The awful cliché hovering around local newscasts for years has been “if it bleeds, it leads,” suggesting that viewers are attracted to stories about gruesome crimes and stations are more than happy to provide them. But it’s hard to top a weather story of the Hurricane Sandy variety in a station newsroom, where the mantra is “let it, let it blow, let it blow.”
Local stations have those “on your side” reports, where a reporter takes a microphone up to an auto shop proprietor and asks why the State Car Repair Protection Agency (SCRPA) has cited him 9,000 times for overcharging for carburetor replacements.
But hurricanes are a chance for the media to stake ground as true heroes. And the reporters and producers eat it up. Former CBS anchor Dan Rather couldn’t get enough of standing on a beach and informing people the surf behind him was rough and the wind was coming hard. Broadcasting & Cable reported that CBS News anchor Scott Pelley would anchor Monday evening's newscast from the battered Jersey Shore. A camera shot and narration from the studio wouldn't work?
Reporters love holding onto a light post with one hand and the microphone with the other, stating the obvious -- it’s bad. And, while those scenes don’t usually reveal much, producers hope the visuals will convey a message about what lengths your local news team will go to for you.
Catastrophic weather is a station’s Super Bowl or Olympics as ratings soar. And in this era, where news brands are looking for a way to recapture some of their past dominance, hurricanes that have hundreds of thousands of people trapped inside offer an opportunity. (How about all those reporters in rain gear with the station brand on slick display?) Gannett-owned Buffalo NBC affiliate WGRZ ran an ad in sibling USA Today plugging its “storm team” Monday, providing insight into how stations view weather events as a chance to boost their profile.
The National Association of Broadcasters seemingly never misses a chance to take advantage of an earthquake or hurricane to advance its interests by touting the public service its member stations are engaging in during adverse conditions. On Monday, it released a statement from its CEO Gordon Smith:
"I salute the remarkable work of our radio and TV station colleagues now putting themselves in harm's way to keep millions of people safe and informed on the devastation of this deadly storm. As FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate noted this weekend, in times of emergency there is no more reliable source of information than that coming from local broadcasters. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all of those in the path of Hurricane Sandy."
Even as weather visuals in many cases can be little more than entertainment, it should be pointed out that it is critical for the media to cover hurricanes with such intensity. It’s less about the dramatic shots of trees snapped or cars flipped or the weather conditions themselves, but the need to hold the government accountable. Hurricane Katrina was a lesson in how people can tragically get left behind with incompetence. And were it not for those heartbreaking camera shots, who would have known enough to make sure something that awful hopefully never happens again?