WASHINGTON — When most Americans turn on their televisions at night, they expect their meteorologists to get the forecast right, or at least try.
That level of trust is one reason President Obama and his staff spent hours Tuesday giving top weather forecasters the royal treatment – a briefing in the White House’s Roosevelt Room with multiple Cabinet secretaries and senior officials on a major new report on climate change, plus Rose Garden interviews with the president.
It was the administration’s latest attempt to penetrate a polarized media climate where Americans increasingly read and view – consciously and unconsciously – material that matches their political beliefs. Not only do cable news networks and editorial pages offer markedly different takes on the news, but Americans also are increasingly guided toward like-minded material through the algorithms of online searches and social media.
“With presidential communication, it can either preach to the choir or convert the flock,” said Matthew Baum, a professor of global communications at Harvard University. “It’ll be easier than ever before to preach to the choir and get harder and harder to convert the flock.”
This new reality has prompted the White House to adopt messaging strategies that once might have seemed unusual or even undignified – including hosting an animated page on Buzzfeed, letting Obama appear on the Internet show “Between Two Ferns” with Zach Galifianakis and encouraging the president and others to pose for “selfies” and other funny pictures. In hopes of it going viral, White House staff members promote such content to popular sites such as Upworthy, which is known for stock headlines promising readers they will be “amazed” by a particular story.
Obama also has granted interviews to websites that are largely ignored in Washington but have large online audiences, such as Zillow for housing or WebMD for health-care news.
For the president and his advisers, the Web has gone from being a huge asset to reach young people in the 2008 campaign to a place that can easily divide Americans by political ideology, making all but the staunchest Obama supporters hard to reach.
In the case of weather forecasters, surveys show that Americans hold their meteorologists in high regard. A 2012 poll by Yale and George Mason universities showed that 60 percent of respondents strongly trusted or somewhat trusted meteorologists in terms of getting information about climate change. .
“They can help viewers connect the dots between what they have heard about climate change, and what they have personally experienced in their own lives,” Edward Maibach, a George Mason University communications professor, wrote.