Thoughts about TV Tornado "Documentaries"
NOTICE: The following essay contains my opinions - comments and arguments can be sent to me at email@example.com.
Posted: 25 March 2006 Updated: 01 March 2010 - added a link to a detailed analysis of one crockumentary example.
As a consequence of being a severe weather scientist and a storm chaser, I've been asked on many occasions to contribute to TV science "documentaries" about tornadoes and storm chasing by the program producers. It may be news to some that TV stations (including those on cable - e.g. Discovery Channel, Discovery Science Channel, History Channel, A&E, National Geographic, and so on) generally do not produce their own documentaries. Instead, this work is contracted out to production companies, who do the filming and editing of the footage for the program, according to some specifications set by the TV station. Production companies hire camera and sound crews, directors, editors, etc., to put together the so-called “documentaries” you see on TV.
Over the years, I’ve participated in more than 10 and perhaps as many as 20 or more such programs, typically as an “expert” appearing in interviews. The way it works is that I'm contacted by a representative of the production company doing the program and asked to help them out. My experiences with this have become increasingly frustrating, to the point where I'm basically not going to do it anymore.
I feel a compulsion to share my frustrations with anyone who reads this, in order that they might understand better the nature of these so-called “documentaries”. Let me suggest that some of these programs are better than others, but in my experience, those having to do with tornadoes and severe storms consistently have been inferior to those on other subjects, including other geophysical hazards. I don’t understand why this is so, but that’s my opinion - when I compare the content for tornado documentaries to those done on similar subjects (geophysical hazards such as volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and even hurricanes), the tornado programs consistently are inferior.
An obvious suspicion my readers might have is that this opinion is simply because I know more about tornadoes than the content of those other programs. I admit this might be a possibility, but I hope to convince you that this isn't just paranoia, but rather some sort of bias in the process of commissioning and producing “documentaries” about tornadoes. I call them “crock-umentaries” because they are mostly a crock … of crap. I've done a detailed analysis of the gaffes in one example, just to illustrate my viewpoint, here.
I've written elsewhere about my problem with TV (and other media) journalism nowadays. These crock-umentaries are supposed to be, at least in principle, a form of journalism. What I was taught about journalism was that a reporter was supposed to go out and interview people as part of an effort that could be called “research” and the story would then emerge out of what was learned during that research phase. In other words, you couldn't write the story until you'd done the research.
Contrary to such this idealized process, I find that production companies already have the story written before their research even begins. They've decided the “angle” the story is going to follow and nothing I say or do seems capable of swaying their determination to produce the story that way. The goal of the production crew's "research" - at least insofar as I see it - is to film “soundbites” (with me as a “talking head” and my title superimposed on the bottom of the screen) they can use to substantiate the story as it has been written. They’re definitely and consistently not seeking to understand the story first on the basis of what they learn by interviewing me. I’m simply there to give credibility to their story. If my interview fails to produce the soundbites they’re looking for, then my interview winds up not appearing at all in their crock-umentary.
The producers at times have inflated my scientific importance (inadvertently or not) - in one interview, I was identified as the Director of the National Severe Storms Laboratory! If I can be made to seem more important that I really am, this inaccuracy makes their story even more credible, at least in their eyes. Forget the embarrassment that such gaffes might cause me with my scientific colleagues. Ignore the truth in favor of the hyperbole. My reason for being on their show is to lend my implicit support to the story they're trying to tell. I'm not there to tell a story of my own - oh, no.
The “color” of the interviewee is also important - and I'm not talking about skin color. The fact that I usually wear a cowboy hat and can occasionally spit out a colorful turn of phrase is in my “favor” with the production team. The fact that my explanations are often not 5-second soundbites is definitely not “favorable” with them. Scientists tend to qualify virtually everything they say, because they want people to understand the true nature of scientific understanding - they want to make certain to avoid an overly strong statement that's unwarranted by the evidence. What the producers usually want is a 5-second version of science without long-winded qualifications. lead-ins, or excess information. It's difficult to say much in 5 seconds. Try it.
I once asked an interviewer about that and I was told that the audience should be thought of as a group of 12-year olds, with extremely limited attention spans. This struck me as profoundly disrespectful of the very people they are purporting to “inform”. When I worked for NOAA, I was often told similar things by the agency PR personnel - distill your message into soundbites and don't use words with more than two syllables. It strikes me this attitude has become a self-fulfilling prophecy - if you only offer simplified explanations suitable for a mythical idiot 12-year old, the recipients are never asked to think. TV is obviously all about putting eyeballs in front of the advertisements, and has little or nothing to do with public education or offering information to the viewers, whatever pious proclamations they might offer. TV reveals open contempt for the people who support TV stations by patronizing their advertisers. Everything has to be done at an MTV sort of pace, passing by in short 5-second bursts and moving on to the next one in a machine gun-like ratta-tat-tat.
This is what sells, I’m told. This is precisely what the American public wants, they say. I’m not convinced. The phenomenal success of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series suggests to me that television programs need not all be patterned after MTV or a video game for subteenagers. I don’t believe that quality documentaries that actually contain useful information about science are necessarily going to be unsuccessful in the eyes of the American public. I don’t believe that the public should be treated like 12-year olds. The fact that they've been so treated for decades might have accustomed them to this sort of crap, and perhaps even to expect it, but it doesn’t preclude a positive reaction to a serious effort to inform them about scientific subjects and the true character of scientific understanding. I think there's a deep well of public interest in learning about the natural world that is basically untapped by the existing assumptions of crock-umentary producers.
Of late, virtually every producer, or rather the director of the production team, has assured me that with this crew, it will be different. Unlike all their predecessors, this crew is dedicated to telling the story correctly, accurately, and with respect for both the audience and the science. This virtually always turns out to be an outright lie. When I challenge them about that after the lousy program they produced actually airs, they always point the finger at someone else. It was someone else who forced them to subvert the science in preference for the same old “disaster porn,” misrepresentations, and disinformation that fills these crock-umentaries. “It wasn’t our fault!” I’m told. Balderdash. This is simply being two-faced and avoiding any real responsibility for what they do. If the program the production company makes sells, and the ratings are high, that's all they care about. Period.
What do I mean by this term? I’ve seen scads of tornado-related crock-umentaries, filled with footage of weeping victims with a close-up camera shoved in their face after a tornado has devastated their lives, faked or staged "dramatic" re-enactments about individual actions, interviews with eyewitnesses who have either failed to grasp what they saw or are openly lying about what they experienced, and so on. All the time, the footage from real storms is shown with no regard for accuracy - people describing experiences with a particular tornado while the footage from a completely different day and place is showing, footage from several tornadoes intercut with special effects simulated tornadoes, and so on. Yes, the public likely doesn’t know or perhaps even care about such details, but this inherent dishonesty is part of a pattern. It’s not about the storms or informing the viewers. It's about money - whatever sells.
In a recent program, the crock-umentary even included a fictional mini-drama about an emergency manager and his family during a hypothetical tornado event, apparently done with actors. This may have increased the drama for the viewers, but it conveyed no useful information. It’s little more than a typical Hollywood fictional film, not a documentary! What informative value could this charade offer to the public?
When I confronted the distribution company who was marketing this awful program, they pointed their finger at the production company. Whatever egregious crap the program contained wasn't their fault. But at the same time, on their website, the distribution company was extolling the partnership they had with that production company because of the high quality of the programs they produced. As noted, having two faces is a way of life in the TV industry.
The crock-umentary producers of late seem obsessed with the notion of an F6 tornado, so they’re constantly conjuring up “mega-tornado” and "Super tornado" scenarios that are unprecedented - "freak" events, if you will. Isn’t a plain old devastating F5 tornado dramatic enough? Apparently not. By such standards, an F4 tornado would be so uninteresting as to be not even worth discussing (unless it goes through your neighborhood!). Perhaps there’s something in American culture that’s responsible for this sort of obsession, but it seems grotesque and stupid to me. The same thing is happening with other geophysical hazards, such as volcanoes (“Super-volcanoes”), tsunamis (“Mega-tsunamis”), and hurricanes (“Hyper-canes”). The fact that such things are even remotely possible is certainly interesting, but why does an event need to be “off the scale” to be considered worth mentioning in a documentary? There are very real threats from tornadoes that are rather “ordinary” and well within the range of things we already know about - events well short of being gargantuan, unprecedented “freak” tornadoes are quite capable of producing major disasters.
It seems the public has an insatiable appetite for disasters. A friend of mine suggested that someone should start up a “Disaster Channel” that would run continuous disaster porn - it likely would be a runaway success. Can we saturate the public’s appetite for this garbage? I certainly hope so, but ... who knows? Apparently, the recent program I just mentioned had terrific ratings, so they're planning on doing a 6-part series on the subject! Since ratings are the point, that simply confirms what I'm saying.
As I've mentioned briefly elsewhere, media presentations (especially Hollywood movies like Twister and The Day After Tomorrow) regarding the weather (and other hazards) are rife with inaccuracies, distortions, and outright errors. I'm told that no one except for meteorologists cares about scientific errors in weather movies or even recognizes such things. It's quite likely that's true. Besides, everyone knows that Hollywood movies are not reality - although if one knows nothing about a subject, it might be tempting to accept Hollywood's version in the absence of any other information. When a viewer knows nothing about the reality behind some Hollywood movie, the default assumption is that there must be truth in the movie. This default assumption allows Hollywood movies to be a consistent source of misinformation, sadly. But at least Hollywood generally makes little pretense about being truthful - no one truly expects Hollywood movies to be the place to turn for accurate information about anything. However, when it comes to TV "documentaries," the premise of the program is that it's presenting factual information. In crock-umentaries, that's the clear message, but the typical misinformation can be as egregious as in a purely fictional Hollywood movie. "Does this hurt anyone?" I'm asked.
In my experience, when I know something about the subject being presented as news or in a TV documentary, I've seen that "journalists" covering such things are distorting reality, at best, and utterly devastating it, at worst. These crock-umentaries about tornadoes only differ from each other in the extent to which they have distorted reality - they virtually never get it totally right. This suggests to me that a lot of what I see on TV on subjects I know relatively little about is similarly rife with such misleading or outright incorrect "information" (see here) . But when I see programs about tornadoes, it seems that producers are almost always at their worst . Scientific content of tornado crock-umentaries is always minimal - they make little or no effort to tell a scientific story. I've seen many science documentaries on other topics where scientists get to tell an extended story about how scientific knowledge came about and what it means. Tornado crock-umentaries never seem to provide such scientific narratives. Instead, they show shock video, cheezy special effects, "B-roll" trivia, and disaster porn. I don't know why this is the case, but it seems to be an unwritten rule of tornado programming on TV - perhaps it's copy-cat tactics by the production companies when disaster porn has worked in previous programs.
It's been argued that no one but a few of us are aware of these inaccuracies and distortions, so why should these details matter? If this was about Hollywood movies, which are nothing more than shameless entertainment, I could at least attempt to forgive this. No one goes to Hollywood for reality because reality is boring. Why pay good money to be bored? People go to Hollywood to escape from reality. Fine. But do they watch "documentaries" to accomplish a similar escape? I don't think so. At least I hope not. I believe that people really want to learn from these programs. But the producers are consistently pandering to the lowest common denominator amongst their viewers - the disaster junkies who apparently have an insatiable appetite for the bizarre and the extreme, and are bored by anything less. Is this characteristic of the entire American public? I surely hope not! In fact, I refuse to believe it.
The story of tornado and tornado climatology science
I deal in extreme weather. I have a passion for it, myself. But I want my experiences with it and understanding of it to be based on reality - not some stupid, hyped-up version, but a real version that I can see and experience. I want to do my best to understand that extreme weather and to learn how it actually comes about. Not some oversimplified version that a 12-year old can understand - the full, unvarnished complexity. I'm awed and humbled by what I've learned about the atmosphere. If it was easy enough to learn in a few sound bites, it simply wouldn't be interesting to me. I don't need some bullshit version of reality to be impressed. The real world is quite impressive enough! We've learned a lot about tornadoes and the storms that produce them since my interest in storms developed (before age 12). There's a good story about how that understanding developed and what it depended on. There are interesting people involved in the science and I think the public would be fascinated to learn a few things about severe storm and tornado science - not just view some brief animations (often screwed-up) of how some TV producer thinks storms work, with a "talking head" offering up a few dramatic soundbites (selected not by the scientist but by the production crew).
What I've learned tells me that if you wait long enough, most of the region between the Rockies and the Appalachians will experience a violent (F4 or F5) tornado. And even east of the Appalachians, such events are not only possible - they have occurred before and will happen again! F4-F5 tornadoes can produce terrible destruction. More terrible than most people can comprehend. Security from natural hazards is an illusion that can kill you. It doesn't require a mythical F6 tornado to accomplish this. F4-F5 tornadoes are not "freak" weather events - they become inevitable if you wait long enough in most parts of the United States (US). I think the story of tornado climatology is relatively easy to understand and important enough that most people in the tornado-prone region of the US (and around the world) should be aware of it. And they should understand how we scientists managed to learn about past events - the data and their limitations, how they can be interpreted, and so on.
Spewing lies, distortions, and misinformation can only perpetuate ignorance and apathy. I want US citizens (and even those in other parts of the world where tornadoes are possible) to know and appreciate the real tornado risk and to plan for such an event, with a proper understanding of how likely it really is. Fear can be a wonderful motivator, but I believe these crock-umentaries promote the idea that tornado disasters are somehow "freak" events that don't represent a threat to real people in real situations. The fact is that real tornado disasters will eventually occur even when gargantuan extreme events are not involved, and the only question of importance is whether the people who experience such terrible events were prepared ... or not. Being unprepared can literally be a death sentence, and there are bad things short of death that can happen - for instance, terrible injuries that leave one physically handicapped for life, or financial ruin when everything you own has been snatched from you in a few awful seconds. I've written about such things elsewhere.
Do I really care about getting an accurate message to the public? Damned right I do!
It matters to me that my science has consistently been misrepresented in these crock-umentaries. Let me give a particularly compelling example. After the tornadoes of 26 April 1991, a video was shown suggesting that seeking shelter under highway overpasses was an appropriate thing to do. Certain TV "journalists" then working in Kansas received prizes and financial rewards for this, but my colleagues and I predicted at the time that people would die as a result. That prediction sadly came to pass on 3 May 1999 - 3 people died and many others were injured as a direct result of that video being aired over and over to the point where people became convinced that overpasses were appropriate tornado shelters. After that terrible day in 1999, some of us tried to spread the word that this was wrong, but the damage has been done and it may take decades before we can reverse the terrible consequences of the acts by some irresponsible TV "journalists." This video has been aired many times in crock-umentaries, and in a few cases it has been stated that seeking shelter under an overpass is not the right thing to do, but if a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth 100 thousand words - the video is far more influential than the spoken words. Showing this video simply reinforces this potentially fatal error. If "documentaries" don't get the message out correctly, then the potential outcome is death and injury.
Does getting the science right in TV programming really matter? Damned right it does!
So after I've agreed to help out a production crew, what happens next? They inevitably want to bring in a camera and sound team, perhaps with a team "director" who will have a list of things s/he wants from me, in terms of questions to answer and scenes to be shot. In addition to the interview, they typically want a so-called "B-roll" which contains footage of me doing something - sitting at my computer, driving my car, standing somewhere looking around as if I'm scanning the sky, or whatever. Shooting all of this typically takes up at least half a day, including having to change tapes and batteries, setting up the shots, adjusting the lighting and the sound, etc.
One time, I had a crew literally tagging along with me during a storm chase for a full week. They were a colossal annoyance the whole time, sticking a camera in my face constantly and needing all sorts of attention while I'm trying to manage a storm chase, which is no easy task even when it has your undivided attention. And, naturally, the result of that week's worth of hassle was two 5-second soundbites on the lousy show they produced. And those soundbites were simply offhand remarks made while driving down the road with a cameraman in the front seat. All the serious science I tried to get into the program during all that filmed interview time? - it wound up on the editing room floor and never aired. The team director apologized to me just before the program aired, explaining that the producers changed their mind about what the program was going to be about, effectively denying he had any say in how the program was produced - it wasn't his fault! As already noted, everyone blames someone else for the shameless garbage these production companies generate.
Many times, before and after the actual filming of the interview, there are numerous phone calls and e-mails that take up lots more of my time. These production companies seem to have a plethora of questions - often stupid ones (not always, though) - that need answered, and then they dream up new ones on a frequent basis. The total time spent dealing with them can run into the equivalent of several days. Of course, all this time, they're reassuring me that with them, the result is going to be different from the crap that other crews may have produced when they worked with me. In other words, they're lying to me constantly, as well as taking up huge amounts of me time.
The part that drives me absolutely bananas is these folks inevitably act as if they're doing me a favor, not the other way around. I never get offered compensation for my time, nor do they even apologize for all my time they've wasted with this crap. It seems that I'm supposed to be so excited that my friends are going to see me on TV, that will make up for any inconvenience or time lost on their behalf. They hold out the carrot that I might actually have the chance to get at least some of what matters to me as a scientist on the air, to the point of actually filming that material. But since I have no control over what they're going to choose to use from the hours of shooting they did, the real odds of that material being seen are slim to nonexistent. I often wonder what happens to that vast quantity of footage they shot with me trying to offer some scientifically-sound material to offset the disaster porn. I assume the tapes are recycled eventually, after the show airs.
If I'm allowed to preview the program before it airs, which almost never happens, should I raise any objections, the chances are quite good those will simply be brushed aside. There's no interest in accuracy - misleading statements, outright errors, and stupid, potentially embarrassing moments caught on my interview they want to use - those won't be changed.
They aren't doing me a favor - they're using me. Plain and simple. And they'll do the same to anyone else.
Irresponsible Storm Chasers .. For what it's worth, I've seen many young storm chasers (and a few older ones) exploited by these "journalists" and production crews for the purposes of the interviewer, which often include reinforcing the image of all storm chasers as irresponsible lunatics, a theme that's run extensively through tornado crock-umentaries over the years. If they can stimulate an interviewee to admit to something irresponsible or to say something wild, so much the better its chances of being aired. If the story is built around the premise of chasers as lunatics, then anything that supports the premise will be given top priority in the editing. The wilder, the better. Sadly, the notion that appearing on TV somehow means that you've become "famous" is too seductive for foolish chasers whose primary goal seems to be to draw attention to themselves for their chasing exploits rather than to see and enjoy storms - as my friend Gene Moore describes it, for such people, it's not about storms, it's about them. Such chasers are easy prey for 'journalists' wishing to exploit them for the sake of the pre-determined message of chasers as essentially deranged.
Dealing with production companies is frustrating enough, so why not just turn them away? The argument against this is based on the likely correct observation that if serious scientists refuse to have anything to do with them, the production companies will always be able to find someone to do those interviews. Why not at least have a chance to get a proper message across from a responsible scientist? My current state of mind leads me to the conclusion that this viewpoint is hopeless - even if my few seconds of airtime does somehow manage to contain some tidbit of useful and accurate information, it will almost always be surrounded by thick helpings of balderdash on either side of my soundbite. That brief moment will be overwhelmed by the vast majority of the program's misinformation content. And other similar programs will also provide a flood of counterbalancing misinformation. My finger in the dike is not going to prevent that. It's simply not possible to get any substantial science message across in soundbites. No matter how adept someone might be at doing so, there just aren't enough soundbites in the typical crock-umentary to say anything of substance. All that happens is I get more upset. It's not worth it anymore.
My present strategy is that from now on, if I'm going to be involved in some program about tornadoes and chasing, they're going to have to agree up front to pay my consulting fees at my regular hourly rate. Perhaps if they have to pay for my involvement, they might choose to take my consultations seriously. And if they're going to waste my time, it won't be for free anymore. At least if I'm going to be embarrassed by the content, I'll be reasonably well-compensated for it!
I suspect most of them will go elsewhere, however. They always can find a sucker who's willing to be exploited for nothing in exchange for the dubious privilege of seeing him/herself on TV, or a government expert who can't be paid, by law, if they consume his/her time. Fine. If they leave me alone, the tactic will have worked. I'm quite content to let someone else become dubiously "famous" for appearing on the next tornado crock-umentary. They won't be exploiting my name and scientific reputation to sell Budweiser, Toyotas, and mortgage loans from Di-Tech (Mentioning brand names does not constitute an endorsement on my part.)!