Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Granting Department

Mass Communications

Major Professor

Derina R. Holtzhausen, Ph.D.


Coorientation model, NWS, Visual communication, Cone of uncertainty, Tropical storm prediction, Hurricanes, Trust


Media use of hurricane graphics to apprise populations vulnerable to severe weather provides a persuasive demonstration of the importance and complexity of visual communication. Surprisingly little research, however, has explored how audiences interpret weather graphics. This study examined whether the general public and the National Weather Service share a common understanding of selected weather related terms and meaning of a NWS informational graphic. Using a coorientation model, general public responses to a questionnaire were compared to definitions prescribed by the NWS. Additionally, the public were asked questions to measure trust of the NWS as a credible and reliable source of severe weather information. Selected broadcast meteorologists were surveyed to measure their opinions of the NWS as well as to measure their perceptions of how the general public would respond to questions relating to knowledge of weather terms and graphics.

Results revealed discrepancies between the intent of such graphics and audience interpretations. While the vast majority of respondents recognized the Tropical Cyclone Track Watch/Warning Graphic and understood much of the information it conveyed, study respondents did not seem to remember or understand the meaning of the terms Watch and Warning. While these terms or conditions are only one aspect of the graphic they represent critical information for populations at risk. Additionally, the results of this study indicate that weather forecasting professionals' perceptions of the public's understanding of the graphic are inaccurate. Results also show respondents generally rate the NWS as a reliable and competent agency but they do not consistently rate their local weather providers as well.

Weather scientists' foremost concern may be the accuracy of their forecasts, but they also must consider the accuracy of the perceptions of those forecasts if they are to be effective in warning populations at risk of severe weather. These results have sobering implications for both governmental and private sources of emergency communication.