The Wonderful Words Of Winter

This is a presentation on the language of winter I shared at the Winter Bike Congress in Minneapolis earlier this month. The theme of language was developed further in talks by Bill Lindeke and Dan Patterson. I am very thankful for the chance to again share the thoughts first developed for the Winter Cities Shakeup in my winter city hometown, Edmonton.

For most of my working life, I worked in a television newsroom.

TV newsrooms are unique places. Full of, how shall we say?... unique people. People driven by wanting to get to the truth, people wanting to afflict the powerful, folks driven by the joy of telling a good story, people seduced, like Narcissus of old but updated for HD, by the reflection of their images. And some just have very good hair, and they know it.

TV newsrooms, I think, are a little more time-stressed now, but when I worked there there was still time for huge debates. And one of the hugest was whether the first snowfall of the year was, properly, news.

The debate was fierce. There were those who said, and I am cleaning up their language because they were the guys who had to carry their cameras into the winter weather, who said:

“The (pretty) snow happens (approximately this time) every year at about exactly this time, so for (goodness) sakes, how the (dickens) is that news?”

(Note: The words actually used I certainly had never heard from my mother and father, who were good parentheses.)

The reporters with the very good hair typically agreed with the blue-aired cameramen. And they had a point.

But others argued the weather had changed, it was news. The change was what counted. Others said the first snowfall was news because it’s what everyone was talking about, and news should reflect back to a community what it was talking about. Someone would make the point that if the snow itself was not out of the ordinary, look at all the car crashes with police flashing lights we could cover. And then there was the safety angle: we have to cover the snowfall because people have to know how dangerous it is out there.

Which brought the impolite cameramen back into the debate, with an argument, again slightly cleaned up, that said, “What? We we’re going to go out and cover the first (crystalline) snowfall because it’s dangerous, and you want us to go into danger and get the dangerous video? And the rest
was, well, you get the picture.

It was a fascinating debate. It happened every year. I loved it. And, increasingly, I felt that there was a lot at stake in that debate over the news of winter. Because what those reporters and cameramen came back with (they did get sent out to do the story, in large part because we were never sure the opposing newsroom wouldn’t send their own crews out), what those crews came back with and came up with, the video they captured, the words they used in their stories, the words the anchors used in presenting the story of Edmonton winter to Edmontonians, all these words and images were so powerful.

Technology carried those words and pictures through the air, through the ground, through the walls of houses and apartments and into living rooms and kitchens and bedrooms where they crackled with the allure of a bonfire that blazed in primary colours.

People watched.

What I want to share with you today are some of the other things that get in, or can get in, can sneak in when we turn on and take in those TV stories about "bad" Edmonton winter weather. What I am talking about are storytelling devices that the stories you see are built on. Because they are biases, shortcuts, cheats. Fallacies.

As an aside, if it’s good to know the contents of the food you ingest, it might be just as good to the know the contents of the news you consume. As an aside, wouldn’t it be interesting if somehow we could get the contents ingredients for a news package? You know, like on food packaging? So we could see, for instance, that this particular story is 40 per cent truth, 30 near truth, 10 per cent bullshit, 8 per cent fear, and 12 per cent we’re not even sure?!

So, this is what I did. It’s not exactly scientific. But I recorded and then transcribed a week’s worth of TV news on the three major Edmonton stations for the week in November a year ago when the first snow in Edmonton happened. As I have said, this is a period  of intense news coverage in Edmonton.

What I found, what I dug up are four techniques I want to bring to light. Four ways that Edmonton- winter-equals-bad is smuggled in when we watch TV news. I gave them names.

AUTOCORRECT t is the bias of the automobile, the omnipresence of the car and truck in the way the weather is framed for television viewers. 

For example, on the November 9th, 6 pm news, the story of the newly arrived snow is simply and wholly the number of car crashes. The day before, we were told, there were 136 crashes. That day there were 231 crashes. The anchor told us, quote, officers responded to nearly 100 more collisions than they would on a normal day, unquote. Think about that. A normal day is when there is no snow and 136 crashes. That is not abnormal. What is abnormal is when the snow arrives and the number of crashes goes up. The automobile itself, its impact, literally its impact, can be hidden behind the change in the weather. That same newscast we heard the weatherperson say, quote, no matter how much we prepare in the forecast, we knew the snowfall was coming, it still comes as a surprise, unquote. Why is it a surprise, you might reasonably ask? The weather person goes on to say: "You can’t stop as quickly as you could on dry roads, you can’t accelerate the same way, you don’t have the same control of your vehicle."

These observations are doubtless true. You can’t stop, you can’t go, you don’t control your car in winter the same as you can in summer. Ice is not the same as dry pavement. That’s just the way it is. The problem in this narrative is that winter acquires a negative valence because of the difficulty of driving an automobile through it. The equation we are being sold is that winter equals winter driving, and because winter driving is difficult, winter is difficult.

Yes, most of us drive, you might say, so this equation fits the mass audience that TV is aimed at. What’s the issue? The issue is that winter is not winter driving, as much as we are told that it is.

And we are told that it is. On a November 10th 6 pm newscast, viewers were told in the opener—that’s the short, dramatic headlines that preview what is coming up—we are promised a look at how Edmontonians are faring through the first blast of winter. But what we got when the newscast gets around to presenting that story is how Edmonton automobile drivers are faring. The images were all cars and trucks—and snow tire merchants.

So, watch for the way the AUTOCORRECT fallacy slants the coverage of the news toward the plight of automobile drivers. From the very start, we are made to see winter through a windshield—darkly.

That’s AUTOCORRECT. Then there is the LOCALIFORNIA bias. Loosely, this is the term that collects the practice of television news broadcasters implying in one way or another that snow or cold is ipso facto bad, as if we somehow lived at a latitude where snow and cold are unnatural. Here are some examples:

On November 9, a weatherperson said, quote, well, I guess the good news is no more snow after tonight, unquote. Why is no snow in Edmonton good? Who is it good for? And where did the language of good and bad come from?

On November 9, we also heard a meteorologist say as temperatures were slated to hit -14 Celsius (that’s about 6 degrees) quote, and I hate to tell you that temperatures are continuing to fall, unquote. Why the hate? We drive some lemons here but we don’t grow them—yet!

Later that month, and this was my favourite, as the snow started to melt to reveal the dead but still green quackgrass from summer, an anchor and the weather expert celebrated the re-arrival of the green grass as viewers saw a tight shot, a powerful closeup of the tuft of green. It was one of the more bizarre celebrations, considering the retreating snow could have easily been interpreted as a challenging sign of global warming as it was an occasion for joy.

The LOCALIFORNIA fallacy reached its height on New Year's Eve (outside of the study period, but noteworthy) when a local national news network filed a story titled: The best and worst cities to be on New Year’s Eve. You guessed it. The very goodness of the city, of course, was directly related to how close to freezing the temperature was predicted to be.

We can expect this LOCALIFORNIA bias from Siri. Ask her what the weather is in Edmonton on a day it will be -12 (10 Fahrenheit) and you’ll get a cold response, complete with sound effect: brrrr, it doesn’t look good, she will shudder. But Siri is designed in California
LOCALIFORNIA—watch for it! It’s not something necessarily to warm up to here in Edmonton. Or Minnesota.

And watch for SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, too. The grammar here goes roughly like this: We all know the weather is bad here in Edmonton, but if you look hard enough, there is some good.

For instance, on November 14, we heard an anchor intone, quote, it’s no secret, we get some cold winter days in Alberta, but there is a bright side. Every now and then hoar frost develops on the trees, making for quite a spectacular sight, unquote. The anchor went on to say the hoarfrost, quote, does make it easier to bear, when you are on the inside looking out, unquote.

On the next day, on another channel, we got a page from the same playbook, as one anchor said, quote, well, it’s the silver lining for many people when the cold and snow rolls in, unquote. The subject and verb may not have agreed, but the co-anchor did, adding, quote, skiers and snowboarders digging their equipment out today, and heading to a local hill for the first time this winter, unquote.

Two things to note about the SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK strategy.

First, it really is a strategy. It’s a construction. It’s an attempt to build an audience by including everyone. This is the instinct, the genius of mass media. It is an attempt to use incongruity to get your ears and eyes. It goes like this: You wouldn’t think there is anything good about X, but, let me tell you, there is, it’s Y. Okay, I’m listening.

Second, the incongruity is fake. It’s not that hoarfrost somehow works to unbalance the bad of winter. Hoarfrost is possible only when those purportedly bad conditions exist. If we love the sight of hoarfrost, we can’t really despise the conditions that make for it, can we, logically?

That the incongruity is faked is provided by the evidence of the snowboarding story itself. In it we heard some conflicting opinion from those who saw the snow and cold not as silver but as gold.

I really love it, said one child who was interviewed.
Getting back on the board is fun, said another
I’m really excited. I can’t wait ‘til the whole hill opens, said the third child interviewed.
I’m staying until closing, said a fourth.
We love snow, said three other children in chorus.

The only interview subject who agreed with the SILVER LINING thesis was the adult we heard from. He said, quote, it’s cold and snowy here for half the year, so, you might as well get out and enjoy it, unquote.

Watching for SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK makes you ask a real question: what is more real, the supposed silver linings in winter (the hoarfrost, the wintersports), or the possibility that it’s the children who see things clearer when they cast winter as unalloyed fun? 

My money is on the kids. 

But we have yet to hear a newscast begin with the truth: Good evening, the children of Edmonton get it and the rest of you don't!

And, finally, there is a fallacy I call SNOWMANTHROPOMORPHISM. It’s a play, of course, on what we know as anthropomorphism, which is the ascribing of human emotions or motives to forces of nature.

When a reporter says, winter made a late arrival,

When a tire shop operator says, winter decided to come in mid-November,
When a reporter blames Mother Nature for this blast of winter, and all the other ways winter is made into a character that blows in, threatens, attacks,

When nature is made human, it is much easier for us real humans to feel somenow equal to it, easier for us to get angry with it, easier for us to feel either or both victimized by it and able to successfully use force against it, easier to feel that it is caused and isn’t just is, easier to complain about it.

And complaining is not bad. Complaining about the weather is not necessarily a waste of time. Some of the best, most interesting complaining is done without any hope of changing things. I just find that so much of the complaining about the weather in Edmonton goes nowhere. First, it’s Edmonton, not Kamchatka.

Read Tom Babin’s book Frostbike to confront the evidence of how few days here actually are too cold to ride a bike in winter. The real problem about complaining about the weather as if it were a person out to get us is that complaining does not enough of the time bring people together or convince people to really take it on. Why aren’t there more people who cross country ski in Edmonton? Play hockey outdoors? Why aren’t there more people at winter festivals? Why aren't there more winter festivals? Why don’t more people ride bikes through the winter? It can’t be primarily because it’s cold. Clothes now are superb at helping us take on winter. We have almost engineered winter out of existence.

But make winter into a human opponent that comes at us with the power of today’s television media with its HD images, its fast cuts, its totalizing field of power, its dramatically delivered soundtrack— my favourite was this from a reporter on November 10 as we saw bleak video of snowy Edmonton, and I quote, by Monday morning, reality had set in. Winter is here. To stay—all of this making of winter into a foe out to get us doesn’t necessarily mean we rise to the challenge and come together.

It’s just as likely that we surrender. And stay in where it’s safe. And, well, watch the news. Or Making A Murderer.

A quick word now about how these biases are strengthened by the nature of the TV news medium. TV news is scripted in words, it flows by and makes itself felts reveals itself as a very oral medium. Watching television news is fundamentally different than reading the newspaper or a book or even reading Twitter. When the printed word is the thing, analysis is possible. It is possible to stop, go back, read that sentence again, try it out for different meanings, puzzle over it, see if it holds water, sound it for fallacies. By the nature of sound, in this case, electronic sound, this not possible, or nowhere near as easy. Sound, as as wise man has taught, is evanescent and has resisted the holding pattern of sight.

Okay, here’s my bias: I am an all season bicycle commuter.
And here is another admission: I love watching TV.
I do rely on television weather news to reveal to me the conditions of my commute. I admire their ability to bring this information down to earth for me. Some meteorologists are very good. And I understand the need to make the weather and weather news entertaining and scary, so that viewers will watch and stay during the commercials, so that those good people in TV news get paid by someone other than who they’re doing their stories about. I respect the warnings given, especially around highway driving, when the real decision often isn’t do I turn back, but, really, do I even start out?
But what I am not so keen on are the flimsy fallacies that we have briefly talked about, and the way those biases are strengthened by the nature of the medium. 
All of these fallacies collect under one final neologism,

all of this WEATHERTORIALIZING, not editorializing, but WEATHERTORIALIZING. It may may simply add up to a view, an interpretation of winter weather as an evil.

But we are beyond cold and evil, aren't we?
I know that I experience a different kind of winter whenever I stop listening to people tell me about what’s outside and actually go outside. When I leave behind the electronic distillation of things, the traces of things, and face the truth outside and breathe in the other interpretation that awaits outside the box.

Winter Bike Congress, 2016

Thanks to Nick Ford for his help getting these thoughts into some kind of order.


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