Irresponsible Media Storm Chase Practices


Roger Edwards and Chuck Doswell

NOTICE: The following essay contains the opinions of the authors only, and these opinions do not represent those of our respective employers. We have posted this to provoke thoughtful discussion and learning on this matter. For an interesting comment on our essay, see the Reply by KWTV meteorologist, Paul Bouchereau

As more and more chasers head out to the plains each spring to "feast on the smorgasbord of atmospheric violence," the roadways get more crowded and hazardous near storms. This is a well-known trend, discussed in several other forums. Yes, there are irresponsible bozos out there who have no business chasing, and who don't represent some TV station. However, we want to spotlight a particularly dangerous trend of behavior we see among those in the broadcast media who cover severe storms for their newscasts.

A brief news clip hidden in the 17 May 1991 edition of the Wichita Eagle documented a wreck the day before by a two-man KSNW-3 crew out of Wichita. They were driving down a slick gravel road and lost control while trying to catch up with a tornadic, softball size hail-producing supercell. Luckily for them, only the reporter had minor injuries, and the accident was soon forgotten by most.

We and other storm chasers have witnessed hazardous and blatantly illegal actions by TV crews attempting to chase severe thunderstorms; and we know of several other such incidents.

On 5 May 1993 in southwest Kansas, someone representing an Oklahoma City TV station was observed by several chasers to be driving nearly 100 mph, and crossing private fields. Already on edge by the violent tornadoes moving across their jurisdictions, that incident prompted local police to arrest (but later release without charge) well-respected, responsible storm chaser Jon Davies, who had no part in the reckless idiocy out there.

In the Spring 1995 issue of The Weather Bulletin, William Reid describes a near head-on collision caused by a swerving, speeding TV chase crew in southwest Oklahoma, and witnessed by Dean Cosgrove.

In April of 1995, Dave Ewoldt encountered a chaser for Channel 4 in Oklahoma City (the same one mentioned below whose irresponsible and inaccurate descriptions alarmed citizens falsely) blocking traffic by literally parking on the highway (a 2-lane road); he was out of his vehicle with his camera on a tripod on the highway. Dave was barely able to avoid a major collision with this thoughtless bozo.

On 7 May 1995, while leaving a southwest Oklahoma squall line, Bobby Prentice and Roger Edwards were passed by a marked KTWV-9 (Oklahoma City) vehicle traveling at least 80 mph eastward on US-62 on the west edge of Lawton. There was no apparent motivation for this, besides the fact that the TV crew may have been "chasing" damage much farther east at Ardmore, where a tornado had just hit.

On 22 May 1995, Chuck Doswell was cut off by a red and white "Channel 4 News Team" vehicle near Shamrock, Texas, which drove right through a stop sign to accomplish this feat. Then they pulled out into a construction-barricaded left lane on I-40 to pass a slow vehicle illegally. Chuck was unable to ascertain either the license plate number or for what "Channel 4" they were chasing.

These are but some of the sad examples of how the actions of the few contribute to a bad perception of the whole chase community. Although we acknowledge that non-media chasers also have done some stupid things, what is so disturbing about these media-committed incidents is that they were caused by those whose self-assigned responsibility is to inform and protect the same citizens whose lives they threaten by their recklessness! The first time a TV chase crew seriously injures or kills someone, the "greater good" of "informing the public" will be no consolation to the victims and their families. Increasing the ratings by having the first and closest tornado video on the evening news and airing promos of those gleaming Emmys apparently are more important than the public safety these media outlets claim to serve. In the process, it appears that for this group of irresponsible media chasers, it's just fine to commit crimes like speeding, reckless driving, and trespassing -- whatever it takes to scoop the competition.

What other kinds of accountability to the TV crews have, if not to the law? In one notorious incident, they apparently are not responsible for integrity or accuracy either. One individual, who was suspended by KFOR-4 in Oklahoma City for alarming citizens with false descriptions of tornado devastation in Ryan on 8 May 93, was later reinstated and subsequently won an Emmy for his storm "reporting!" This revolting double-standard only encourages others to follow the same sorry example, and put even more people in danger.

A serious part of the problem here is experience and knowledge. TV chase crews are putting themselves at even greater risk than other chasers, even if they actually do practice good driving habits. Some TV news crews assigned to cover severe storms have little or no knowledge of storm structure and morphology, which can thrust them into extreme danger before they realize it. Lack of both safe storm chasing experience and meteorological knowledge are increasingly common, especially among TV chase crews. It takes much, much more than some one-night spotter training session or "Terrible Twisters" show to teach the thunderstorm concepts and field strategy needed for responsible spotting and chasing. It surely won't be long before some eager-beaver reporter blindly leads his crew right into a rain-wrapped tornado. We believe it is extremely fortunate that nobody has been killed in the last 10 years while chasing, especially considering the sheer increase in numbers of human lightning rods congregating around supercells. That risk may be magnified for TV crews, with their tall antennae and plethora of electronics.

Conscientious chasers have a responsibility to discourage and help prevent unsafe behavior in other chasers, if storm chasing is to survive as a legal hobby. There are enough inherent hazards already; reckless behavior should not be tolerated. For many other reasons besides this, at least one member of each chase team should thoroughly document their trips in the form of video or (preferably) tape-recorded logs for later written transcription. As a side benefit, chase logs are very handy to document traffic crimes and hazards created by irresponsible yahoos. Media or otherwise, any blatantly illegal and/or dangerous driving should be reported to county and state law enforcement, at the earliest reasonable opportunity. The report should include the description and license plate number of the violator, as well as the time and location of the problem. This is only a minor inconvenience for the sake of public safety.

One possibility would be to write the news director of the offending station and detail the illegal and/or irresponsible acts committed by their news team, preferably including licence plate numbers so the particular crew can be identified. If a station does not seem concerned about the actions of their crews, another possibility presents itself. Because media outlets are very conscious of their public image (for obvious reasons), concise letters to editors of newspapers in the violator's media market, detailing the violations, may help also. This brings the station under immediate, unfavorable public scrutiny. It's no secret that the print media do not particularly like their broadcast counterparts, thereby subtly enhancing the chances that such a letter would be published.

We are not on a crusade to "get" the media, but we have seen too many examples where some of the TV chase crews have acted as though they are "above the law" and are free to do whatever they feel it takes to get their story. The responsible storm chaser has a moral obligation to react strongly and negatively to irresponsible behavior, no matter who commits the act. It is particularly galling to see media teams who piously pronounce their dedication to the public good on one hand and who callously disregard the law and common courtesy in their need to get air time, media awards, and market share. Not everyone in the media behave this way, so the irresponsible minority needs strong sanctions from within the media, as well, to protect the good name and integrity of those in the media who behave responsibly. We hope that responsible stations will come down hard and keep coming down on their irresponsible chase team members.