Nobody needs to see Al Roker get knocked over by a wave during a hurricane
It's dangerous, it gives audiences the impression that it's safe out, and it's a big waste of resources.
As Hurricane Ida hammered New Orleans, reporters and meteorologists laced up their boots and pulled their raincoats out of the closet to carry out one of the media’s more baffling hurricane traditions: unnecessary on-location reporting. You know, this stuff:
I’ve never quite understood why we do this. Sure, it’s helpful to be able to illustrate the power of a storm. I get that. Even so, it certainly seems like it sends a bad message to viewers at home when you’re on air yelling about how dangerous it is on the ground while insisting on being there yourself.
As you can see from this clip of a reporter during 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, the reporting seemed to encourage a bit of foolishness from those who sheltered in place.
What, exactly, is the news value of this kind of coverage? Is this the best use of a news outlet’s resources during a time of crisis?
As far as I’m concerned, the answers are “not much” and “no,” respectively. And it seems like I’m not alone.
Writing about hurricane coverage at The Atlantic in 2012, Conor Friedersdorf explained the issue:
But none of it wouldn't have added news value. And neither did Velshi's exploits. "We've done this before, and we know how to keep safe," he assured viewers, explaining that he sought to show others how dangerous conditions were.
His reasoning is flawed.
The notion that it is safe to stand in waist high floodwater and gale force winds, given a bit of experience, is nonsense. And it undercuts rather than strengthens the message that people should stay inside. How many CNN viewers said to themselves, "Look at those reporters. They're fine. I'm going to go outside and check out the storm for myself." I submit CNN correspondents inspired that reaction with more frequency than they scared anyone out of danger.
And in a 2017 piece for The New York Times, Sopan Deb explained how anachronistic the practice can be:
The tradition of television crews standing in the middle of a dangerous storm goes back decades, reflecting the hunger to be on the scene for a nationally significant event. But the news value of dangerous stand-ups — in which a correspondent is seen in the field talking to the camera — is increasingly being questioned, particularly with the rise of social media. Some critics wondered whether they are unnecessary and overly sensational spectacles, especially in cases where correspondents are struggling to deliver information.
But those same field reporters insist that the visuals from the storms are essential in persuading people to take hurricane threats seriously and getting them to leave the area. At the same time, veteran reporters say they take every precaution to stay out of life-threatening situations. On CNN, John Berman, in Miami, described flying debris nearby and took pains to say that he didn’t believe he was in serious danger.
In 1961, Deb notes, CBS News anchor Dan Rather started the trend of on-the-ground hurricane coverage when he gave viewers a look outside his Houston studio to see firsthand the damage being created by Hurricane Carla. This coverage helped boost Rather’s national profile, setting him on a path to stardom.
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But in the 60 years since Rather’s coverage of Hurricane Carla, a lot has changed. For one, video cameras are a lot more ubiquitous than they used to be. Why send a crew to the beach to be swept away by a wave when you could just as easily mount a stationary camera or, depending on the conditions, use drones to capture the conditions on the ground?
I’m a big fan of how The Weather Channel paints a picture of hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, etc. without ever having to leave the studio.
I remember watching this video on TV in 2013 and being extremely impressed by the effects, the visuals, the sounds, and just… everything. It really hits home just how dangerous a category 5 storm can be compared to category 1 or 2. And nobody had to risk their lives in the process.
Or this 2018 clip, which does a great job explaining the concept of storm surge.
Another clip, this one from 2019, gives a phenomenal breakdown of the steps people can take in the hours before a storm reaches the shore to stay safe.
There is one thing hurricane coverage (as well as coverage of other extreme weather events) could use: more emphasis on climate change.
Heatwaves, hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, tornadoes, and floods — extreme weather events have been happening with more frequency and intensity. For too long, media outlets have struggled to connect the dots between climate change and natural disasters — a side effect of one of the country’s two main political parties denying climate change’s very existence. This seems to be slowly changing, which is a good thing. With the release of the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, media organizations have little excuse to sidestep the effect climate change is having on the severity and frequency of these extreme weather events.
One journalist who hasn’t been afraid to link climate change with extreme weather has been CBS’s Jeff Beradelli. Be more like Jeff.
A couple of weeks ago, I had climate journalist Eric Holthaus on my podcast. Now might be a good time to give that episode a listen (or read the transcript).
And also, you should follow his Substack, The Phoenix:
Update, 8/31: The Recount knows what’s up.