My mom always used to shake her head watching hurricane coverage as she watched reporters get blasted with wind and water. “These people are too stupid to come out of the rain.”
Years later, I became one of them.
And after I covered my first hurricane, a viewer told me, “You tell everyone to either stay in their homes or evacuate and yet you’re out on TV a few feet from the Gulf when the thing hit. You should take your own advice.”
So, why do we cover hurricanes the way we do? Because many years ago some television executive decided we needed to be “dramatic.” Eventually, drama is going to get someone killed.
There are three parts to covering these massive storms: the prep, the landfall and the aftermath. And after covering many hurricanes, I can tell you the most important part is the aftermath. Because that’s when the media can actually make a huge difference.
The prep has become so standard we could use file tape and no one would know the difference because pretty much every reporter uses the same video:
-Lines at the gas station? Check.
-Empty bread shelves at the supermarket? Check.
-People buying plywood and generators? Check.
-People attaching plywood over windows? Check.
-Guy with shopping cart full of bottled water? Check.
-Sign reading “(name of hurricane) go away!” Check.
The only stuff we report that makes a difference before a hurricane is the information people really need: Preps you need to take, locations of shelters, evacuation routes, phone number for FEMA, the coordinates of the hurricane and how to stay safe.
And when the hurricane hits, reporters get sent out to the middle of the storm.
Personally, I never felt any story was worth dying for, and I wasn’t going to be one of those reporters who got whacked with a flying two-by-four. When I worked in Mobile we had a great location on the Causeway: an abandoned gas station. It provided a great windbreak and the photographer could shoot it in such a way that it appeared I was out in the storm when I was just getting hit with some spray.
But after covering hurricanes for various networks, I stopped, because producers in their nice dry newsrooms were putting people in danger, demanding more “dramatic” shots. Standing out in 100-mile-per-hour winds doesn’t prove you’re brave. What’s it like being outside? Well, at one point I was in my plastic raingear on Highway 90, and I tried to cross the street but kept being blown back. I finally was crouched down almost to a crawl when a gust of wind blew under my rain jacket and lifted me off the ground for a second. And this was “only” a Category 1 hurricane.
People know what it’s like outside by looking out the window. Television networks and local stations could easily show what’s happening using unmanned weather cameras and by accessing street surveillance cameras.
And as luck would have it, we once had a flat tire during a hurricane. You can’t exactly call Triple-A. Of course, the spare was buried under all our gear, so we have to unload the entire car before we could change the tire. Exposed to everything flying around.
The big difference maker in hurricane coverage is the aftermath. Honestly, what you see on television doesn’t do justice to the devastation. My jaw dropped after hurricane Katrina looking at the entire Grand Casino in Biloxi that had been completely swept across the street. A school superintendent in Mississippi wanted to show me one of her schools, so we went for a walk. Suddenly she stopped in the middle of a massive pile of bricks. I asked her where the school was. “You’re standing on it.”
But it’s the victims the media can help. The people who lost their homes, especially the ones without insurance. They need to know where to turn. You don’t ask a dumb question like, “How do you feel?” You tell people where to find food, shelter, clothing, anything they need. If there’s federal or local assistance to help them rebuild. If you run into a FEMA guy you send him over.
Sometimes the victims are so devastated you get a hug.
But many times, networks tend to ignore the need. Katrina coverage focused on New Orleans and was seemingly endless, but many (including me) feel Mississippi was hit harder. Hurricane Michael hit Panama City just as hard, but you didn’t see endless coverage of the damage to what is known as a resort city. It disappeared from the national headlines pretty quickly. But the victims were just as devastated. Hurricanes don’t target poor neighborhoods or rich ones. Neither should the media. Victims are victims.
So it’s time for hurricane coverage to be updated. And as soon as a reporter or photographer is killed getting “dramatic” video, you’ll hear a collective call for safety above all else. There are plenty of stories to be told, and if you tell those stories in an emotional way someone in power tends to notice. But while a hurricane eventually goes away, the stories can go on for a long time. They don’t disappear just because something else knocks them off the front page.
Sharing emotion with viewers is the most powerful thing you can do. Years ago as a rookie reporter I was sent to cover a fire. The photographer noticed a woman sitting on the curb, crying. Turned out she had lost her house, had no insurance and $11 to her name. She would have to stay with friends that night. Instead of showing flames, we told her story. The next day the receptionist buzzed me. “You’d better get up here. The lobby is filled with donations for that woman who lost her house.” Clothes, furniture, kitchen utensils. A landlord called and offered an apartment for free. That one shot of the woman crying on the curb had triggered emotion.
And that’s how the media can make a difference.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to [email protected].
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