One can just imagine the cell phones lighting up a little after 9am Friday. That’s when the Atlanta Botanical Garden construction accident happened — right at the time that day shifts started for TV news folks and their managers. All four stations threw resources at the story. By 11pm, it was still the lead. Many hyper-competitive TV folks would judge their various efforts based on the noon show. But more viewers watch the later newscasts, by which time the chaos of the coverage had sorted out and reporters were able to tell stories. Mostly, the four Atlanta stations had the same material. The difference was in how they used it.
WXIA wins the “best coverage” prize. Marc Pickard’s lead story at 7pm was clearheaded, and circumspect. Pickard focused on a construction worker named Juan Padeio, who had left the doomed walkway moments before the accident happened. Pickard concluded by saying “today was not his day.” It was good stuff. So was Keith Whitney’s piece at 11, which folded element’s of the day’s coverage into a single, all-encompassing package. Like Pickard’s piece, it was well-written and well-produced. At 7, Duffie Dixon produced an interesting sidebar piece we saw nowhere else on the design of the walkway and the complexity of the construction. The only hitch was WXIA’s effort to cram five people into a quadruple box at 6, which made Dixon and Jaye Watson appear oddly co-joined. WXIA’s grade: B+
WAGA’s coverage was almost as good. Its team coverage in its 10 and 11pm shows made the most sense. Tony Thomas stayed at the accident scene. At ten, he reported that the accident scene “looked like a war zone.” At 11, Thomas wrote that “something went terribly wrong.” The two cliches undermined two otherwise well-told stories. Meantime, George Franco appeared to be the only reporter to actually understand a Spanish-speaking accident survivor named Jose Gonzales, who left Grady amid a sea of TV cameras but spoke no English. At six, Chris Shaw packaged the same story Pickard produced at WXIA, but without Pickard’s deft storytelling touch. WAGA’s grade: B
At this point, we interject with a word about news helicopters. Shaw and Pickard’s interview audio with the soft-spoken Juan Padeio were marred by the buzz of news helicopters. TV stations legitimately sent their helicopters as soon as they heard about the accident. The aerial picture of the collapsed walkway provided the best visual perspective. On WAGA at 6, Amanda Davis told viewers that “SkyFox 5 has been above the scene all day.” All day? Why? Get the picture and go away, and quit killing the audio of your crews trying to tell the story on the ground. Helicopters’ grade: Overkill.
WSB and WGCL fronted their late live shots from Grady. The story was continuing to develop there. But WGCL’s Joanna Massee’s piece leaned too heavily on accident aerials and video from Grady. It lacked the stronger material from the accident scene on the ground. At 4pm, Adam Murphy delivered a “we ask the tough questions” piece about 911 response and Grady’s ER readiness. The answers raised no red flags. Though Murphy’s piece wasn’t badly done, it seemed an odd effort to merely to play into WGCL’s “tough questions” promotion. WGCL’s grade: B-
WSB’s John Cater — live at Grady — had the same problem at 11: Not enough material from the accident scene. Unlike WGCL, WSB compensated by running three vo/sots after Cater’s piece which featured video and sound from the accident scene. At 11, WSB was the only station to have the name of the fatality victim. Cater, a new guy, appears to be a somewhat thoughtful writer. But next time, we’d suggest he steer clear of beginning his coverage with “this turned out to be anything but a normal day…” At 6pm, Amanda Rosseter reported from the accident scene, while Tom Regan produced a live vo/sot from Grady. Both were solid but unexceptional. WSB’s grade: C+