Hurricane Michael was just about as bad as it gets. A strong Category 4 storm upon landfall, it earned the distinction as among the most intense hurricanes on record to strike the United States. Scenes of carnage played out on television both during and after the storm, including images of television personalities desperately clinging to objects as structures collapsed around them. Others proudly posted videos of themselves wading through waist-deep water in a parking garage.
Amid the damage and destruction, one question remains: Is the television industry taking unnecessary risks by placing reporters in harm’s way? And is it setting a bad example?
Broadcasting to a live audience oftentimes projects the illusion of invincibility, but time and time again in recent years, we’ve seen journalists fall victim to the elements they’re covering.
On May 31, 2013, Weather Channel meteorologist Mike Bettes and his crew were hit by an EF-5 tornado moments after concluding a broadcast. Tossed more than 200 yards, their vehicle was crushed like a tin can, but miraculously all inside survived. Bettes faced yet another face-to-face encounter with a destructive vortex last year in Naples, Fla., and was nearly swept away in the circulation of a tornado-like “miniswirl” while covering Hurricane Irma last year.
But he’s not alone. A British journalist was electrocuted weeks earlier, on Aug. 28, while documenting Hurricane Harvey in Houston. Three months prior, a reporter and photojournalist were crushed to death by a falling tree during Tropical Storm Alberto in South Carolina. The Weather Channel’s Mike Seidel once dodged a lawn chair during his live shot. And just this past Sunday, veteran meteorologist Jim Cantore ducked last minute to escape a 2x4 hurtling at him at highway speeds.
There comes a point when one must wonder: How far is too far?
Television stations will often do anything for what seems like the money shot. In an era where social media is drawing more attention and viewership dwindles, gaining that competitive edge oftentimes pushes networks to up the ante.
Some argue that it’s a necessary evil — viewers are much more likely to take action if they see the power of the elements firsthand. After all, a live camera on a tornado is much more compelling than a radar presentation resembling a “bucket of spilled paint,” according to Alabama meteorologist James Spann.
Others feel that compromising safety is never acceptable and that stations should be able to provide a coercive narrative without the risky gamble of being at ground zero. After all, is it appropriate to show what not to do? It’s a controversial debate that has meteorologists split right down the middle.
Joe Joyce, former chief meteorologist at WBIN-TV in New Hampshire and longtime Boston forecaster, feels the practice is unacceptable. “It’s all for ratings and interest in the broadcast product,” he wrote. “[There’s] value in showing the public the danger and evacuations — but always be safe!”
Others agreed. Guy Walton, who spent decades behind the scenes at the Weather Channel, felt similarly. Although it’s “great for ratings,” he said, “in this day and age of great remote sensing,” it is “rather dumb” and “passe.”
We have scores of automated cameras and weather systems peppered across the country. Observations will still make it to meteorologists and the public — whether they’re there to witness it or not. Ashley Morris, an emergency management planner in Texas, raised the possibility of erecting unmanned cameras ahead of time to brave the storm themselves.
So what’s the best way to cover the storm? Richard “Heatwave” Berler feels that delivering information from the studio is best. He’s spent more than 30 years in Laredo, Tex., working as the chief meteorologist in one of the hottest climates in the nation. “Having the meteorologist in studio interacting with the anchor would be more useful,” he wrote. “They would have all the meteorological tools to add context to live video on the scene.”
But there’s just as much support for having talent in the field. And it may have a scientific reason behind it. Humans are psychologically more primed to react to a threat they can see or perceive to be real. No matter how good a forecast is or how accurate remote data, the mind still clings to a shadow of doubt until witnessing firsthand evidence. That’s where the field personalities come in — they convey the human element.
“It hacks our wiring from generations of storytelling to keep our eyes on the scene,” wrote climatologist Deke Arndt in a Twitter thread addressing this very concern. “We are wired, after hundreds of generations, to learn through [the] story.”
Moreover, showing the horrific wrath of Mother Nature unfold in real time offers the opportunity to provide teachable moments to viewers. If consumers are presented with the dangers they could face in a similar future scenario, they are much more likely to heed warnings and the advice of local officials.
“I look at it like reporting from a war zone,” wrote meteorologist Matt Serwe of KETV in Omaha “It’s dangerous but necessary to tell the story.”
Tanner Verstegen, a meteorologist in the energy sector, concurs. “I think TV coverage is important to support the call to action of recovery efforts, and to create awareness. If not with the current storm, then for the next hurricane.”
There is scientific merit as well; at their core, meteorologists are exactly that — scientists. Video evidence of “miniswirls” didn’t exist until Bettes’s report last year. More importantly, educating the public empowers viewers to better know what’s coming and make informed decisions.
Detroit Airport weather observer Stephen Szulborski summed up the dilemma nicely. “I get wanting to get the best shot or most thrilling video — but at what point is it worth the risk?”