So this is the big one, the historic one, the unprecedented one. It’s packed with water, has an impressive millibar count and it’s headed right at us. As the Weather Channel’s Bryan Norcross put it this afternoon in a chat with this blog, “There are precious few minutes for people left in harm’s way” to move to high ground.
“People,” here, doesn’t include all the television reporters who have essentially rushed into harm’s way to get filmed in the act of defying Hurricane Sandy’s sick winds and driving rains. Those folks are setting up shop on prime real estate up and down the Eastern seaboard, sometimes with chaotic results. CBS News today showed footage of reporter Chip Reid taking a blast from an incoming “rogue wave” that washed out everything except his camera.
David Verdi, the senior vice president of worldwide newsgathering at NBC News, explains the imperative behind the staple — some would call it “cliché” — of the windswept beach live shot: “The reason we’re on beaches and boardwalks is twofold: One is to convey the seriousness and two, because it hits the beach first,” says Verdi. “That’s the reason we go into war zones and go to special events and places to where we can gain access to places that regular people cannot.”
What about safety first?
Verdi: “Our people are not ordered to go stand on the beach. They’re asked to cover the story and they get as close to the story as they feel is safe.” In the case of a hurricane, says Verdi, “you always try to get to where it makes landfall. There are safe areas and safe ways to do that.”
Norcross of the Weather Channel, which partners with NBC, says that every one of the channel’s coastal reporters “has a plan to pull back and knows where they go when they pull back.. . .We know we gotta pull back at Battery [Park City], we know we gotta pull back at Cape May.. . .”
CNN insists it won’t hesitate to withdraw from Sandy’s blasting zones. “[F]or our reporters on the storm in the elements, they are being careful and they are all trained. If conditions deteriorate, they won’t be on air, and you may see people come up and come down quickly depending on the conditions in their location,” notes CNN spokeswoman Bridget Leininger.
The line about training and experience is something of a mantra in the TV news biz. Dave Davis, the general manager of WABC-TV in New York, runs a station that has 18 reporters covering the storm. Some of them, says Davis, have already moved a bit inland, but “they’ll adjust on the scene. They’re veteran news people and have covered this area for a long time,” he says.
One outlet that won’t be furnishing live shots of hurricane madness is NBC40, a station based in Linwood, N.J., that covers Atlantic City and the southern part of the state. In other words, it’s home to Hurricane Sandy’s possible landfall. The station, though, has no safety issues with live shots; it just doesn’t have the technical capability to do them. “We’re a small station,” explains News Director Harvey Cox, noting that his crews have to run their tape back to the station, making for a “little bit of a delay” in broadcasting the action. Cox had three crews scrambling around on Monday afternoon trying to get the best possible footage, though the station has considerable mobility issues. “We’re hearing that vehicles are stalling out — don’t even go near the water. You have to travel around to get to these places,” says Cox.
So it’ll take a storm far more bruising than Hurricane Sandy to cure TV news of its addiction — and that of viewers everywhere — to the reporter-on-the-bluff-getting-pounded-by-winds-and-rain footage. Good thing there’s often another crew on the neighboring bluff. “I hear stories of all the teams in the field, no matter the network, looking out for each other during stories like this (and the stories in conflict zones abroad),” says CNN’s Leininger. “The impression I’ve always had is there is a lot of camaraderie in the field.”