Wednesday, September 4

Guide to Running a Hurricane Newscast

jax news coverage of hurricane dorian
Before I begin this article, I want to state that I am grateful that Hurricane Dorian missed Jacksonville, and I am also very aware that the storm's destruction was catastrophic for some. This article is not about trivializing a hurricane. It's more about trying to fill air time when the hurricane shows up and is just a wind storm in your area.

The only torture worse than waiting for a hurricane to hit is watching hours of news leading up to the event. And then hours of news people trying to make a small, off-shore hurricane seem like something else in order to keep viewers tuned in. The news channels know a lot of people are watching, so the show must go on, and on, and on. The stars are the weather people, but you need the anchors to provide words such as "devastating" to describe storm potential, as well as general assignment reporters stationed at important spots in order to monitor that which needs no actual monitoring.

I can't talk about the other channels too much, since Action News JAX is the channel that comes in on my antenna better than any other, but I sure can talk about the Fox 30 / CBS 47 news reporting of a hurricane. This article was compiled over two days, so it might seem as disjointed as the news coverage of Dorian, but it gives you an idea of how I see the business of covering a hurricane. It happens that this particular hurricane did not do a whole lot to Jacksonville, which (you could tell) was a general disappointment to the news media that needed to be explained rather than hailed as extraordinarily good luck.

Ads and Weather Team

Mostly, the ads indicate that something bad is, was, or will be happening. Buresh is calm and will help me make it through. It does not mention the reporters, whose job it is to add to the chaos and fear. But that's cool, as long as Buresh is there for us. Also reporting weather will be Garrett, who is seemingly more handsome than any man deserves to be (and is therefore a little suspect), as well as Corey, and Stacey. They will save us from the evil that is nature. God-like, I suppose, though Stacey Garvilla, in her flowing dresses, often seems more like a sea witch--the good kind. Also, I did not see Marithza Ross in the two days that I watched on-and-off, but she also probably has some supernatural qualities. 

The most important part of the newscast is the weather, so we get a lot of that, but it's changing all the time, so the weather people need others to keep us entertained while we wait for new info-graphics or updated maps. Until the weather team has been on the air for the better part of 24 hours straight, they are pretty spot-on. You can tell that Buresh starts to get tired at some point when he's walking in the wrong direction or peering into the wrong camera, which he never does when he's well-rested. He tries really hard not to seem cranky or embarrassed about the fact that the high winds are about 5 miles offshore rather than battering our coast, but you know that he's trying to convince people it made sense to cancel school for three days for a storm that's equivalent to an afternoon thunderstorm. He also knows that he needs ratings, and that he needs to keep it together enough so that we believe the next hurricane forecast rather than assume it's all about sensationalism. It's not, at least for the weather team.

More worthless than normal, the anchors are really there to direct traffic. Out to the reporters when the weather team needs to work on their computers. Back to themselves for expert opinions on being good-looking on TV. Then over to the weather team, sometimes with a question that's already been answered 30 times during the past two days of coverage. Lots of thoughts and prayers, along with reminders to be safe. If it was a family, the anchors are Mom and Dad, the meteorologist is your straight-laced-know-it-all, god-like grandpa, and the sports guys are your dopey uncles with beer-holder hats (and luckily not part of the hurricane coverage). And the reporters. They are the tattle-tale cousins and siblings who are always looking to get a better Christmas gift from Grandma if they bust you for riding on the ATV or climbing the silo without permission.

Russel Colburn is in St. Augustine in his Storm Tracker Jeep, driving up and down the same flood-prone street, and continuously resting on his laurels on how he drove around in the last hurricane when it flooded the town, showing us video of that rerun over and over, like Uncle Rico making awesome throws on VHS. At one point, Russ assures us that his Jeep is made for this kind of stuff, so we don't have to worry about him. He also calls attention to the 360 cam on top of the Jeep, and I start to wonder if he takes it home and washes it every week instead of spending time with his girlfriend. From what I can tell, Russel is driving up and down the same street. Or maybe he is just showing us a loop of a drive he took several hours ago and he's sitting in the Jeep in his driveway. And you know the other reporters are all wondering why Russel gets to drive around like he's the Pope while they all stand in water to get stories. 

Someone is near the Beach Boulevard Bridge. This is presumably because the bridge will be closed at some point. She's also near some boats, so we get to see them dance around behind her once in a while. Maybe the someone is Megan? know, she reminds me of my wife a few years back. In fact, why are most of the reporters still in college at Action News Jax? Is this an internship? Maybe Miss Moriarty was by the bridge. Maybe it was Christy "Page" Turner, who says the words "Action News JAX" with a special emphasis on the "s" sounds, possibly as some kind of subliminal message. The good kind. I don't think it was Amber Krycka because she was standing near another bridge by Jekyll Island. Wait, were most of the men on the beach and women next to bridges? I thought Lorena Inclan was also next to a bridge somewhere. Weird.

Ryan and Jamario are on the beach. Each of them shine flashlights on the dunes and then out to the water, which isn't really all that intense. Businesses are closed, but it's late at night, so that makes sense, anyhow. Both of them also say that they are monitoring something or other. And they both let the water creep up enough to get their shoes wet. It's like when you go to Summerfest on a sweltering day with that girl from school who's all innocent and nice, and then a downpour rolls in, and she goes and stands in the rain, arms reaching up in ecstasy, in her white concert shirt. Except this is Ryan and Jamario instead. 

Dani Bozzini is somewhere, but I don't even care where she is, since she talks like she just got off work at the steel mill. Or out of prison. She tells me something about the place she's at and all I can hear is this loud, brash girl my sister tried to fix me up with at a bar one time. All the other people at the bar were looking at us, so I didn't hear a word she said because I was all worried about what those other people were thinking. Still, I'd probably hang out with Dani at a bar.

Ben Becker stands in the water, which probably makes the waves look bigger. His camera operator avoids showing all the families enjoying strolls on the beach as Ben reminds us about how the pier fell down twice before. And that the construction crane (near the people sightseeing on the beach) could fall down at any time, since it's rated at getting through winds of 150mph, and our 40mph winds are somehow somewhere near that. Buresh and his hand puppet Garrett agree that you could maybe add 20mph to the winds up at the top of the crane, not based on any science or reasoning, but on the fact that they want to shut Ben up before he starts making any other outlandish claims. Until next time Becker's number is called, the crane is not in any immediate danger. In between being live, I imagine Ben going over to the crane and trying to rock it back and forth to get the party started.

Elizabeth Pace is standing in water in a neighborhood. She interviews a guy who seems annoyed by her because he has somewhere to be walking to, and she says  the word "again" like she's either Canadian or from East-Coast old money. She tells me about the jackasses making a wake in the street water, and the only one that I've seen doing this is Russel (The Love Mussel?), who actually got yelled at by the fuzz live on the air for making a wake in his beloved Storm Tracker Jeep. Pace rhymes with face, and Elizabeth has a pretty face, but she just needs to say her "Action News JAX" sign-off in some kind of special way (like C. Turner) so that I can pick her out of a lineup of reporters, which would include Amber K and several other young blondes who seem to work part time while attending UNF.

Bridget Matter is standing in, and then walking in, a St. Augustine street, which is filled with 6" of water. She could be walking on the dry sidewalk 30 feet away, but it makes more sense to get in the way of traffic in order to show the audience what 6" of water looks like in a street that she admits floods quite often. Probably right after Mom and Dad in the studio reminded us to stay out of flood waters because of snakes, bacteria, and debris.

For all the constant warnings to residents to stay out of the water, it seems that the first instinct of every reporter is to go stand in some water. I'm sure that's in the Hurricane Reporting Handbook by Jim Cantore. I also found it ironic that the news reporters kept pressing local sheriffs about whether or not people who got IN the water to surf or whatnot would get arrested, almost as if they were tattling. No police officer wants to have to arrest some gnarly righteous dude who's just trying to catch a monster wave. He'd probably rather arrest Ben Becker for standing waist-deep in the ocean near the pier for no good reason, other than to keep people going for a nice walk on the beach out of the frame.

Final Thoughts
Hurricane news coverage is all about manipulation of the audience. The news channels will say again and again that they are not sensationalizing the coverage, but the reporters are all stationed in places that they are hoping will provide something sensational. We are shown pictures of past destruction, either from the storm upon us or from previous storms, and that's certainly meant to frighten viewers. Sure, the weather team is calm and scientific, but everyone else is part of a circus set up to attract the most viewers. If the city or the news wants to use the sensational to get people to evacuate, that's one thing, but once the coverage of the event starts, I'm not so sure it's what I want to see as I ignore evacuation orders in my home--I'd rather know if there's water or wind coming my way. That said, I totally understand why it's done, since I'd change the channel pretty quickly if I had to watch Bachman stumble over simple words for hours on end. Mostly, I'd just tell reporters to stop standing in the water so much, since it makes the practice seem like the cool thing to do. It's not like I need to go stand in my pond every time it rains just to confirm it's wet outside.

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