What On-Air Talent Can Learn from Irene

The lingering image of Hurricane Irene may well be WTTG-TV reporter Tucker Barnes,
soldiering through a live report while covered in sea foam that turned out to
be more of a fecal-matter frappe.  Watch the yucky video and analysis here.

Disasters have long presented make-or-break career moments for broadcast journalists.
KHOU-TV’s Dan Rather caught the attention of CBS when a monster storm hit
Houston in 1961. “Hurricane Carla had been my on-the-air tryout,” he wrote in
his autobiography, “The Camera Never Blinks.”  Watch Dan Rather in action here.

While some find wind-whipped reporters entertaining, others see this coverage as
annoying.   TV news has been credited with saving lives because viewers have been warned to leave the area or stay
indoors. But then the reporters do the very thing they are telling everyone
else NOT to do; they go out and stand in harm’s way.  While some may compare this to the instinct
of a first responder to run toward danger instead of away from it, others see
nothing but gratuitous theatrics. Case in point: New 12 Long Island’s Erin
Colton, who was trying to make a point about the idiocy of standing in the
storm surge when she was swept off her feet.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley was not impressed by CNN’s Chris Lawrence’s live shot from
an offshore breakwater. “Tell Chris to get the hell out of that water, will
ya?” the governor admonished Wolf Blitzer.

Now that the storm has passed, there are a few lessons that can help improve your live reporting
for the next disaster – and on every story.

  • Interact with your environment: Let’s face it.  Reporters
    being pushed around by the forces of nature are not saving anyone’s life; it’s
    just great television. Look for more opportunities in day-to-day news coverage
    to interact with what’s around you: rattle the chain on a locked gate or pick
    up a handful of parched earth to show the effects of a drought.   If you could do the same live shot while
    standing in the newsroom you might have missed an opportunity to use the
    environment effectively.
  • Add value by doing your homework: Many of the reporters covering Irene seemed
    content to state the obvious. “The winds/waves are really kicking up now!” You
    can shine if you’ve done enough homework to add value to the picture. How do
    the conditions compare to other storms that have hit the area? How much have
    the conditions worsened or improved? How does this compare to similar disasters
  • Weather data rules: Reporters and anchors should know when to shut up and let the
    weather center take over. During the initial stages of a big storm, there won’t
    be very much specific information coming in. The power goes out. Phones stop
    working. Crews can’t send you any new video. However, your
    super-mega-whatever-doppler radar knows exactly what is going on. I’ll never
    forget huddling in the powder room that served as my family’s West Palm Beach
    “safe room” during Hurricane Frances, when a meteorologist from a local station
    said, “Radar shows the people in your neighborhood are going to get a huge wind
    band right about now. But don’t worry, it’ll pass quickly.” At that moment, the
    house shook as if it was going to fall down and I became a fan of that station
    for life.  Specific information is infinitely more useful than some reporter stumbling around in the wind and
  • Do radio on TV: Once the power goes out, much of your audience will be able to
    hear you but not see you. A battery powered radio may be their only connection
    to the outside world. Radio stations often simulcast TV coverage during a
    storm. Describe the scene as if you were talking to someone who is blind. “Take
    a look at these waves” won’t cut it. You need to provide details about how high
    the water is, how it feels to stand up against the force of the winds. Create
    word pictures because you can’t rely on the video alone.
  • Don’t exaggerate: Irene had lost most of its hurricane strength by the time it
    reached the New York City area. Yet, many broadcasters continued to react as if
    stormageddon had arrived. Part of your job is to provide reassurance that we
    can all get through the storm together.  Your audience may be reassured when you point out that Irene, barely a
    category 1 storm, would be nowhere near as powerful as Hurricane Katrina’s
    Category 3 hit on New Orleans. Say exactly what you know and don’t be afraid to
    admit what you don’t know.
  • The storm is only the beginning of the story: The wide availability of mobile phone
    video makes it possible for TV stations to sit back and let the
    viewer-generated content roll in. While this is a great resource, it’s no
    substitute for the eyes, ears and intuition of a professional journalist with a
    camera and a microphone. The video of the fallen tree and the flooded street is
    a lot more meaningful if you are there reporting on the people who are now
    trapped by the storm damage.

Many critics and viewers believe that TV news uses disaster coverage to hype ratings. But
any short-term ratings spike is less important than the effect the coverage may
have on long-term viewer preferences in your market. People who don’t normally
watch will be sampling your coverage during the emergency. They may be drawn to
your website by a viral video. Use the experience from the storm coverage to
make your live coverage more compelling every day, and you’ll keep them coming