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Opinion News organizations are embarrassing themselves with terrible tropical weather reporting

For the last week or so, forecasting the weather in the tropical Atlantic Ocean has been a bit of an adventure. Communicating it to the public has been even harder.

Yet just when circumstances call for conveying a nuanced and carefully crafted message, some media organizations are making this impossible by pushing out scary and totally false information to their millions of followers.

It’s irresponsible and needs to stop.

The Daily Mail wins the prize for the most appalling tropical weather reporting. In a tweet and corresponding online story published Monday morning, it totally botched describing what is happening in the tropics. So much is wrong with its reporting that it is hard to know where to begin.

Its tweet says “Hurricane Gaston strengthens in Florida Straights causing warnings.” Hurricane Gaston is in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, nowhere near the Florida Straits, and no threat to any land. There are no warnings associated with this storm.

In the tweet’s corresponding story, everything about its opening paragraph, or its lede, is erroneous: “A tropical storm warning has been issued for the coast of North Carolina and Florida as Hurricane Gaston barrels towards the coast with 120mph winds.”

To begin, a tropical storm watch, not a warning, is in effect for the Outer Banks of North Carolina. As for Florida, there are no tropical storm watches or warnings in effect. And again, Tropical Depressions 8 and 9 may affect these two states, not Hurricane Gaston.

The story, published early Monday morning, wasn’t revised and corrected until late Monday afternoon.

The flurry of flawed tropical weather reporting started Friday with USA Today when it tweeted: “Florida braces for a double whammy: Hurricane watch and #Zika virus.” A hurricane watch has a very specific meaning — that at-least-tropical-storm-force winds could begin within 48 hours — and there was no watch in effect. In fact, at that very moment, the National Hurricane Center was lowering its probabilities that a tropical depression or storm would form within 48 hours.

USAToday’s weather editor, Doyle Rice, admitted the tweet was “a boo-boo on our part” and that it was written by a “social media editor” who did not know the meaning of the term. It appears to have been deleted.

But USA Today, just Monday morning, sent out a second misleading tweet. The text of the tweet, “Two separate tropical depressions are threatening the East and Gulf Coasts” is fine, but the accompanying image shows a full-fledged hurricane bearing down on the Carolinas rather than an image of either (or both) depression(s). This is deceptive and may needlessly scare residents and vacationers.

It later issued a correction.

Over the weekend, another major media organization, NBC Nightly News, incorrectly tweeted that “Hurricane churning in the Atlantic threatens to dump heavy rain on Florida amid Zika fears,” when that was not the case. It subsequently corrected the tweet.

These media organizations need to radically tighten up their fact-checking of tropical weather information, especially on social media. Somebody who has experience covering U.S. tropical weather needs to vet information before it is pushed out.

If there is no one in these newsrooms who has some weather competency, they have no business reporting on it. (Of course, we know USA Today and NBC News have experienced weather staff; they need to be engaged in social media dissemination.)

In putting out false or misleading information, these organizations are doing the public a disservice and making it much harder for responsible, trusted weather experts to do their jobs. Weather fact-checking must be a much higher priority than it currently is.