Know Your Source

I feel awful for Mark Dixon and my other meteorologist friends at Channel 3. Here’s a taste of a story about a weather faux pas from today’s Hartford Courant:

False Alarm, Toto

Photograph Of Tornado Was Actually From Kansas, Not Thomaston, WFSB Says


Courant Staff Writers

July 21, 2007

A photo of a Kansas-size twister that accompanied a TV news report Thursday about an outbreak of severe thunderstorms in Connecticut actually was taken in Kansas.

WFSB, Channel 3, received the photo by e-mail Thursday afternoon from a man who said he shot it on his father’s farm in Thomaston, station news director Dana Neves said Friday. The timing of the e-mail corresponded with radar showing severe weather over southern Litchfield County and ground reports of funnel clouds and a tornado in that same area, WFSB meteorologist Mark Dixon said Friday. The totality of the situation, he and Neves said, convinced the station that the photo was legitimate.

The photo was shown on the broadcast and displayed prominently on WFSB’s website,

After verifying through the National Weather Service that the photo was shot in Kansas about two years ago, the station announced the mistake to viewers Thursday evening, Neves said. They also alerted federal officials.

I’m not saying it couldn’t have happened to me – because it could have. I tend to treat any kind of unsolicited video or eyewitness account with a grain of salt, but I’m not perfect.

Just to give you a taste of what goes on, here’s an email I received Thursday:

Hi Geoff–We had a tornado touch down in Thomaston and then again in Terryville–I don’t know about damage because I don’t live there. But local police saw it and reported it. Just thought you would like to know.


I was so busy, I didn’t see this until long after the cell had passed through Thomaston. By that time, based on an NWS report, we had sent a reporter there. He found nothing.

I wrote asking Sharon where she got her info.

Hi Geoff–

I was watching the Weather Channel when I first got home and it came across in the National Weather Service Tornado warning on the bottom of the screen. It said the tornado was spotted by local law enforcement.


Sharon didn’t mean to be bad or misleading. She was doing what she felt was right. But, she originally passed along second hand information as if she had obtained it herself.

I try my best to make personal contact with anyone who sends unsolicited material I use, but I know there are times I haven’t stridently followed my own rule. Speaking to someone usually provides to best clues to their trustworthiness.

This stuff happens all the time. Most of the time it’s a photo that someone claims comes from a friend or relative – but it doesn’t. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the same bogus Katrina pictures!

There’s a larger point to be made here and that gets to the crux of citizen journalism. Are we ready to trust random members of the public to provide our news coverage?

Opinionated reporters (Bill O’Reilly, Keith Olbermann, Lou Dobbs, Brit Hume) may choose to report only certain aspects of a story, but you know where they’re coming from and can adjust accordingly. With random citizens, who knows what they’re trying to accomplish or maybe they’re too naive, like Sharon, to even know.

A good TV station, like WFSB, steps up to the plate and admits when they are wrong. That’s what good meteorologists and good journalists do.

On the other hand, when caught sending dubious material, I’ve found unsolicited citizen ‘journalists’ often stop responding.

This is the new world. There are aspects I don’t approve of.

The Rock

During one of my many trips through the backyard to the dumpster, I stopped just to look around. It’s been our backyard for 16 years, but we don’t use it as often as we should.

There are fir trees – some nearly 20 feet tall, that came to our house in the back of Helaine’s Mazda 929. In fact there’s a veritable nursery still growing that came home in the backseat of that underrated sedan.

There are so many little things in the yard that have been there since day one, it’s easy to pass them by. For instance, there’s the rock. It was supposed to be Steffie’s rock.

Steffie was three when we moved in. The house was new, though it had sat vacant over a year, victim of a major housing slump.

No sooner had the ink dried on our purchase, that the developer started to excavate for a house next door. He called in John W. and his backhoe to do the job.

John was like a character out of central casting. When you first met him, you wondered what you had done to tick him off? When you got to know him, you realized he was a gentle guy with a heart of gold&#185.

If ever there was a ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ story, it was John.

It was late afternoon and John was done with his work next door. When I caught sight of him, he was in my backyard with the backhoe’s bucket pushing a rock.

Maybe rock is a little mild. This chunk of stone is four feet tall and a few feet wider. I have no idea what it weighs, except to say, I can’t budge it.

As John pushed, sparks were flying from beneath the rock where it scraped along the ground.

“Stop,” I yelled.

John looked puzzled. He was doing me a favor by moving this useless piece of stone out of the way.

I had never owned a house. Heck, until just then I had never even lived in a house! I wanted this rock for my daughter.

Somehow, in that twisted, romanticized way parents think about their young children… those dreams when the future becomes seemingly predictable… I saw that big old rock as a plaything for Steffie. It was a fort or a castle or a stage – something meaningful in a kid’s life.

John pushed the rock back in place. I’m not sure whether he understood or just wrote me off as crazy.

Steffie never did play with the rock. It’s OK. I’m not sure she missed anything.

Still, I’m glad John put the rock back where it belonged. The fact that it was almost taken away makes it all the more meaningful today.

Like so many other things I’ve been reminded of in these past few days of cleaning, the rock brought back good memories. I can close my eyes and see the sparks. I can close my eyes and see Steffie as a three year old.

If she ever wants it, the rock is still hers.

&#185 – At some point, and for no apparent reason, John came over with what looked to me, a city boy, as fat twigs. He told me to plant them. They were “Rose of Sharon” and they would be beautiful some day.

I did and they are. Their beautiful flowers are in bloom most of the summer.

John probably doesn’t remember the bushes he brought by, but I do.