Local TV news has many critics, myself among them, but what’s undeniable is the irreplaceable role it plays when disasters strike as one did in Houston this week. The internet may have revolutionized media over the past two decades, but it has yet to produce the professional, well-equipped local newsgathering operations that are at the core of local TV broadcasting.
I confess. To one extent or another, I agree with much of the criticism aimed at local TV news.
- Journalistic shallowness.
- An obsession with crime, accidents, fires and other mayhem — the low-hanging fruit of journalism.
- A format that hasn’t changed in decades and that seems consciously designed to drive away young viewers.
- Uninspired writing.
- Makeup, hair and dress that add 10 or 15 years to young anchors.
- Anchors dressed for fancy cocktail parties at 5 o’clock in the morning.
- A sometimes permeable wall between editorial and sales.
- Flashy graphics as a substitute for true innovation.
- Too much weather.
- Bumping local stories for sensational stories from far-off locales.
- Insipid on-set banter.
- A tendency to relegate public affairs to a Sunday morning talk show.
You’ve heard it all before.
But, what some of the critics miss, is that these well-known faults are more than offset by the reliable and credible everyday service that stations provide. If anything is seriously amiss in town, you can be sure that the TV stations will be on it and you can trust what they report. That’s saying a lot these days.
And far more important, the critics don’t credit stations enough for the irreplaceable role they play when disasters strike as one did in Houston this week. For the better part of a week, stations belonging to Tegna, ABC, Fox, Graham, Univision, Telemundo and others latched on to the story and never let go. Collectively, that’s a lot of journalistic fire power. They are all to be commended.
The key word here is “irreplaceable.” The internet may have revolutionized media over the past two decades, but it has yet to produce the professional, well-equipped local newsgathering operations that are at the core of local TV broadcasting.
For all that Google has accomplished, in local emergencies when life-threatening events are happening in quick succession, it fades to near insignificance.
That’s not to say that the internet did play a significant role in Houston. Social media helped people inform each other about what was happening in their neighborhoods (the TV stations are not ubiquitous).
And Facebook extended the reach of the TV stations to Houstonians who lost power or MVPD service or were driven from their homes. That’s assuming they were near a working cell site and had a way of charging their phone.
For several hours on Sunday, Facebook served as the principal outlet for Tegna’s KHOU after it was flooded out and its transmitter went dark.
I spoke with several Houston broadcasters this week for a story I had intended to be about the technical and logistical challenges that the stations faced as they tried to cover the widespread story.
But as I began piecing together the story it dawned on me that the story I should have been writing was about the broadcasters themselves. Working 12-hour shifts and sometimes forced to spend their sleeping hours at their stations, they once again rose to the occasion.
Watching via Facebook live, I marveled at how the anchors somehow managed to synthesize the latest from weary reporters in the field, government officials and their own meteorologists into a coherent and continually changing story.
I feel most for the reporters who waded through the flooded streets or rode through in boats. To be immersed for several days in the damage and the suffering must take a heavy emotional toll. And that’s on top of the physical challenge.
Some broadcasters carried the heavy additional burden of knowing that their own homes had been damaged or might soon be. Charles Hughes, the chief tech at Fox’s KRIV, guessed on Tuesday that a dozen employees of his station had been affected. I’m sure that number rose with the waters as the week went on.
The Broadcasters Foundation of America, which is handing out $1,000 checks to broadcasters hurt by Harvey, tells me it has already fielded 50 requests and that it expects the number to double by next week. Click here to apply.
From my reporting, I have two takeaways. First, the cellphone network is hardier than I expected. I know that because all the stations I talk to were able to use their smartphones and bonded cellular backpacks to deliver live reports in most instances.
Like broadcasters, the wireless networks should be applauded for hardening their towers against storms and maintaining some level of service. The smartphone is the ultimate live-saving tool.
Second, for much of the storm, broadcasters were grounded. In the months ahead, they must work with the local and state authorities and the FAA to win assurances that they will be able to use helicopters and drones during disasters, especially ones like Hurricane Harvey that involve great expanses of a major city. In such cases, the best way to get a true sense of what’s going on is from the air.
For the broadcasters of Houston and other affected cities along the Gulf Coast, the story didn’t end when the storm finally moved out and the flood waters began to drain back into the gulf.
The primetime schedules may soon get back to normal, but not the newsrooms. Now, the stories will be about the aftermath — the assessment of the damage, the impact on people, flood insurance, the relief programs, the rebuilding and — inevitably — the political finger pointing.
Houston is a city that not only has to be rebuilt, it has to be rebuilt in a way that doesn’t bring it to its knees the next time it’s smacked by a tropical storm. This is the big story. It will be complicated, it will be played out in meeting rooms and it won’t generate great video.
Now may be the time for the Houston broadcasters to prove all the critics wrong and show that they can cover public affairs.