The U.S. was rocked by natural disasters in 2017, resulting in a record $16 billion in losses. From a trio of hurricanes to the biggest wildfire in modern California history, broadcasters covered it all providing vital information to viewers pre-, during and post-event. How the industry covered these events and the lessons learned from the past year were the key areas of focus during NAB’s “Eye of the Storm: Broadcasters’ Role in Emergencies” conference this week.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai keynoted the event, noting broadcasters’ role in promoting public safety is long and storied. “Whenever disaster strikes, audiences will turn to broadcasters because they trust the broadcasters will help them,” the chairman said. He highlighted three areas that are key in continuing to develop that trust: resiliency, alerting and Next Gen TV, where development of new services and applications will further benefit consumers during these emergencies.
Pai also briefly talked about last weekend’s incident in Hawaii where a false alert was issued warning of an incoming ballistic missile. He said that government must make sure that their information is correct. He added that the FCC is currently investigating the issue and what steps can be taken to correct it.
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel echoed the chairman’s sentiment that the alerting procedures need to be looked at as soon as possible and that broadcasters need to be at the table during these discussions. The commissioner also proposed that the FCC conduct similar investigations on the aftermatch of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. “I bet that the role of broadcasters in keeping our communities safe in these disasters was a big one, and I want us at the agency to do what we can to make sure that continues,” Rosenworcel said.
REPORTING FROM THE STORM ZONE
The images of reporters being buffeted by hurricane winds have often been used as comic relief and at times prompted critics to question why broadcasters put their news crews at risk while reporting in dangerous conditions. But as the panelists of the “Reporting to You Live from the Storm Zone” session saw it, it is a responsibility they take seriously.
“When the storm comes, we are there first and foremost as the surrogates, to be the eyes and ears on the scene where people can’t leave their homes and want to know what is going on in their community,” said Stacey Woelfel, professional practice professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
Even with that responsibility, the first plan according to all the panelists is the safety of their reporters.
“There is a danger in storm reporting; we take it very seriously,” said Tim Tunison, news director for WBAL-TV. “We talk with our staff a lot about safety. You’re never going to win an award from me for the craziest live shot. You might get a phone call from me if I see you doing something very dangerous.”
Beyond the physical dangers of reporting on disasters like hurricanes, broadcasters have a responsibility to make sure their reporting maintains high standards despite the demand for information. This was one of the largest criticisms during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, according to Kathleen Culver, journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Culver recalled sources exaggerating body count numbers, and reports from the national media that reflected a lack of understanding of the area’s culture or the circumstances of its residents. She noted that reporting did improve over the past year, but urged broadcasters to be prepared to report on natural disasters more frequently in the future.
Manny Centeno, Debra Jordan, Mark Krieschen, Steve Pontius and Chris Leonard take part in a panel during NAB's Eye of the Storm conference.
All of the panelists and speakers agreed that broadcasters’ preparedness is the most important element when covering a storm. In the panel “Resiliency: Lessons Learned and Best Practices for Preparing a Newsroom Ahead of the Storm,” moderator Carlton Houston, assistant news director for Washington, D.C. CBS affiliate WUSA 9, recalled the time when he attempted to purchase a generator right before a hurricane only to discover they were all sold out. The moral of his story was that broadcasters need to be prepared at all times, not just when a storm is imminent.
“[Preparedness] is part of a culture of a television station,” added panelist Steven Pontius, executive vice president and general manager, Waterman Broadcasting Corp. “You have to embed this in your employees and make them understand.
“You also have to prepare your community,” he added. “It’s not just about preparing your staff, but it’s about preparing your community. You can’t let the community have its guard down, you have to say please be prepared.”
While all broadcasters need to ensure that they stay on the air during a storm, as Manny Centeno, project manager at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, pointed out, they also have to have a contingency plan for incidents that might not normally impact them. While working generators and fuel to keep the power among the first items to be addressed, Centeno discovered that in some cases, broadcasters forgot about human resources. “They weren’t thinking about who’s going to be on air, they weren’t thinking about how they were going to source information to put on air,” he said.
However, even with the best laid plans, mistakes will happen. Chris Leonard, president and general manager of New West Broadcasting Corp. found this out firsthand during the false alert in Hawaii. The technology and the response by broadcasters was correct, the error in that case was human.
“This comes back to procedural implementation as well and making sure that government and the broadcast community is really on the same page and understands that we need to have faith in government’s ability to deliver the message; they have to have faith in our ability to reach the people,” Leonard said. “There is a system that is specifically designed with that in mind and it was not properly implemented on that day.”