Why Do News Networks Send Reporters Into Dangerous Hurricanes?
WABC-TV reporter Phil Lipof wobbled as he tried to hold the frame, pushed and pelted by wind and the swirling debris of the beach in Seaside Heights, N.J. Chip Reid of CBS dashed away from an incoming wave, just escaping its crash. Jonathan Viglotti's transmission was cut as he stood in front of a blazing house in Long Island.
As Mayor Michael Bloomberg urged the citizens of New York City to evacuate or stay inside, news networks were sending their reporters into the eye of the storm.
Sandy started out last Monday as a developing hurricane in the Atlantic that just one of CNN's nine computer models projected to turn left and hit the United States, by Tuesday it became something to watch. Chad Myers, CNN's severe-weather expert, first mentioned it on air that afternoon, and by Thursday it was apparent that it was headed for the Eastern Seaboard. Myers began to rally his troops, surveying who was available, and where, knowing he'd need to diffuse an army of reporters to cover the 500-mile cone of the storm.
Now, CNN has at least 100 employees -- including drivers, multiple reporters and satellite operators -- at points all along the East Coast, as well as local affiliate partners in every city in the massive hurricane's path.
"This is our Super Bowl," Myers told The Hollywood Reporter during a break from his round-the-clock coverage. "We have people that will be in the way of this storm, and people will probably get hurt."
Said Helen Swenson, senior vp live programming at The Weather Channel: "Whether you’re a news person or meteorologist, you live for this. You live first and foremost to tell people to get people out of harm's way; to be there for them before, during and after the storm; and tell people's real stories. We are typically on a 12 hours on, 12 hours off schedule. A lot of people are sleeping here."
For those out in the field, standing in the driving rain and wind, those hours are even more strenuous. Myers says that the network invested several years in scouting the strongest and highest spots in each city so they could park their trucks in the safest possible places and have access to multiple roadways.
"I can't save your life, but I need to do what I can to make sure you stay safe," he said of his reporters. "I feel personally responsible for them. … I sometimes tell them on the air that they need to leave."
Myers calls the field reporting essential to show people what they should not be doing, while Swenson defended the practice with verve.
"A picture is worth a thousand words, as they say," she offered. "If you didn’t have the pictures, how better could you describe the conditions of the storm? If they’re out there to the point where it’s not safe anymore, we shut down."
That decision, she said, often falls to their reporters in the field.
"Somebody like Jim Cantore and Mike Seidel, they’ve been out in the field 20-plus years; they know when it gets too rough," Swenson said. "They will get inside the satellite truck, park it between buildings. It actually happens a lot. What you don’t see is all the live shots we shut down and all the time that we shut them down to wait out the severity of the storm. We let the crews in the field make [the decision to shut down], and they’re the ones that know what’s best."
Both CNN and Weather Channel banned the use of the term "Frankenstorm" to describe Sandy, hoping to strike a more serious tone in coverage. Sensitive to charges of sounding alarmist, Swenson pitches the network as a hub of passionate people doing their life's work.
"At the end of the day, we consider ourselves at the Weather Channel a public service first," Swenson said. "If anyone thinks that during the storm, when you’re going to have a predicted 12 million people without power -- at that point, we’re lucky if we get ratings. We’re not in it to increase ratings. We have to be there for the people. That’ why we’re out there; that’s why we’re exhausted."