific that has ripple effects on certain weather patterns. 2) El Niño may well end up being tremendously beneficial for the drought-plagued California, as its ripple effects on the weather there yield substantial rain and snow (though some harmful effects such as flooding and mudslides are certainly possible).
In many cases such flawed headlines are not written by the author of the actual story, but by web producers who may not have the same appreciation for the science and who are simply motivated to manufacture clicks. The lead story authors, thus, have a responsibility to speak out when the substance of their story is not accurately portrayed.
The ‘hurricane striking soon’ headline on AOL’s homepage links to a credible and well-written story by AccuWeather meteorologist Alex Sosnowsky, who says the track is “questionable.” Someone at AccuWeather needs to give AOL a call.
Failure to dial back some of these over-the-top headline may cause some consumers to lose faith in weather predictions.
Boston broadcast meteorologist Eric Fisher had it exactly right when he told TVNewsCheck the following in a feature on network news weather hype: “The headlines are desensitizing actual weather risk. My fear is what is going to happen when we have a genuine historic storm.”