By Tony McDaniel
This has been one of the worst years for hurricanes in recent history. Ten hurricanes have formed in the Atlantic Ocean, the most since 2005. Texas governor Greg Abbott said his state may need as much as $180 billion in aid to rebuild from Hurricane Harvey.
Hurricanes are massive media events, and cable news networks benefit from the bump in ratings that storms bring. CNN’s ratings spiked during the weather-packed month of August. The network’s viewers in primetime jumped to more than 1.19 million viewers, up from 892,000 in July.
The network consistently seeing the biggest bump in viewership during hurricanes is the Weather Channel. The network, which averaged 150,000 viewers during primetime in July, saw a spike to 1.3 million primetime viewers during the week coinciding with the landfall of Hurricane Harvey in Texas.
Cable news networks take advantage of the surge in viewership by sending correspondents to report live from the suspected location of landfall, dropping regular scheduled programing for non-stop coverage while blasting the words “breaking news” in big, bold letters across the lower third of the screen.
But how responsible are cable news networks being with their coverage? Is it a safe practice to send correspondents into a hurricane while instructing viewers in the area to evacuate, or does it cause a numbing effect for viewers living in areas regularly affected by hurricanes? Or might viewers inherently disbelieve the inherent danger when reporters venture into the eye of a storm?
For years, networks have built storms up to be “potentially one of the worst in history,” and for years, networks have sent their own employees into areas to report on “potentially the worst hurricane in history.”
In 2016, as Hurricane Matthew bared down on Florida, a video of Fox News anchor Shepard Smith went viral in which he said, “If this moves 20 miles to the west, you and everyone you know are dead. You can’t survive it. It is not possible unless you are very, very lucky. And your kids die too.”
While four people died in the United States as a result of Hurricane Matthew, four people is certainly not “you and everyone you know.” It is also worth noting that while Smith was warning of the impending doom the storm was bringing, his co-worker, Leland Vittert, was on the ground in Florida covering the storm as it made landfall. This raises two questions:
- Could the storm possibly kill everyone in Florida if Fox News is sending its own people there?
- How smart of a practice is that from Fox News?
It must be hard for television viewers to heed the warnings to evacuate from an anchor sitting in a studio who then cuts to a live shot of a correspondent in a raincoat being pelted by rain and wind. If viewers are told a storm could be potentially catastrophic and they should evacuate while the media outlets telling them to do so are sending their own employees into the evacuation zone, why should people living in the evacuation zone listen?
Additionally, it is unnecessary for correspondents to stand outside during a hurricane with little more than a raincoat to protect them from debris to properly illustrate the strength of a hurricane. Understandably, news outlets have a duty to report the news regardless of the danger, but there are clearly safer options other than placing a reporter in the open for a live shot during a hurricane. For example, if networks must show what it is like in a hurricane, cameras can be placed in enclosed areas that keep people out of the way of danger. Cameras are replaceable, people are not.
During Hurricane Irma’s landfall in September, CNN’s Chris Cuomo said during a live shot in the hurricane “There is a strong argument to be made that standing in a storm is not a smart thing to do.”
In 2011, The New York Times published an article on Ted Seidel, a hurricane reporter for the Weather Channel. The article chronicled his coverage as Hurricane Irene made landfall in North Carolina. According to the article, it took three people to hold down the tripod of the camera. At times, Seidel would stand on the deck, bracing himself against the railing to hold himself up, just to show viewers that he was indeed there. A section of the same railing collapsed during their coverage.
Networks understand the danger and reporters on the ground do their best to keep themselves safe. Ted Scouten, a reporter for CBS4 News, a local station in Miami, detailed his crew’s setup while Hurricane Irma made landfall earlier this year. Scouten’s camera operator showed that they were under an awning, near the doors to a hotel and behind an SUV to block the wind.
Accidents can happen
No matter how hard television crews try to remain safe, hurricanes are unpredictable and accidents can happen. While covering Hurricane Irma’s landfall, NBC’s Gabe Guttierez was nearly hit by a tree limb that landed just feet behind him during a live shot. Also during Hurricane Irma, CNN’s Kyung Lah was being pushed around in the street by wind in Miami when a road sign feet from her collapsed. In October, a reporter for the Weather Channel was nearly hit by a flying chair while covering Hurricane Nate’s landfall in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Reporters have gotten lucky so far to not be hit by flying debris, but in an unpredictable environment anything can happen, and luck eventually runs out.
Weather events such as hurricanes are important news stories that must be covered. But perhaps cable news networks are covering them incorrectly and recklessly knowing that their viewers will tune in to see a correspondent get pushed around by wind forceful enough to bow trees over. Rethinking how we cover hurricanes is something that needs to be done to keep viewers and correspondents alike safe.
Networks should lead by example and seek shelter while covering storms instead of doing just what they are telling others not to do by standing in the open in a hurricane.