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Opinion: The press needs to stop sensationalising the weather

No matter what is reported by Met Éireann or any other weather forecaster around the globe, the media will report the worst-case scenario which scares citizens, writes David Fitzsimons.

David Fitzsimons

IN IRELAND IT rains a lot in winter and sometimes its pretty windy too. 

These are normal weather events but unfortunately, we are living through a global phenomenon – the sensationalising of weather alerts. 

At Retail Excellence, Ireland’s largest retail industry representative body, we have seen drops in footfall over the Christmas period which seems to be linked to exaggerated weather warnings. 

It is important to stress that we fully respect the work of Met Éireann and we really value the role the meteorological centre plays in ensuring the safety of citizens during adverse weather events.

But no matter what is reported by Met Éireann or indeed any other weather forecaster around the globe, the media will report the worst-case scenario which in turn scares some citizens into retreating into their homes.

An example of this occurred on a busy shopping weekend in the run-up to Christmas. On Thursday 13 December, Met Éireann reported that a status orange warning would apply nationwide from Friday evening through to Saturday evening.

On that Thursday, footfall reduced nationwide on a like by like basis by 8%, even though the alert had not yet come into effect.

A national tabloid then ran a headline the next day stating that 135 kmph winds would hit Ireland, even though those winds were actually forecast for an oil rig off the coast of Ireland, so that was out at sea!

Friday’s footfall reduced by 12% and Saturday by 23%. It is a fact that many parts of the country on Saturday 14th December experienced some rain and some wind, that said was a nationwide alert really appropriate?

It was entirely safe for people to go out, but having heard the alert, it seems that a significant proportion of people felt it was unsafe to do so.

At Retail Excellence we are most definitely not asking citizens to ignore weather alerts, we are asking them to listen more attentively and determine does the alert pertain to their location and is it safe to venture out.

It seems that some people hear an alert colour and no matter what the colour they believe themselves to be in danger.

We believe a few changes to weather reporting would be very beneficial to all concerned, while also protecting citizens from adverse weather conditions. 

There needs to be a far better interpretation of what each alert colour means. If you wake up on any given morning and hear that an orange alert has been issued by Met Éireann it would be common for people to check the Met Éireann website to see what this means.

The Met Éireann website will greet you with the following advice:“The issue of an orange level weather warning implies that all recipients in the affected areas should prepare themselves in an appropriate way,” it says. 

With all due respect, this offers no advice. People are generally perplexed, should I venture out, venture out with caution, or stay at home?

There needs to be far greater clarity as to what the alert means and whether it is safe to leave our homes on that given day.

There is also a real opportunity for Met Éireann to regionalise the warnings.

While there might be a warning and a colour alert is issued, it would be far more useful and less damaging to local economies if the alert could be applied specifically to the relevant parts of Ireland. 

In the case of the orange alert issued on Saturday 14 December, the south of the country did suffer high winds and some rain, but in many other parts of the country, we simply experienced a wet and windy Irish winter’s day.

The real problem is the media coverage of the warnings and that is totally outside of Met Éireann’s control.

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Some outlets are involved in sensationalising of weather, rather than reporting it. The print media have to fill papers after all – and radio stations also have airtime to be filled.

It is very common for the highest reported wind or the deepest snow to be run as the headline event, the incident where the wind speed was recorded on an oil rig off the coast of Ireland is not an isolated one. 

Then once the most extreme possible example has been selected, a headline is written which seems to be designed to shock the reader. 

Add to the mix that many people only read the headline and you have a perfect storm – of misinformation. 

Weather reporting and especially the publication of weather alerts should be taken seriously – it should not be sensationalised or “sexed-up” to sell papers. 

Rather than focus on the colour of the warning, it would be better if an in-depth and regionalised forecast was provided. 

Local economies up and down the country rely on local footfall and custom, especially at this time of the year.

If those local economies are safe from a severe weather event, we need to communicate that, otherwise, the economic consequences will be pretty dire.

David Fitzsimons is the Group Chief Executive at Retail Excellence. 

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David Fitzsimons

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