Joe Crain has been a meteorologist at WICS NewsChannel 20 in Springfield, Ill., for 15 years. He holds a degree in broadcast meteorology from Mississippi State. He’s a go-to source for severe weather coverage and is widely trusted by viewers.
And, on Monday, he might not have a job to return to.
The reason? Crain criticized his station’s initiative to implement “code red” days in their forecasts. Meteorologists at his station and other affiliates also owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group are encouraged to declare code red or weather alert days. Crain alleged he was forced into the practice by corporate management and, during Wednesday morning’s broadcast, had had enough.
“Code red was created by likely a journalism school graduate,” said Crain as the live cameras rolled. “A lot of people not happy with this since we’ve implemented it. ... That’s evident by the thousands of comments on social media, letters to the editor, frequent calls to local talk-radio shows.”
Last week, a letter to the editor appeared in Springfield’s State-Journal Register, in which viewer Victor Edwards complained that he is “sick to death” of code red days.
“It would appear any cloud in the sky will warrant a ‘code red,’ ” wrote Edwards, arguing that the constant bombardment of code red days desensitizes the viewer — “like the boy who cried wolf. It makes the viewers skeptical of anything the weather people say."
Crain alluded to that effect in his since-viral forecast Wednesday, expressing sympathy for viewers fed up with the corporate-imposed hype.
“As far as the code red name itself goes, we get that, too,” Crain said. “When you hear ‘code red,’ you think, as they say, ‘the feces is about to hit the fan.’ ” That all culminated into an apology he offered to the viewers.
“I take my job seriously and my responsibility to the public,” lamented Crain, clearly upset that code red days have taken a toll on the credibility he spent a decade and a half earning from viewers. “We want you to know it’s not us. This is a corporate initiative: the code red alert. Behind the scenes, many of us have tried to dissuade it for the last few months.”
Crain’s segment concluded on a slightly more hopeful note, urging viewers to double down on their efforts.
“Despite the fact that this facility is owned by a corporation, it’s still licensed under the authority by the Federal Communications Commission to serve the public interest, convenience and necessity. You still have a voice. Keep those cards and letters coming.”
Sinclair Broadcast Group, however, is standing firm in their decision to push code red alerts. In a statement to The Washington Post, public relations officer Ronn Torossian wrote that “we’re glad they [issued a code red]. That afternoon there was significant storm damage in the area including trees falling on homes, downed power lines, and hail storms. Thankfully, residents were adequately warned to prepare.”
About a dozen reports of damaging winds in Illinois were reported to the Storm Prediction Center, as well as one report of hail.
Sinclair’s statement says that the seemingly constant red alert days are just the product of an active weather pattern “given the severe weather-related events across the country in recent weeks.” They say that the decision of whether to issue a red alert is made by local meteorologists — at odds with what Crain stated in his video.
Crain was not seen delivering the weather on air Thursday morning, and his bio has since been removed from the company site. Torossian declined to discuss Crain’s employment status Friday afternoon, stating that “our policy is to not comment on individual personnel matters.”
Thousands have taken to social media to express their support for Crain. Some have pledged to boycott the station, while others are urging local advertisers to pull their ads.
According to the State-Journal Register, at least four local businesses pulled advertising from WICS-TV.
It’s not just viewers and local businesses who have Crain’s back. Meteorologists across the country are outraged.
“Let meteorologists do their job,” said Erik Dean, chief meteorologist at K2TV in Casper, Wyo. “Management needs to stay out of it. That’s what they have meteorologists for.”
Crain’s not alone in fighting pushback from management. Dean has run into similar issues in the past.
“I had a news director years ago that would want us to blow it up for three or four snowflakes.” Dean said he now works with a news director whom he “[loves] to death.” He was tasked with writing his own criteria for what constitutes an alert or impact day, and declaring one is his discretion — not management’s.
“I just update them at the 2 p.m. news meeting if we’ve got something going on. Otherwise, it’s up to [the meteorologists.] That’s how it should be.”
Other meteorologists aren’t a fan of proprietary alert days to begin with, expressing reluctance toward alerts that don’t originate from the National Weather Service.
“To me, the best option is communicating the risks issued by the Storm Prediction Center,” wrote Kit Cloninger, weekend meteorologist at KSNB in Hastings, Neb. “It’s simple, and consistency is key with broadcasting. Otherwise, viewers may wonder why one station issued an ‘alert day’ while another one didn’t.”
Jamie Moker, a University of Arizona researcher working on improving weather modeling, agrees.
“Branding is not universal across all stations,” he wrote. After all, the National Weather Service already has more than 100 types of weather alerts it can issue. Moker argued that the solution isn’t for stations to create more alerts but to work on communicating existing ones.
“The National Weather Service’s mission is to protect life and property,” he wrote. “The Sinclair code red is to grab attention from viewers, which gets them more money.”
Moker says he’d be more open to code red days if Sinclair were to share what their thresholds are, but he said he doubts that will happen. “A lot of those indices are proprietary, so scientists like us cannot scrutinize and evaluate their performance.”
Clarification: This article was updated to clarify it was Crain who alleged “code red” is a corporate mandate. Sinclair Broadcast Group maintains meteorologists are given discretion as to whether to issue code reds or other weather alerts.