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More criticism for Sinclair over 'code red' weather warnings

Meteorologist Joe Crain who was fired by WICS-TV, a Sinclair-owned station in Illinois, after he called out the company for what he characterized as the excessive use of "code red" weather warnings at his station.
Meteorologist Joe Crain who was fired by WICS-TV, a Sinclair-owned station in Illinois, after he called out the company for what he characterized as the excessive use of "code red" weather warnings at his station. (CNN screengrab)

The Baltimore-based Sinclair Broadcast Group has been in the news the last two weeks for the controversial firing of a meteorologist at one of its stations who called out the company on-air over what he characterized as the hyped use of “code red” weather warnings.

Sunday, Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” and I discussed the firing and the larger issue of sensationalizing local news.

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"We want you to know it's not us," meteorologist Joe Crain, of WICS in Springfield, Ill., told viewers on June 5 as he described complaints about use of the “code red” term. He called use of the term a “corporate initiative.”

Crain had not been on the air since, and a Sinclair spokesman last week told CNN, which first reported the story, that the weatherman was no longer with the station.

Hyping, or sensationalizing, is a widespread complaint when it comes to local news. And Sinclair certainly isn’t the only platform to do it.

But the use of “code red” as described by Crain seems an especially egregious way to use fear to try to drive ratings, and it goes to the heart of what journalism is and isn’t supposed to do.

The fundamental responsibility of journalism is to provide citizens with the kind of vetted and trustworthy information they need to make sound decisions about their lives.

When it comes to local TV news, weather is near the core of that.

If there truly is severe weather on the way, it literally becomes a matter of life and death for viewers to know that.

That’s why I often come down on the side of giving stations the benefit of the doubt on close calls, when, say, a snowstorm is forecast that doesn’t materialize. Better to err of the side of overstating the threat, rather than understating and leaving viewers unprepared for a weather disaster. This is especially true in parts of the country that regularly experience hurricanes, tornadoes or massive snow storms.

But as Crain described it, WICS was overusing the term, which can result in viewers becoming desensitized to all such warnings. Cry wolf, and when the real wolf comes, no one takes it seriously.

Furthermore, constant over-the-top promotional spots falsely warning of dangerous weather can create anxiety and fear in some viewers, particularly older ones who might not go out much.

Here’s the discussion Stelter and I had about it Sunday.

And here, in case you missed it, is Stephen Colbert’s take on the matter last week.

Sinclair has become a target of satire, ranging from John Oliver to a Deadspin video showing anchors from Sinclair stations across the country mouthing the same script about fake news stories last year.

In 2017, I wrote a piece saying that in its bid to become the largest local broadcast group in the nation, Sinclair might also become one of the most highly criticized and reviled.

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The company’s bid to take over Tribune Media definitely intensified the scrutiny of Sinclair, and it has continued even after the deal fell apart.

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