There was Jim Cantore, the Weather Channel’s intrepid storm reporter, very much in his element. Standing in the path of Hurricane Ian in Punta Gorda, Fla., on Wednesday, Cantore was getting lashed by rain and blown around by the wind when a flying tree branch kneecapped him in full view of his camera crew.
“You gonna be all right?” asked an unseen anchor as Cantore staggered to a street sign, holding on in the wind. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” replied Cantore in a video that has been shared tens of thousands of times on social media. “You just can’t stand up.”
All of which is kind of the point in television news coverage of hurricanes and major storms. Watching a human being drenched and tossed about in the elements is exactly the sort of dramatic visual that stations and networks seek when they assign broadcast journalists to cover storms.
It is not enough to point a camera at the fury of nature and let viewers soak in the awesome mix of water, wind and property destruction. For decades, the cliche in television coverage has been to place a reporter in the picture, letting viewers see just how dangerous the storm is.
Some, like Cantore, have become famous for chasing countless storms on camera, often enduring some form of punishment from the elements in the pursuit. Such participatory journalism has no equal in the news business. War reporters usually do not place themselves in the midst of combat, and police reporters typically do not do “standups” in the middle of a shootout. A reporter covering a fire keeps a safe distance.
Not so with “severe” weather reporting, especially in an age when clips like Cantore-meets-tree-branch can quickly go viral. As Ian passed over Florida this week, the most hairy encounters were all over Twitter and social media. In one of the more dramatic, reporter Tony Atkins of WESH in Orlando was shown wading into waist-deep water to rescue a nurse who had become stranded in her car.
Television news people say live storm coverage is driven by more than a desire for ratings and clicks. Demonstrating the danger to viewers can deter others from venturing out in a storm, said Dan Shelley, who heads the Radio Television Digital News Association. “It is important to show it in factual and vivid terms so people understand just what they are up against,” he said.
But there are ways to demonstrate the danger without placing a person in the midst of it. In Florida, many stations have carried live webcam feeds and user-supplied videos of swamped roads and buildings, pounding ocean surf, and arcing transformers with nary a human in the picture. Fox Weather, a streaming network, said it deployed “rain-resistant drones” for aerial footage leading up to and after Ian made landfall.
Live reports can also be somewhat misleading, underplaying the true severity of a hurricane. Few reporters actually venture into the teeth of a storm. If they did, the consequences would probably be lethal. Ian made landfall in Florida as a Category 4 storm, meaning it packed sustained winds of at least 130 mph, much faster than what the National Weather Service calls an “extreme threat to life and property.”
Moreover, there is a paradox in the message and the messenger: Reporters telling people to stay home because of the danger when the reporters are out there in the danger themselves.
Journalists say they do not simply sally into a storm. They prepare for them. Many are experienced at covering such events, and most plot out a specific course of action, including escape routes and shelters.
They also are usually in communication with their newsrooms, which relay the latest information about storm conditions and keep tabs on their movements and well-being. “You just can’t guess at it,” said Amy Freeze, a meteorologist and anchor at Fox Weather. “There is an inherent risk.”
In 2003, Freeze was doing a live report on Hurricane Isabel from a barrier island near Virginia Beach. As the storm began to bear down, she noticed a surge of water coming from the bayside of the island, a precursor to the much stronger ocean surge that was ahead. “We knew at that point, we had a short time to get out of the way,” she said. They did. But a less experienced reporter might have overlooked the warning.
Despite the dangers, American journalists are rarely killed or severely injured while covering extreme weather. The most recent instance was in 2018, when anchor Mike McCormick and photojournalist Aaron Smeltzer of station WYFF in Greenville, S.C., died while covering the subtropical storm Alberto. A tree struck their SUV as they drove along a highway in North Carolina.
Shelley said the reporting that comes before and after a storm might be the most valuable, even if it is not as exciting as the clips that go viral.
Prestorm reporting, typically featuring shop owners boarding up windows and people stocking up at grocery stores, alerts residents to danger and helps publicize government-mandated evacuation orders, he said. And reporting on the immediate aftermath of a hurricane works in the opposite direction by alerting government officials and the public to damage, shortages and emergencies.
Experts note that many people are killed in the aftermath of a storm, often by misjudging the hazards around them. “If you asked me,” Shelley said of aftermath reporting, “I would say, it is the most important kind of work we can do.”