/// TV Smothers Us: Networks Tried Too Hard With Irene Coverage (MarketWatch)
So, how did the television networks do in their coverage of Hurricane Irene?
I reached two conclusions. First, all of the news shows I caught, as I flipped around the dial on Saturday and Sunday at home in Manhattan, distinguished themselves. They were comprehensive, informative and restrained — the very models of good journalism.
They also smothered us with technical details, as if we were all in training to be meteorologists ourselves. The networks tried a little too hard this time. They began to repeat themselves as well with their doomsaying bulletins and analyses. It was probably not absolutely necessary to have reporters installed at what seemed like every single local beach, resort and vacation haven. After a while, they all looked pretty much the same, no matter which channel I had tuned to.
There were two reasons why the networks went overboard. The TV news departments were caught off guard in December by the blizzard that crippled the city — as was, come to think of it, Mayor Mike Bloomberg. The enormity of the snowfall virtually shut down the five boroughs of New York City and resulted in deaths because people were not able to leave their homes and get immediate medical aid.
It was as if the TV networks had privately pledged among themselves not to be caught unprepared the next time disastrous weather struck New York and the rest of the geographical area, from Washington, D.C. up through New England. Plus, the TV operations didn’t want to miss out in case the storm morphed into a Katrina-like disaster. They couldn’t run the risk of being blasted for not taking this event seriously.
The TV networks must have been thrilled to be able to cover a big story that took place right here in greater New York. That means it is cheap to fan out a lot of reporters to locations in the city, on Long Island, as well as in towns in New Jersey and Connecticut. Instead of fretting about being on the scene of a tsunami abroad or a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, this story would simply cost tanks of gas for news vans.
In addition, the bad weather came at the perfect time for the networks: the weekend. The local baseball games had been postponed and the stock market was closed. So, there was no midday competition for news events. The looming hurricane qualified as the news story we all wanted to know about.
I mostly watched the local networks, leaving the Weather Channel and the cable news outlets to the rest of the country. I figured the best way to get the nuance of the story was to follow it on the New York City channels. The lone exception was when NBC brought in “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams to preside over its coverage.
Williams handled the assignment with his usual aplomb. He took the appropriate tone, remaining careful not to hype the news while providing informative coverage. I smiled when Williams introduced a segment from Alexandria, Va., with correspondent Luke Russert, the son of the late “Meet the Press” icon Tim Russert.
Williams worried that young Russert had thrown himself in harm’s way. “I trust you’ll know when to get out,” Williams told his junior colleague.
Among the reports I watched, NY1 TWX +2.43% , the Time Warner-owned cable channel, did the best work. It had a keen understanding of the neighborhoods. NY1 was quick on Sunday morning to catalog the damage that the storm had caused in the area, including details about the unfortunate hundreds of thousands of area folks who had lost electrical power.
On WCBS CBS +2.25% , reporter John Slattery did an excellent job in Greenwich, Conn., noting that the scene at a boat basin “looks like the scene in the Mississippi River — but this is Old Greenwich.”
The strangest and most light-hearted moment occurred when Fox 5 NWS +1.80% anchor Greg Kelly interviewed his father, New York Police Dept. Commissioner Ray Kelly, during a broadcast. Chiding his father, Greg wanted to make sure that his dad had evacuated his home, which was located in a high-risk neighborhood. “I know where you live,” Greg kidded him. “I know where YOU live, young man” the city’s top cop retorted in a mock-menacing voice. (Fox 5, like MarketWatch, is owned by News Corp.)
WCBS reporter Emily Smith reported on a man who was reckless enough to try surfing on Long Island in waves that reached 10 feet to 12 feet. Normally, Smith pointed out, the waves got only up to the one- to two-foot level, underscoring the extreme danger that the daredevil found himself in.
Other news outlets did a good job, too. In New York, the all-sports radio station WFAN provided lively chatter even though the New York Yankees’ and the New York Mets’ baseball games had been canceled on Saturday because of the weather. The pro football game between the rival Giants and Jets had been pushed back till Monday night, leaving announcers no choice but to fill time. But they did fine, keeping the listeners entertained under difficult conditions.
People say we are guilty of “hyping” the news,” Greg Kelly explained to the viewers. “But we are taking our cues from the mayor and the governor, and even the president.”
That was true. In that case, they all overreacted. It is better to be safe than sorry and the networks were aware that they’d be criticized heavily if they neglected to cover the next Hurricane Katrina.
But they tried too hard.
What did you like or dislike about the TV coverage of Hurricane Irene?
By Jon Friedman
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