Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Monkeys and Professionals - Another Look at Media, Local Version


You may have seen those Careerbuilder commercials, the ones where the dedicated and hardworking employee is surrounded by a pack of useless chattering monkeys? That image showed up repeatedly in my mind, as I watched the various media types try to cover Hurricane Rita, most of them badly and with little sense of the needs of their viewers. This seems to happen a lot with television, at the network level as much as the local stations. There appears to be a formula for news shows in general, and it gets even more trite in storm coverage:

[] You must show the anchors working in casual clothing, to emphasize that they are working under difficult and deprived conditions, even at the studio.

[] The people on camera must look rough and ready, yet their makeup must be perfect

[] At least one young female, preferably petite, must be seen at the coast to emphasize the danger and maximize the storm’s effect

[] When considering scenarios, the worst damage and loss of life must be emphasized repeatedly

[] Drama is vital; reporters must stand in water as deep as possible (even if that means finding an alley which does not drain well to imply a flooded major thoroughfare), and must exaggerate wind velocity

[] Footage and information must be repeated incessantly, dozens of times an hour in order to look busy and informed

Just as CBS News has become no more than a fa├žade of a real news service, most local news do not supply the real information deeds of their viewers, and this was painfully obvious during the “coverage” of hurricane Rita.

I had Thursday and Friday off before the storm hit Saturday morning, and so I spent a lot of time watching the news for information. While the stations featured endless examples of the ridiculous, like Fox 26 putting a female reporter in a poncho and hip waders to stand in an empty Galveston street in hundred-degree heat more than 40 hours before the first rain drop fell, or Wayne Dolcefino of Channel 13 (ABC) trying to convince viewers that he was working hard on the scene in Beaumont, when he would disappear for hours on end and reappear looking fresh and in new clothes, in sharp contrast to reporters who were really working the long shifts. But worse than the Potemkin newscasts, was the useful information that the stations simply never bothered to provide, like alternate routes North and West, or coordination with the Mayor’s office to help the evacuation proceed according to plan. The appearance of diligence was more important than actually helping people get vital information, it seems, and for that most of the local stations have earned my great contempt.

The trump card of the Old Media remains the fact that networks and major stations have significant broadcast facilities and resources. If the editors and majority owners of the syndicates put the same thought and diligence into the quality of information that they provide to viewers in these events that they do to their equipment, modern television could be truly amazing in its value and a tremendous asset to the city. As it is, most local stations have no more virtue than a Pamela Anderson sitcom. My grades for Channel 2 (KPRC-NBC), Channel 13 (KTRK-ABC), Channel 26 (KRIV-FOX), and Channel 39 (KHTV-WB) are F’s across the board. Right there with the screaming chimps I mentioned at the beginning of this article.

A pleasant exception, as I conclude, must be noted, for Channel 11 (KHOU-CBS). While they could not resist the obligatory marathon of repeated file footage, when the storm itself rolled in, regular updates of road conditions, shelters, police and city advisories, and store availability was maintained non-stop, updated far more often than the other stations and with far less induced drama. Greg Hurst and Lisa Foronda worked, by my estimate, about 65 hours between Friday and Sunday, taking calls and emails to answer questions and provide the most needed information. No hip-wader stunts, just solid information when it mattered. Well done, Channel 11.

1 comment:

alena said...

Cool Blog, I never really thought about it that way.

I have a Hurricane Katrina blog. It pretty much covers hurricane related stuff.

Thank you - and keep up the thoughts!