TV forecast now calls for soaked reporters

Published October 25, 2005

I thought I was the only one who disliked seeing reporters lashed by driving wind and rain during Hurricane Wilma coverage.

Then Florida Gov. Jeb Bush spoke up Monday.

"My wife and I woke up at 5 a.m. and ... (saw) these characters on television reporting the news and putting themselves in harm's way," said Bush, speaking during the morning news briefing at the Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee. "It creates a bad example, I think, for others. They think somehow this is fun. It isn't fun. It's very dangerous."

St. Petersburg Times reporter Joni James asked Bush to elaborate after the briefing.

"Lt. Gov. Jennings said she saw (Today show weatherman) Al Roker doing his broadcast on the beach and they had two guys holding him down," the governor said. "I don't think they realize how stupid they sound when they put themselves in harm's way. Eventually, someone is going to get hurt really bad."

Certainly, it was tough to watch the saturation coverage of Wilma's approach Sunday night and Monday morning without seeing such displays. From Anderson Cooper and John Zarrella facing the elements at Marco Island for CNN to WFTS-Ch. 28 reporter Don Germaise standing in a Naples deluge, TV reporters often demonstrated the storm's force by placing their own bodies in the elements.

"It's important to note that TV is a visual medium," said Jim Bell, executive producer of the Today show, where Roker was blown over during a live report Monday from the balcony of a Naples hotel while a crew member held him down. (Because WFLA-Ch. 8 pre-empted the show for local news reports, Tampa-area viewers missed his tumble.)

"As a journalist, you want to give people a sense that, "I am here, and this is what is happening,"' said the producer.

Bell's defense was echoed by Bill Carey, general manager at Tampa ABC affiliate WFTS, where reporter Germaise has earned a growing reputation as the station's boldest storm chaser.

"There's a difference between reporting what is happening and doing stunts to draw attention to yourself," said Carey, whose station presented coverage of Wilma's advance from 11 p.m. Sunday to 1 p.m. Monday. "And while you hear about damage to satellite dishes and camera gear, you don't hear about reporters being injured."

Concerns remain that footage of Cooper or Fox News' Shepard Smith braving the elements during previous hurricanes - images which sparked accolades for their reporting - could devolve into a gimmick.

With Today facing ratings competition from Good Morning America , CNN fighting Fox News Channel for viewers and WFTS often rated fourth among area news broadcasts, the pressure for attention-getting coverage is pronounced.

At WFLA, reporter Jeff Patterson was asked to step inside after walking into a driving rain for one report. News director Don North, a recent transplant from tornado-afflicted Wichita, Kan., said the station resists placing reporters in the middle of hurricane winds.

"All you have to do is stand behind a concrete wall and shoot things flying around," said North at WFLA, which also offered 14 hours of coverage over Sunday and Monday. "I guess some people think it would add a lot of drama ... (but) we typically don't spend five minutes standing in a driving rainstorm."

CNN/U.S. president Jonathan Klein defended the channel's emphasis on such reporting - including playing clips of reports by Cooper, Zarrella and even Germaise throughout Monday.

"Our correspondents did an exemplary job of making clear repeatedly that no one at home should be out in that weather," said Klein. "Katrina showed very clearly how essential it is that the media shine a spotlight on preparations, and their aftermath. Yes, that does entail some risk. But it's a risk that unfortunately has to be taken."

But Bell, noting that famous anchors such as Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather made their reputations through demonstrative storm coverage, said the trend is inevitable and long-established.

"The genie's out of the bottle ... you know it and I know it," he said. "Hurricanes are big stories, and reporters will always want to cover them."

--Eric Deggans can be reached at 727 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com See his blog at www.sptimesphotos.com/blogs/media/