When Messages Matter Most

Apr 15, 2019

Jason Senkbeil (left) and Darrin Griffin work with Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind Interpreter Gary Crook to prototype test their American Sign Language interpreting system.


Three C&IS researchers receive grants to discover new ways to communicate weather alerts

Severe weather emergencies affect millions  of people around the world every single year. In the past decade, storms like Irma, Sandy, Harvey, Florence and Michael have left lasting impacts from the damage they caused in local communities. Tuscaloosa, Alabama is no stranger to severe weather, still bearing scars from its tornado super outbreak in April 2011. Whatever the issue—flash flooding, tornadoes, hurricanes or hailstorms—communicating severe weather alerts is at the core of ensuring public safety and saving lives.


Understanding how weather alerts work and the varying levels of impact they have on different populations provides a challenge for meteorologists and municipalities alike. What is the most effective medium for their given constituency? And how do they reach less-represented, vulnerable populations within their citizenry? These are the kinds of questions researchers are asking at the College of Communication and Information Sciences, and now they have secured the funding to find the answers.

Dr. Darrin Griffin of the Department of Communication Studies is one
such researcher. In collaboration with The University of Alabama’s Dr. Jason Senkbeil (College of Arts and Sciences) and Mississippi State University’s Dr. Kathy Sherman-Morris (Department of Geosciences), Griffin’s team received a grant of more than $250,000 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to conduct research on the accessibility and comprehension of tornado warnings among Deaf, Blind and Deaf-Blind populations in the southeastern United States.

“Ultimately, what makes Blind and Deaf populations
different is their ability to receive messages,” said Griffin. “At the end of the day, our study is about effective messaging—determining what messaging is working and what isn’t working, and improving that messaging.”

Griffin works with professionals in the C&IS digital media center to pull together the multiple camera feeds

Because these populations receive messages differently, communicating severe weather forecasts presents a unique challenge. Visual charts and diagrams, as well as language commonly employed during broadcasts,
do not translate effectively. Griffin’s team wants to change that, making broadcasts more effective for all people.

Drs. Cory Armstrong and Chandra Clark (Department of Journalism
and Creative Media) are tackling a similar issue. Funded by the Alabama-Mississippi Sea Grant Consortium, their research is investigating the effectiveness of different types of weather alerts and how those messages motivate citizens to action in rural and urban communities.

In both of these studies, it is the way messages are communicated
that matters most. The difference between being in harm’s way or being sheltered and secure may come down to the ability of forecasters and
media representatives to understand how people receive messages and
what makes them take action.


Determining how to communicate in ways that best inform particular
audiences can be difficult. For each of these studies, the challenges begin
with understanding how the audiences process the information and discovering how to change the message in ways that improve their comprehension.

“The first thing we want to know is how people receive severe weather notifications—are they watching television, are they talking to their friends or are they checking social media?” said Armstrong. “Then we want to try and determine what specific words and visuals motivate them to action and what steps they take to prepare for severe weather.”

Clark developed six different visual elements of weather broadcasts that were shown to cross-sections of the population in Biloxi and Pearlington, Mississippi, and Mobile and Magnolia Springs, Alabama. From there, Armstrong asked the subjects to evaluate which models would most likely motivate them to seek shelter from a severe weather event, namely tornadoes and hurricanes. Now, Armstrong is analyzing this data to develop guides for broadcasters, media personnel and meteorologists about effective ways to reach rural populations during severe weather outbreaks.

“If we can point out the key words and methods for how to announce severe weather then ultimately we can help save lives.”

Armstrong (right) and Clark (left) reviewed multiple models and selected six different weather alert methods to gauge public response and their motivation to act for each model

For Griffin, the ultimate hope is to create a system that can utilize existing technology and provide live interpreting in American Sign Language (ASL). ASL is a complex language, grammatically different from English and not directly translatable in the way that many English-speaking people assume. During severe weather broadcasts, closed captioning can be unreliable and, even when it is reliable, still fails to appear in ASL users’ primary language. Added to that struggle, weather broadcasts often include scientific language common to English speakers, but less common
to ASL users.

Griffin’s idea would help bridge this gap between English-speaking meteorologists and ASL users during severe weather events, saving lives by creating better access to urgent weather updates for Deaf populations. The idea came to Griffin after viewing a video of a hearing ASL interpreter
who used Facebook Live to relay an ASL interpretation of
an audio weather broadcast to followers.

“I thought, ‘We could actually design that. Why not have
that in place for real?’” said Griffin. “At the end of the day, it will increase [NOAA’s] tools for communicating with a vulnerable population.”

The concept features a picture-in-picture broadcast that enables the Deaf population to view the broadcast alongside an ASL interpreter. However, the benefits for this study go far beyond building and testing this system. Researchers will conduct interviews with people in the Deaf community in the Southeast and use the information to offer valuable feedback to on-air meteorologists as to what language is most effective in communicating with a variety of audiences.

According to Griffin, the concept of universal design, or making the world more accessible to all kinds of people, benefits everyone. Hotels that place the thermostat in arm’s reach of the bedside do not sacrifice design aesthetics in the process, and make a big difference for people with limited mobility. All guests end up gaining an increased usability. In the context of Griffin’s research, universal design would mean keeping the video feed that can be understood by hearing audiences while at the same time dramatically increasing the accessibility of the message
for Deaf audiences.

“Can we tighten up the bolts on the verbal message?
That’s what we’re trying to do,” said Griffin. “We want to do universal design, to look at the Deaf, Blind and Deaf-Blind communities to increase effective messaging that benefits everyone whether or not English is their second language.”


Saving lives and improving their quality are important parts of any scientific discipline. Whether the issue at hand is communicating effectively about severe weather to rural and vulnerable populations or any number of other life-changing advancements in communication, researchers at C&IS are a crucial element in the scientific process.

And the College is growing in its impact. In 2018, C&IS had 17 funded Research Grants Committee (RGC) proposals making it the top RGC-funded college at The University of Alabama. These numbers reflect the disciplines’ significant influence as well as the role communication plays as a part of the greater research culture on campus.

“If you follow the philosophy and logic of science, you can use the same paradigm in communication as you can in biology, physics and chemistry,” said Griffin. “If I’m working alongside meteorologists, computer scientists and geographers to find a way to tackle common problems and showing that my methods are just as sound as theirs, that’s a benefit to the scientific community from an interdisciplinary perspective.”

Right now, C&IS researchers have active relationships with their colleagues across campus in the College of Engineering, College of Social Work, College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Human Environmental Sciences. These relationships fuel creative, multi-disciplinary problem solving to improve lives in the community for generations to come.

The research culture is evolving at C&IS and at its core is a group of dedicated scientists who are asking big questions, tackling global issues and securing the
funding to discover solutions.