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TV meteorology melds on-air experience with seals of approval

Sunday, February 09, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

As local television has grown more competitive over the years, weather has turned into the fiercest battleground, with stations trumpeting the accuracy of their forecasts and proclaiming their supremacy over rivals.

Somewhere along the way, stations started using the term "meteorologist" to describe their forecasters. Unlike a doctor or lawyer, there's no test or license required to call yourself a meteorologist.

In the weather community, the term "meteorologist" has become a point of contention, particularly in recent years with the advent of a distance learning program for a certificate in broadcast meteorology from several colleges, most notably Mississippi State University.

"It's upsetting to meteorologists when those out there are calling themselves meteorologists and they aren't," said Marisa Ferger, a meteorology instructor at Penn State University. "Meteorology isn't the easiest degree to get. It's all math and physics. When somebody with just a journalism background goes on the air and is called a meteorologist or is even called a weathercaster but plays the role of a meteorologist, I think that's when those of us who do have meteorology degrees become disgruntled."

So how does one define "meteorologist"?

Kevin Lavin, executive director of the National Weather Association, said even that isn't agreed upon universally.

"For a person on the air to call themselves a meteorologist or a station to force it on them, which happens, you don't know what is backing it up unless you study the person's biography," Lavin said. "We hope they have a degree in their back pocket in meteorology or atmosphere science. That's what we'd stress, but we can't enforce it."

Both the NWA and the American Meteorological Society offer a seal of approval for broadcasters.

The NWA seal requires two years of full-time experience or three years of part-time work. Candidates must submit a tape of two consecutive broadcasts and pass a closed book test. Every three years, seal holders must be recertified by submitting a letter discussing their efforts at continuing their education.

To receive the AMS seal, candidates must submit a tape of their work and hold a degree in meteorology or a related science, or have at least 20 semester credit hours in meteorology (12 in core courses) plus three of the last five years of experience in the field. In 2002, 160 people applied for the AMS seal, and 90 were granted.

Stephanie Kenitzer, public information officer for the AMS, said the seal process is under review.

"There's been a lot of communication and debate about recertifying folks," she said. "This is all part of the process of policing themselves. Those who have earned the seal want the seal to be credible."

In Pittsburgh, forecasters with a degree in meteorology or atmospheric science and the AMS seal are WPGH's Matt Morano and WTAE's Mike Brookins, Joe DeNardo and Jerry Martz. WPXI's Steve Teeling has a degree in earth science (with a concentration in meteorology) and the AMS seal.

Forecasters with a Mississippi State certificate and AMS seal are WTAE's Stephen Cropper and Don Schwenneker and WPXI's Julie Bologna.

At KDKA, which uses forecasts prepared by degree-bearing meteorologists at AccuWeather, Rebecca Hower and Jeff Verszyla are currently in the Mississippi State program. WPXI's Kevin Benson is also enrolled in that program.

A station biography for KDKA's Jon Burnett lists no formal weather training.

With the exception of WPGH, all stations subscribe to a forecasting service (National Weather Service forecasts and data are available to everyone). The amount of actual forecasting done by TV meteorologists varies by individual.

Jeff Morrow, a native of Hopewell with a meteorology degree from Penn State, offers forecasts on The Weather Channel. He said The Weather Channel identifies an on-air presenter as a "meteorologist" only if that person meets the AMS definition, which is consistent with requirements for the AMS seal.

"In some quarters, there is some snobbery involved," Morrow said of the degree- vs.-certificate debate. "They look down their noses and call it mail-order meteorology; you pay your money, you get your degree. It is more than that, though."

Mark Binkley, director of Mississippi State's three-year distance learning program in broadcast meteorology, said there's one primary difference between his certificate program and a meteorology degree.

"Basically, we eliminate a large percentage of the math, physics and chemistry. There's still enough for students to understand the concepts, but our courses are more geared toward application in meteorology rather than the theory of meteorology."

Students receive videotapes of courses and, after receiving the MSU certificate, are eligible to apply for the AMS seal.

"What we tell our students is they should not use the term 'meteorologist' until they've obtained one or both of those seals of approval," Binkley said. "We use the seals of approval as the certifying agency."

Pittsburgh TV stations do not routinely identify their weathercasters without an AMS seal as meteorologists.

Binkley said many people think of MSU's distance learning in the same terms of a correspondence course, but he said anyone who looks into it will see that it's a more serious program. He's also bullish on the prospect of the AMS re-evaluating its seal program and encourages the addition of a test.

"I'm willing to put the education of an MSU student against those from any other university, if we're talking about preparing a weather forecast," he said. "Some schools are into theory so heavy, the students are lacking in application. They can explain the theory behind why something happens, but may not be as comfortable preparing a daily weather forecast."

Ken Reeves, a meteorologist and director of forecast operations at AccuWeather in State College, said distance learning programs are more "fluffy" than degree programs.

"It doesn't deal quite so much in the hard physics, hard mathematics side of it," Reeves said. "They talk about forecasting the weather, but don't get into the nitty-gritty of how the atmosphere functions from a mathematics standpoint."

Reeves said that breeds an overreliance on computer models, which rely on equations to predict how the atmosphere will look at certain points in the future.

"Using science and math is extremely helpful to understand what the limitations are of those equations," he said. "It helps you delineate whether or not a particular computer model has any validity to it."

Reeves compared it to the difference between a Mr. Fix-It and a carpenter.

"If you're a fixer-upper at home, you might know how to use a miter box, but if you're a carpenter, you can make it do whatever you need it to do," he said. "You can use the tool more effectively if you have training in how to use the tool and make it function."

WTAE's DeNardo, who works with several Mississippi State-educated forecasters at Channel 4, said he admires those who didn't start in weather but sought an education through MSU's program.

"There's absolutely nothing wrong with that," DeNardo said, citing his training and experience after he received his graduate degree in meteorology as a key in developing his own forecasting skills. "I could have gone to 1,000 universities for meteorology, but you know what helped me more than anything? My four years in the Air Force, actually working with it."

The debate over what makes a meteorologist or even a better meteorologist won't end anytime soon. Penn State's Ferger acknowledged that the difference often comes down to the individual.

"The guy I interned for in Phoenix had a certificate from Mississippi State and I thought he knew a lot," she said. "I've met other people I don't find very impressive. A lot depends upon the person."


Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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