In Haiti, news crews know disaster drill

Coverage informed by experiences in S. Asia, New Orleans

When the catastrophic earthquake rumbled through Haiti before dinnertime Tuesday, it set in motion a response among the networks molded in part by the South Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina six years ago.

It's impossible to compare the human tragedies. Yet each taught journalists lessons in bringing back video amid a crumbled infrastructure, how to deal with widespread suffering and how to equip personnel, build supply lines and keep everyone safe and healthy.

Coverage this week has been informed by those experiences, just as much as the individual experiences of journalists such as NBC's Brian Williams and CNN's Anderson Cooper, who covered each of the stories. And though no one is counting the bills right now, covering the Haitian earthquake is going to be expensive.

"It's one of those times when every penny you invest in this coverage is worth it," said NBC News president Steve Capus. "We have the resources to do this. We're not breaking the piggybank."

Every move -- from the chartering of multiple private jets (five in NBC's case alone) and choppers to bringing enough food, fuel and medical supplies to take care of its contingent -- means that covering the Haitian earthquake has become a million-dollar decision for the networks. Like the army of aid workers and soldiers who will provide relief to the suffering Haitians, the networks had less than 24 hours to establish and replenish supply lines.

That's not to mention that security personnel regularly accompany journalists in potentially fluid environments.

TV journalism learned during Katrina that prepositioning everything from TV equipment to trucks to meals-ready-to-eat was crucial. Networks drew upon their stores in the early hours of the Haitian earthquake, and established connection points in Miami and the Dominican Republic as well as Port-au-Prince.

"Our marching orders for folks heading down there is to bring everything you need to work and live," said David Reiter, vp of newsgathering at ABC News. "You can't assume that anything will be available."

Haiti has almost no infrastructure. Generators and transmitting equipment have to be brought in by land, sea or air. But the networks did catch a break: Haiti is two hours from the mainland U.S., not half a world away like Banda Aceh, Indonesia.

Costs for all of the networks combined could be in the range of $5 million or more, though no one will discuss figures. It's not cheap but it's not expected to be as expensive as the coverage of Hurricane Katrina, which continued for months, or of the tsunami, which span several countries a half world away.

"The tsunami was all over the place for us and was in a number of very challenging environments," CNN International executive vp Tony Maddox said. "Relatively speaking, the (earthquake) footprint is quite concentrated. It's not the whole of Haiti, it's the capital area. That makes it somewhat easier to deploy your facilities and concentrate coverage."

In as much as you can plan for the unexpected, the networks try by setting aside an annual "breaking news" budget. Some years, like 2009, the money isn't spent on catastrophes but instead goes to other needs like increased costs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But other times, like the 2004 tsunami that stretched into the early part of 2005 or Katrina later that fall, the costs can be back-breaking. There's no way to know what kind of year it will be, nor whether another high-cost event will pop up that strains the budget further.

For network news execs, it can be a balancing act. Capus and other execs said monetary considerations aren't most important right now.

"The cost is what it is, but it is the nature of the business for a story like this," said ABC's Reiter. "We always try to cover the news as well as we can and be fiscally responsible. But for a story like this and a place like this where our folks are working in difficult circumstances, those priorities are lower down the list than safety and covering the story."

One added cost -- and worry -- is security. In the past, journalists worked on their own even in the world's most dangerous places and relied upon their own senses to know when to leave. But since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even the lawlessness after Hurricane Katrina, armed security personnel have traveled with journalists to advise them when a location is dangerous or to keep them out of harm's way.

In the best of times, Haiti was dangerous and crime-ridden. The potential is there although there haven't been widespread reports of trouble.

"It's obviously something that we need to worry about, the safety of our folks," Capus said. "There's a complete lack of infrastructure there. There's no government ... It's complete and total devastation."

The NBC exec said Brian Williams, his producer and others have been in Haiti a number of times and know the country.

"You draw on those experiences to cover the story," Capus said. "This is a very senior team out there."

CNN's Maddox expressed similar confidence.

"These are seasoned field operators," he said. "They are good at avoiding trouble, but it's a fluid situation. You prepare for the worst and hope for the best."

Three days into the coverage, no one could say when the massive network presence would inevitably be dialed back. At least one network held a meeting Thursday afternoon to discuss the next steps.

"We've got so much (invested) there, I can't even begin to think about an exit strategy," Capus said. "I don't immediately see any end in sight."

In fact, it was NBC that well after Hurricane Katrina kept the Gulf Coast in the spotlight and like CNN opened a bureau there.

CNN's Maddox said the Haiti story has "grabbed hold of the popular imagination."

He added, "I think we'll be at that for a while yet."