WAGA, 2.18.09

WAGA, 2.18.09

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  Hyman made a point of noting that the truck mast was retracted.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.

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Doug Richards is a reporter at WXIA-TV. This is his personal blog. WXIA-TV has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog, under any circumstances, in any form. For anything written herein, Doug accepts sole credit and full blame. Follow him on Twitter: @richardsdoug. All rights reserved. Thanks for visiting.

4 thoughts on “Conductivity

  1. arky

    Have standards changed about using a live truck in a lightning storm? When I worked as a TV reporter, we would NEVER do that, and furthermore, the news director would be furious if we tried. I don’t think he was that concerned about our safety, but there was serious legal liability involved.

    The photogs and I always used to get a bit of a rush out of blowing off live shots for weather because it was the one time we actually had any power over the producers. Officially, the producers were not allowed to question our decision, although they usually did. I was once actually accused of lying by a producer because she “couldn’t see any lightning on the radar.” As though any TV reporter would deliberately avoid camera time.

  2. Fence Sitter

    It seems live coverage of severe thunderstorms would be an ideal time to make use of Skype technology-although it still wouldn’t necessarily provide greater safety against the dangers of wandering tornadoes.

  3. Lenslinger

    Great analysis. It’s always cracked me up to see news anchors play protective big brother to crews in the field. As for going remote in lightning infested skies, there ain’t a live shot on the planet worth frying my hide. I always enjoy TELLING some deskbound housecat I’m dropping the mast. I once got yipped at by the suits for telling a junior producer to blow me after he protested my judgment. That only made it extra enjoyable.

  4. Macon Peach

    Like Jeff Foxworthy once said “It’s all fun until someone gets hurt”. I threw a producer into a tizzy when I was an engineer in Savannah by refusing to raise a mast and do a live shot because of lightning. My photog and reporter didn’t want to do it, but they would not stand up to the producer. I did. I caught hell when I got back to the studio but I stood my ground by showing a tape we recently recieved off of NBC’s News Channel of a fried live truck due to lightning. Producers just don’t get it.


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