WAGA’s weather coverage Wednesday was a lovely exercise in cognitive dissonance. First, you gotta understand: Nothing spikes the adrenaline of desk-bound news managers more than the prospect of sending their field crews into awful weather. They know viewers are watching in greater numbers. Get a live funnel cloud behind a reporter, and you’ve smacked a home run.
The problem is: Viewers are increasingly aware that when TV stations send crews into areas with active thunderstorm or tornado warnings, the crews may be taking dangerous risks. While TV is urging everybody else to take cover and stay indoors, their crews are driving into the teeth of the storm.
During its 5pm news, Devin Fehely showed up in a live shot from McDonough. Fehely casually mentioned that the report would be brief due to the presence of lightning. Anchor Amanda Davis cut him off and abruptly ended Fehely’s report. She and Russ Spencer then discussed the logistics of Fehely’s live shot, including the forty-foot metal mast that TV trucks raise into the sky to send a microwave signal back to the station. They all-but stated the obvious: It ain’t smart to raise such a mast during a lightning storm.
Some time later, Mark Hyman did a live shot in Midtown. Hyman made a point of noting that the truck mast was retracted. But his live shot was also short.
It’s as if the TV station is saying: Put yourself in harm’s way now, and then we’ll make ourselves look good by telling you to get out.
So why do it? Because the other TV stations are doing it. If viewers are bored with the meteorologist on WSB, they might switch to WAGA to see if they’re doing anything different. A live shot in a storm may hold the viewer’s attention, even while it endangers the crew.
In all fairness, managers will tell field crews that it’s their call on whether to go live. Fehely and his photog undoubtedly made the decision to do it. Fehely also knows this: They sent him into the thunderstorm with a live truck, and not so he could sit on his hands. And he wants to keep his job.
The right approach, of course, is to wait until the storm passes. You learn where the worst damage is. You send the crew there instantly. But that’s not good enough. WAGA and the other Atlanta stations want to anticipate where the worst damage is. Funny thing is, they rarely succeed. But that doesn’t stop them from trying.
One of these days, they’ll get a funnel cloud behind a reporter during a live shot. There’ll be high-fives in the newsroom. And the anchors will gravely advise the reporter to take cover.