If you watched just about any TV news coverage of Hurricane Irma, you saw a familiar scene: the beleaguered on-air reporter standing outside, jaw set, eyes squinched, braving the buffeting rain and winds all in the name of bringing you the latest on the storm’s destruction.
The death-defying standup is a time-honored trope of televised storm coverage. It dates to at least 1961 when Dan Rather waded into Houston’s floodwaters during Hurricane Carla to bring viewers live updates from the scene.
Yet as the New York Times’ Sopan Deb pointed out on Sunday, the practice has lately drawn some blowback of its own. Critics on social media last weekend wondered whether the grandstanding was truly necessary—and whether the reporters involved might be endangering not just their own lives, but those of their viewers.
“This is not safe. Lead by example,” read one of the top replies on Sunday to a CNN tweet showing reporter Bill Weir nearly getting bowled over in Key Largo, Florida. Another asked: “Why do these news networks feel the need to put these reporters out there? We get that it’s really windy and really rainy.”
It wasn’t just the peanut gallery raising objections. As Columbia Journalism Review notes, prominent journalists and media critics such as the Times’ Marc Lacey and NPR’s David Folkenflik publicly admonished TV stations for the practice, too.
Deb’s Times piece, which is worth reading in full, includes TV anchors’ defenses of the practice; a typical example includes this from CBS News’ Mark Strassmann:
… Television is all about visual proof. You want to persuade people that what they’re seeing is real and matters to them. And if they can see me standing out there getting knocked around, it’ll convince them that they should not do the same thing.
Whether seeing anchors on TV brave the storm deters viewers or emboldens them is a hard question to answer without empirical evidence. It could probably cut either way, depending on the viewer and the storm.
But is this really about how to best protect the public? I find that hard to believe. The truth is that putting reporters on camera in the teeth of a hurricane makes for compelling TV. It takes a massive impersonal event and gives it a human protagonist to whom the viewer can relate. And no matter how much the reporter assures us that he or she is safe, the standup carries a soupcon of suspense and vicarious danger that no panel of talking heads in a newsroom can match. (Will this be the time that Chris Cuomo gets tragically sucked into the sky like one of those flying cows in Twister?)
Of course, news networks can’t just come out and say, “We’re putting reporters in harm’s way in order to boost our ratings.” So instead you get the Strassmann line—echoed by Cuomo and several others on-air Sunday—that it’s about scaring people into staying inside. “I’m here so you don’t have to be,” Weir said Sunday evening as he drove past a ravaged trailer park in the Upper Keys.
From a journalistic standpoint, it’s actually the first part of Strassmann’s rationale, the part about visual proof and persuading people that what they’re seeing is real, that I find most compelling.
In a time of fake news, when every disaster brings a fusillade of doctored and misleading viral photos, bringing viewers directly to the scene in the person of a trusted anchor has more value than ever. Deb’s story implied at one point that “the rise of social media” might render the practice unnecessary. But scrolling through Facebook or Twitter during Irma, it was almost impossible to know which images of devastation were real. Even the president’s social media director, Dan Scavino, tweeted a video that turned out not to be authentic. He shrugged off the mistake by saying that he was trying to sort through hundreds of images sent to him by members of the public.
Imagine a world in which TV networks didn’t send their anchors out into the field to report live on the storm. Among other alternatives, they’d probably rely more heavily on social media for images, opening themselves to the same kind of errors Scavino made. Without the live shots of the anchors, we’d probably see the same sensational clips over and over ad nauseum, as we often do in the wake of terror attacks. And they would give viewers a heavily skewed idea of what was actually going on outside at any given time.
It’s impossible to know whether CNN saved any lives by turning its newscast to Cuomo for several hours Sunday as he endured Irma from start to finish on a Naples balcony (and for a brief interval during the eye, on the street below). It’s clear, however, that doing so gave viewers a visceral sense of just what the storm was like—not just the intensity, but the duration, the ebb and flow, the eerie silence of the eye.
It was good television, yes, but it was also, in its way, good journalism. Whether you found yourself laughing at Cuomo or fearing for his life (I did some of each), you felt by the end that you had been through Irma with him, his indefatigable presence on that balcony anchoring the network’s coverage even as new footage continually rolled in from correspondents around the state.
To be clear, putting a TV personality outside in a storm is not a substitute for all the other kinds of original on-the-ground reporting that a disaster such as Irma demands. There’s some risk in putting too much of the focus on the anchor, as opposed to the storm’s actual victims and survivors (TV news is usually quite good at focusing on these people). And any network that is found to have inadequately equipped its personnel to safely report on the storm will deserve all the criticism it gets. (The Weather Channel’s Mike Seidel may have come the closest to calamity during Irma, as you can see in the tweet below.)
But provided it’s done with some forethought and care, the cliché of the hurricane standup holds as much journalistic value in the social media age as it ever did before—and certainly more value than the alternative cliché, in which the anchors affect a somber, concerned tone while sitting safe and dry at a fancy desk in New York City.