WEATHER AND NATURAL DISASTERS REPORTING
Weather reporting in Australia has evolved over the past 150 years, mostly in response to the emergence of new media, with the pace of change accelerating in the 21st century.
Newspapers were the first media to contain regular weather reports, first with past weather summaries and then, from the second half of the 19th century, with weather predictions.
On 5 February 1877, the first ‘weather map’—a synoptic chart—to be published in Australia was included on page 6 of the Sydney Morning Herald. The presentation was instantly popular, and synoptic charts became a permanent fixture of the Herald and steadily began appearing in other newspapers. When the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) was established in 1908, one of its functions was the preparation and dissemination to newspapers of synoptic charts and weather predictions.
In recent times, newspaper weather presentations have become increasingly sophisticated, appearing in all the major metropolitan dailies and containing a large amount of information on both past and forecast weather. Some presentations, such as those contained in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian, now occupy nearly a page. Newspapers also provide a platform for editorial and public criticism of forecasts, and in recent times this has extended to the issue of climate change.
The first Australian weather broadcast on radio seems to have been made in 1924, probably by Melbourne’s 3LO. Radio stations presented state weather broadcasts, working with the BOM’s divisional offices. Weather information was particularly appreciated by rural listeners, whose livelihood depended on it.
In the 1930s, radio also displayed its utility during natural disasters—for instance, in 1931 the fledgling 4BC Brisbane relayed reports from meteorologists, police and other officials when South-East Queensland was flooded; during catastrophic bushfires in Victoria and New South Wales in 1939, stations mobilised volunteers and solicited cars to evacuate stranded people.
It is not known how the public, or meteorologists, reacted to the launch of ‘Singing Weather Reports’ on 2CH Sydney in 1948. More important was the agreement by the BOM, in the second half of the 1950s, to the request of the ABC and commercial stations, led by 3AW Melbourne, to allow direct broadcasts from divisional offices. This innovation suited radio’s emphasis on immediacy and ‘actuality’ broadcasting, as it sought to compete with the new medium of television. With many local stations already part of formal post-war emergency-management plans, the spread of car radios and battery-powered transistors increased radio’s utility.
With the arrival of television in 1956, weather presentations to the public underwent another transformation, with the information displays usually provided by a dedicated weather presenter. In the early days of television, the ABC used meteorologists from the BOM as presenters. The best known was probably Alan Wilkie, who in 1968 was lured to ATN7. As time progressed meteorologists were replaced by professional television presenters, some of whom, such as Brian Bury, became ‘personalities’ in their own right; by the 1990s the figure of the ‘zany’ weather presenter was a fixture on commercial television.
Eventually, animated sequences of weather charts, together with ‘live’ radar and satellite imagery, become part of television presentations. Usually broadcast at the end of news bulletins, weather was amongst the highest rating of all segments. The Weather Channel was launched in 1999, later joining Foxtel.
Australia’s extreme weather conditions have always meant that on occasion reporting weather could be a matter of life and death. The Dandenongs bushfire of 1962, which was covered by reporters in cars and aeroplanes, resulted in perhaps the first substantive criticism 489 weekly newspapers of the role played by Australian broadcasters during a natural disaster. Television (and to a lesser extent radio) stations were accused of running reports that appeared to be no more than personal opinion, and of contributing to panic. Officials levelled similar allegations at ABC and commercial radio stations during bushfires in Tasmania in 1967 and 1982.
However, there was more of a consensus that broadcasting contributed to the public good. The fledgling Natural Disasters Organisation, governments and the press were shocked by the lack of communication that occurred during Cyclone Tracy in 1974, when the ABC and 8DN’s transmitters shut down. A special emergency-management conference in 1977 heard that disaster authorities must recognise the media’s need to obtain factual, authoritative information as soon as possible, and therefore must employ media liaison officers. Murray Nicolls’ reporting for 5DN Adelaide during the Ash Wednesday bushfires of 1983, as he watched his own house burn down, earned him a Walkley Award.
Since the mid-1990s, the distribution of weather information to the public has undergone a revolution. The internet provides virtually instant updates on data from automatic weather stations, radar and satellite imagery, and weather warnings. National weather services from around the world soon established home pages, and international information became readily available. The BOM’s website, http://www.bom. gov.au, typically attracts several million ‘hits’ per week, with massive spikes generated during severe weather events.
The internet and the refinement of mobile telephone technology and social media enable instant updates. Twitter and Facebook mean that the onset of severe weather such as hail and flash-flooding can be reported ‘as it happens’, often accompanied by images or videos. The speed of these updates is well ahead of the official weather-reporting capability of the national weather service, but it lacks quality control. This has created problems for the BOM, as there are concerns that content can be lost or skewed due to editing by non-meteorologists.
The growing amount of coverage due to the sharply rising availability of imagery has significantly raised the public profile of severe weather events, with two major examples being the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 and the Queensland floods of January 2011. This has helped raise public awareness of severe weather, with the result that communities generally are better prepared to handle its onset. Together with improved accuracy of weather prediction, this has helped to reduce mortality.
A good comparison is provided by tropical cyclones Tracy and Yasi (2011), which hit 40 years apart. Both cyclones were of similar strength, but 65 people lost their lives during Tracy, while there were no known deaths attributed to Yasi. The improved efficiency and accuracy of disaster reporting have likely contributed to this.
REFs: R. Whitaker, Australia’s Natural Disasters (2005) and Understanding Climate Change (2008).