Star News - Connecting Our Communities

News Sickle Arrow NSA Black Earth Cross Plains

By Joe Block 

Around the Block


March 7, 2019

Photo contributed

About two weeks ago we were preparing for a wet weekend. Over an inch of rain was forecast, there was a good amount of snow on the ground, and Madison public works was warning people to clear storm drains to avoid urban flooding. Temperatures were expected to be near 40 (which would be welcome right now).

The Star News has an active Facebook presence, so I keep a Facebook tab open on my browser. In addition, I follow community pages, as well as the pages of other organizations in the area. I also follow Madison news organizations.

That Friday morning, I was greeted with the following headline from a prominent Madison news station (graphic to the right).

"6 months ago Wisconsin had record-breaking flooding, and now the National Weather Service is saying the state could be at risk again."

I am a bit of a weather junkie. I have a professional weather station and read the technical discussions by the local forecast office. I know what a Bufkit is, as well as precipitable water.

I had just read the forecast office's discussion that morning. It did indeed mention urban flooding-with the word "minor" preceding it. The discussion made clear there was no widespread flooding imminent for the weekend. Creeks and rivers were forecast to rise slightly, as is the case during a thaw event. Indeed, there was the possibility of minor street flooding in Madison due to clogged storm drains-that was it.

The National Weather Service Climatology office has just released their spring outlook, which noted a good chance for a wetter than normal spring. This prediction is given purely in percentages-that is, the percentage chance that it will be wetter. It does not indicate how wet it will be.

Somehow, these two reports from the National Weather Service prompted this headline.

The second half of the headline-that the state could be at risk for clouding in the spring-was quite accurate. But it was couched in language referencing the floods in August and September that affected nearly 7 counties. It goes without saying that it also references the flooding that took place on Black Earth Creek Aug. 20-21.

"6 months ago Wisconsin had record-breaking flooding...the state could be at risk again."

This was a demonstrably false statement. Moreover, it made direct reference to a one in a thousand-year flood event that ravaged the Black Earth Creek watershed, turning lives upside down in the Mazomanie and Black Earth areas. It at the very least implied-but really just about said-that such an event could happen again this spring.

Journalism works with facts. Everything you read in the Star News has been vetted not only for accuracy, but for basic truthfulness. There are times when it's necessary to run a correction, whether it is an unclear motion by a board, a reporter's mishearing of a statement, or even a simple typo. But the key here is that these mistakes happened after they have been initially fact-checked. I recently misstated the salary of an appointed position in a local community. In reviewing the audio of the meeting and my notes, I found that I mistook the slash in a dollar sign for a 1. In the recording, the audio was muffled, and I clearly misheard the statement. This happens.

It is entirely different when a news outlet takes information for the National Weather Service and demonstrably misconstrues it to create a false headline. Although I am reticent to attribute motive to such a headline, it appears to be what is called "clickbait." A headline designed to get "clicks" to the website, said in such a way to draw interest.

What drew my ire in this situation was not simply the misconstrued data, nor even the attempt to get clicks. It was the emotional effect this headline has on my residents and readers.

Over the past 6 months I've sat in board meetings where people expressed anger, frustration, and sadness over the flood. I've sat with counselors as people tell their stories, some starting out by saying "I didn't get it that bad," but then as they tell their story, emotion kicks in and you come to understand that the sentiment "I didn't get it that bad" doesn't belong in these discussions. Everyone was affected, regardless of "how bad."

I reached out to the news director of the media outlet that posted the headline and told them the simple truth: that headline scares people. It brings up horrible memories. It traumatizes them. And worst of all, it does so and it is false.

I never heard back from the news director. I did note in a follow up story on possible urban flooding that at the end of the piece, in capitals, it was stated that the minor urban flooding would not be on the scale of the August floods. Improvement, however incremental, is good. But journalism can't move incrementally. It has to be clear from the start.


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