St. Louis TV stations get severe storms coverage right

Editor's note: Tripp Frohlichstein, who previously was a St. Louis Journalism Review contributor, worked for Channel 4 from 1974 to 1986. He is approaching his 28th year in business as owner of MediaMasters, a company that specializes in training people to give better presentations, give better interviews to reporters and develop messaging.

At a high level, kudos to the local St. Louis television stations and their meteorologists for keeping people up to date and safe when last Friday’s (May 31) storms hit. While some people may have been upset that their programming was pre-empted, it was the right thing to do. The fact there were no deaths or serious injuries, despite three tornadoes in the area, may well be attributed partly to the local station’s non-stop coverage and warnings. All three stations’ meteorologists used their Doppler radar technology to pinpoint the likely locations of the twisters. Hindsight proved them to all be correct. It is situations like this that show us the importance of continuing to have local newsrooms who can inform masses of people instantly about dangerous situations.

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The day after the severe storms and tornadoes hit St. Louis (the storm hit May 31), channel 4 (KMOV) aired a promo telling viewers how well the station did in covering the weather. But what channel 4 did not say was that they repeated some seriously incorrect information multiple times. The station frequently referred to “mass casualties” at the Holiday Inn in Earth City. Sometimes they used the word “unconfirmed” but at other times, the on-air talent simply said “we are getting reports” of “mass casualties.” This information was dead wrong. There were no deaths or even major injuries reported. I was flipping stations at the time. I heard one other station reference the “unconfirmed” report once.

As CNN learned the hard way when prematurely reporting the arrest of suspects in the Boston Marathon, it is important to wait on some information until you can confirm it. Perhaps as a slap to Channel 4’s errant information, another local station aired its promo (bragging about how great it was) by noting its information was first and “accurate.”

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From the Journalism 101 writing department comes a note to Channel 5 (KSDK) reporter Talia Kaplan: A home or room is not “completely destroyed.” It either is destroyed, or it isn’t. When it isn’t, it is damaged. There are degrees of damage, however, such as moderate or heavy damage. She said this incorrect phrase multiple times, including in this report:

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Channel 5 needs to learn how to better manage programming video and severe storm information on the same screen. As watches were posted Friday afternoon, information was put on the lower third of the screen. Severe weather was approaching but was not imminent. However, people complained the weather information blocked scores on the program “Jeopardy.” This might sound trite, but there is an easy solution for the people who care about the weather and the ones who care about programming: The TV stations all have the ability to shrink the main picture. If Channel 5 had shrunk the main video just 15 percent to 20 percent, it would have been easy for viewers to see the whole picture – and, at the same time, have all the necessary storm information – without blocking any portion of the show.


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