Everyone tuned to CNN's Hurricane Sandy coverage couldn't help but be riveted by images of correspondent Ali Velshi reporting from an Atlantic City intersection as the storm made landfall. Anchors returned to him repeatedly for hours. Several gusts of wind nearly toppled him. Flood water rose to his waist. As CNN alternated between shots from Atlantic City and a damaged crane in Manhattan that threatened to fall onto neighboring buildings, a Twitter user captured the moment:
"Hi, Ali, this is CNN HQ. Get out of that flooded street IMMEDIATELY. There's a crane in Manhattan we need you to go stand under."-- delrayser (@delrayser) October 30, 2012
Standing under a teetering crane would've made for riveting television too. As would surfing the storm surge on an old-school wooden long board. But none of it wouldn't have added news value. And neither did Velshi's exploits. "We've done this before, and we know how to keep safe," he assured viewers, explaining that he sought to show others how dangerous conditions were.
His reasoning is flawed.
The notion that it is safe to stand in waist high floodwater and gale force winds, given a bit of experience, is nonsense. And it undercuts rather than strengthens the message that people should stay inside. How many CNN viewers said to themselves, "Look at those reporters. They're fine. I'm going to go outside and check out the storm for myself." I submit CNN correspondents inspired that reaction with more frequency than they scared anyone out of danger.
Velshi isn't entirely unaware of this either - he assumes that his presence will draw people who want to be on television into the street:
There are a lot of journalists I respect for putting themselves in harm's way -- journalists who chronicle wars, report on conditions in refugee camps, challenge the lies of repressive political regimes, or otherwise gather information that wouldn't be disseminated save for risking their lives.
That isn't what CNN and Velshi were doing. If standing in hurricanes for hours at a time were necessary to report on them, newspaper staffers would do it too. On TV, a camera mounted on a street corner might not be as entertaining. It might lack the drama of a human being in danger.
But it would adequately convey all the newsworthy information.
David Verdi, senior vice president of newsgathering at NBC News, told the Washington Post's Erik Wemple on Monday that networks treat hurricanes like war zones. "The reason we're on beaches and boardwalks is twofold: One is to convey the seriousness and two, because it hits the beach first," he said. "That's the reason we go into war zones and go to special events and places to where we can gain access to places that regular people cannot."
But the information most reporters gather during a hurricane - "THE WIND IS VERY STRONG HERE ON THE SHORE FRONT, AND THE WATER IS RISING ALONG WITH THE TIDE" - is obvious, and could easily be obtained via safer methods. In contrast, information gathered by correspondents in war zones is far more unpredictable in its content and might not otherwise be known.