By:
August 30, 2021

One of the most powerful storms to ever hit the U.S. — 16 years to the day that Hurricane Katrina hit the same part of the country — dramatically overtook the news on Sunday.

Right there in the middle of it was Jim Cantore. You know Cantore. He’s the Weather Channel meteorologist with a cult-like following for going, literally, into the storm. There’s a joke that really isn’t funny: If there’s nasty weather out there, the last person you want to see in your town is Jim Cantore.

And there he was on Sunday.

Wearing a baseball helmet (not a hat, a helmet) and rain gear, Cantore stood on Canal Street in New Orleans, shouldering against a driving rain and winds gusts of over 80 mph. Toppled and mangled garbage dumpsters were strewn around him. Shouting into a microphone, Cantore tried to describe the devastating power of the Category 4 hurricane. He looked like he might get blown down the alley at any second. There were few more haunting images than Cantore standing on a pitch-black street in downtown New Orleans on Sunday night as power was out everywhere around him.

In some ways, you might look at Cantore’s coverage as a cliche and possibly even reckless. And it’s something that all hurricane reporters replicate. We saw dozens of reporters doing it on Sunday.

They stand out in the open as the rain and wind whip around them. Behind them the trees buckle, stoplights sway and street signs rattle. The scenes are meant to show the powerful impacts of the storm. They can be effective, but can also be distracting. There are times when it feels gratuitous. Take, for instance, NBC News weather guy Al Roker, who started Sunday morning’s “Meet the Press” with a live update from New Orleans. Roker was standing in a spot where he was hit by waves crashing over a sea wall. The camera showed that Roker could easily have taken just a few steps to his left and would’ve been clear of the waves. But where’s the drama in that, eh?

“I cannot provide any good excuse for standing so close to the coast that you let waves hit you,” my Poynter colleague, Al Tompkins, told me.

Tompkins is the smartest guy I know when it comes to broadcast journalism. He has been a reporter, photojournalist, news producer and news director. He now teaches multimedia storytelling for Poynter. So I asked him about some of the things we see during hurricane coverage — those reporters who willingly put themselves in the elements. Is it all really necessary?

“There is some value to the viewer to be able to see the intensity of a storm,” Tompkins said. “It can serve as a proxy for viewers who might have evacuated and want an eyewitness account of what they left behind. If you were locked in a shelter, you would be anxious to know what was happening outside.”

There also is another important fact, Tompkins tells me. If the world can see what is happening, then help is more likely to follow.

So what about Sunday’s coverage? Let’s start here: Sunday’s TV news coverage of Hurricane Ida was impressive.

Like many of you, I spent Sunday afternoon flipping between CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and The Weather Channel to watch the powerful Category 4 hurricane rip through Louisiana. Scenes from the storm were horrifying and heartbreaking, and all the cable news channels, especially CNN and The Weather Channel, offered superb coverage. It sometimes can be hypnotic to see video of nature’s frightening power.

Later, the networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — put their full available resources into reporting the storm.

ABC’s lead anchor David Muir anchored a special edition of “World News Tonight.” CBS News and NBC News, as well as ABC News, had correspondents all over Louisiana, including ABC chief meteorologist Ginger Zee, who was in New Orleans.

“This is a storm we’re going to be talking about through the midweek,” Zee said, “and unfortunately, throughout history.”

All networks and cable news stations had various reporters in various locations filing, essentially, the same reports: stand outside, get pummeled by a major hurricane, scream into a microphone.

So, as I mentioned, it has become increasingly cliched, but as a dangerous storm is passing over, this is usually all reporters can do. They can’t really drive around to different locations because it is simply too dangerous. They are limited in movement and that limits their reporting. All they can do is pick a spot and tell viewers what is going on right where they are literally standing.

CNN’s Jason Carroll, at one point, did a responsible thing: He took viewers behind the curtain. Carroll was in Houma, Louisiana, and, like all these reports, stood out in the open and let the weather swirl around him. But then he showed viewers a big building next to where he was standing and said that he had his camera person take shelter there when they weren’t doing their reports. It’s this kind of transparency that is meant to discourage people from going out into the elements. It shows that even though it appears he is in danger, he really is safe.

When you string the “on the scene” reports together, you do get a good sense of what the storm looks like and feels like and must be like for the unfortunate citizens who didn’t or couldn’t evacuate. The storm is powerful and that’s an important story to tell. Occasionally, we get footage, often shot by citizens, which shows dramatic events like roofs being torn off buildings or water flooding a building.

But journalists also have to be careful — with their own safety and with their credibility.

“The silliest reporting is when a journalist wallows in the floodwaters for no reason except to appear to be the ‘nitty-gritty journalist who will do anything to get the story,’” Tompkins said. “Instead, it can look like the journalist doesn’t have enough sense to come in out of the rain. Pro journalists, especially pro photojournalists, can’t stand to be paired with showoff cowboys. I also worry that grandstanding storm reporters become a cliche. It becomes a joke. It undermines the work that pros take seriously.”

The best part of Sunday’s coverage was when the networks turned over their broadcasts to their meteorologists who showed where the storm was, where it was heading, what the wind was like, what the rain was like, where the storm surge was piling up, as well as what we could expect in the next hour, two hours, six hours and so forth. The Weather Channel’s hurricane expert, Dr. Rick Knabb, was the day’s most outstanding on-air personality, constantly updating viewers on what the storm was doing and what it was likely to do next.

He also gave strong warnings to those who might have been in the storm and were able to watch, imploring viewers to not go out into the eye of the storm.

In the end, it’s all important, even when the coverage sometimes features reporters who purposely go out into the dangerous elements — especially a guy like Cantore. At one point — and in another example of why it’s important for Cantore to be out in the streets — he noticed that water wasn’t draining down the sewers as quickly as it had been, raising questions about possible flooding for the entire area.

“God bless the journalists who are away from their families, who are walking around for days in wet socks while snarky bystanders shout ‘fake news’ at them,” Tompkins said. “Let me tell you that live coverage saves lives. The communities that are suffering most desperately need journalists to document their needs. Help follows coverage. And I can say for sure that when Jim Cantore is on the air documenting the devastation in your town, emergency crews and federal aid will get there faster than if you suffer and nobody notices.”

Maybe Cantore showing up in your town can actually be a good thing.

What’s next

Today, much more substantive reporting will be done. The morning shows are expected to have wall-to-wall coverage as we wake up to what most assuredly will be grim images of Ida’s destruction. The cable news networks, too, will be all over it.

And this is where the local news outlets — Louisiana TV stations and places such as NOLA.com — will do the kind of work that’s really valuable. Journalists there know where to go, where to find stories and do the kind of reporting that is most important to those who actually live and work in Louisiana.

And a shoutout to those journalists because, unlike the national correspondents, they actually live in Louisiana. They are directly impacted by Hurricane Ida. Their homes, their families, their property are in Louisiana. They don’t just work there. They live there.

And we saw the impacts Sunday when WGNO, an ABC-affiliated station in New Orleans, suffered roof damage and leaks. Anchor Sefenech Henok tweeted late Sunday night, “We are experiencing multiple leaks in our newsroom! We are safe and powering through for now!”

And now to other media news from the weekend …

Big hire at ABC

New “Good Morning America” executive producer Simone Swink. (Courtesy: ABC News)

Simone Swink has been named to one of the most coveted jobs in TV news: executive producer of “Good Morning America.” Swink is a senior staffer on the show who takes over a job that has been open for months. She replaces Michael Corn, who left abruptly in April with no explanation and is currently embroiled in a major controversy. Corn is now at NewsNation, but was accused in a suit last week of sexual assault and harassment by an ABC News producer.

As far as Simone, she has plenty of experience at ABC News, working on shows such as “This Week with Sam Donaldson & Cokie Roberts” and “Nightline.” Before that, she helped launch the National Geographic Channel’s evening newscast and produced climate change coverage. She also helped start daytime talk shows for Jane Pauley and Martha Stewart, and covered the Asian and American financial markets for Bloomberg Channel. (Variety’s Brian Steinberg has more.)

Swink joined “Good Morning America” in 2010 as a writer and has now worked her way up to the show’s top chair.

ABC News president Kim Godwin said in a memo to staff, “​​Simone is a dynamic, thoughtful and creative leader, experienced in collaborating across platforms. I’m confident that she and the GMA team will continue to lead the show in new and innovative directions.”

An admirable honor

The Pulitzer Prize Board issued a special citation Friday to Afghan journalists, interpreters, drivers, hosts and “those who dedicated themselves at great personal risk to create and support journalism that has chronicled decades of life and war.”

In a release, the board wrote, “In support of their safety in either their continued work or their resettlement, this citation comes with a $100,000 grant to be administered by the Committee to Protect Journalists for the emergency relief of such individuals and their families.”

Kudos to the Pulitzer Board for this special citation. And, while it’s certainly timely considering the events of the past couple of weeks, it’s also more meaningful that the citation is coming now as opposed to when all the other Pulitzers are handed out in the spring.

A great TV journalist

Actor Ed Asner. (Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/IPx)

Actor Ed Asner has died. He was 91. Why mention this in a media newsletter? Because Asner played one of the greatest fictional journalists of all time. Asner played crusty newsman Lou Grant, first on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and later on “Lou Grant.”

On Moore’s show, Asner played the boss at the fictional Minneapolis local TV station WJM. His character is perfectly summed up in one of his most famous lines from the show, telling Moore’s character, “You know what? You got spunk. I hate spunk!”

Asner then played Grant on CBS’s “Lou Grant,” a more dramatic show than Moore’s sitcom. Grant was the city editor of the fictional Los Angeles Tribune daily newspaper. The show won two prime-time Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series.

Asner won five Emmys for playing Grant — three times as best supporting actor in a comedy on the “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and twice as best lead actor in a drama on “Lou Grant.”

The New York Times’ ​​Anita Gates has a good obit on Asner.

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Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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