Joe Crain has been a meteorologist at WICS NewsChannel 20 in Springfield, Illinois, for 15 years. He holds a degree in broadcast meteorology from Mississippi State. He’s a go-to source for severe weather coverage and is widely trusted by viewers.
And Monday, he might not have a job to return to.
The reason? Crain criticized Sinclair Broadcast Group’s initiative to implement mandatory “code red” days in their affiliates’ forecasts. Meteorologists at local stations under Sinclair’s auspices are encouraged – or at times, forced – into declaring code red days, the decision often made by management. And during Wednesday morning’s broadcast, Crain had had enough.
“Code red was created by likely a journalism school graduate,” said Crain as the live cameras rolled. “A lot of people not happy with this since we’ve implemented it. That’s evident by the thousands of comments on social media, letters to the editor, and frequent calls to local talk radio shows.”
Last week, a letter to the editor appeared in Springfield’s State-Journal Register, in which viewer Victoria Edwards complained she is “sick to death” of code red days.
“It would appear any cloud in the sky will warrant a ‘code red,’” wrote Edwards, arguing that the constant bombardment of code red days desensitizes the viewer – “like the boy who cried wolf. It makes the viewers skeptical of anything the weather people say.”
Crain alluded to that effect in his since-viral forecast Wednesday, expressing sympathy for viewers fed up with the corporate-imposed hype.
“As far as the code red name itself, we get that, too,” Crain said. “When you hear ‘code red,’ you think ‘the feces is about to hit the fan.’” That all culminated into an apology he offered to the viewers.
“I take my job seriously and my responsibility to the public,” lamented Crain, clearly upset that code red days have taken a toll on the credibility he spent a decade and a half earning from viewers. “We want you to know it’s not us. This is a corporate initiative. Behind the scenes, many of us have tried to dissuade it for the past several months.”
Crain’s segment concluded on a slightly more hopeful note, urging viewers to double down on their efforts.
“Despite the fact that this facility is owned by a corporation … it’s still licensed to serve the public. You still have a voice. Keep those cards and letters coming.” Crain was not seen delivering the weather on-air Thursday morning, and his bio has since been removed from the company website.
Management at WICS wasn’t immediately available for statement. The newsroom couldn’t verify whether Crain remains employed, stating they were “unable to comment on personnel matters.”
Thousands have taken to social media to express their support for Crain. Some have pledged to boycott the station, while others are urging local advertisers to pull their ads.
It’s not just viewers who have Crain’s back. Meteorologists across the country are outraged.
“Let meteorologists do their job,” said Erik Dean, chief meteorologist at K2TV in Casper, Wyoming. “Management needs to stay out of it. That’s what they have meteorologists for.”
Crain’s not alone in fighting pushback from management. Dean has run into similar issues in the past.
“I had a news director years ago that would want us to blow it up for three or four snowflakes.” Dean said he now works with a news director who he “loves to death.” He was tasked with writing his own criteria for what constitutes an alert or impact day, and declaring one is his discretion – not management’s.
“I just update them at the 2 p.m. news meeting if we’ve got something going on. Otherwise, it’s up to the meteorologists. That’s how it should be.” After all, that’s what meteorologists go to school for.
Other meteorologist aren’t a fan of proprietary alert days to begin with, expressing reticence toward alerts that don’t originate from the National Weather Service.
“To me, the best option is communicating the risks issued by the Storm Prediction Center,” wrote Kit Cloninger, weekend meteorologist at KSNB in Hastings, Neb. “It’s simple, and consistency is key with broadcasting. Otherwise, viewers may wonder why one station issued an ‘alert day’ while another one didn’t.”
Jamie Moker, a University of Arizona researcher working on improving weather modeling, agrees.
“Branding is not universal across all stations,” he wrote. After all, the National Weather Service already has more than 100 types of weather alerts it can issue. Moker argued the solution isn’t for stations to create more alerts, but to work on communicating existing ones.
“The National Weather Service’s mission is to protect life and property,” he wrote. “The Sinclair code red is to grab attention from viewers, which gets them more money.”
Moker says he’d be more open to code red days if Sinclair was to share what their thresholds are, but he said he doubts that will happen. “A lot of those indices are proprietary, so scientists like us cannot scrutinize and evaluate their performance.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.