Much of the nation takes the work of local TV news teams for granted. But when news breaks that raises national security or safety issues it’s often the local TV news teams that provide the first images and reports. It’s time to recognize and reward the hardworking, determined and dedicated people of local TV news for what they are: first responders who are a vital part of our emergency infrastructure.
The tragic accidental deaths of anchor-reporter Mike McCormick and photojournalist Aaron Smeltzer of WYFF-TV in Greenville, S.C., on Memorial Day while covering severe weather in the North Carolina mountains makes the point sharply that local TV news is a critical element of our first responder infrastructure. And there is risk in that assignment.
But, despite the courage and commitment of local TV teams, local TV news is an easy target, a convenient punching bag. Nothing new. It has always been easier to unload cheap shots about too much weather and anchor hair than recognizing and supporting the meaningful role of local TV news.
That role is even more critical in today’s always-on-high-alert America. Local TV and its reporters, photographers, technicians and producers in the field are an unsung but crucial part of the nation’s emergency response infrastructure. They are first responders on whom their communities and the nation and the world rely when terrorists or natural disasters strike — often in hazardous environments.
That is what every local TV field person comes to work ready to face every day. No one would argue that the level and consistency of risk is like that of our police officers and firefighters, but like uniformed safety officers, local news field teams do not flee danger and disaster — they press into it to do their jobs.
Nonetheless, much of the nation takes the work of local TV news teams for granted. But when news breaks that raises national security or safety issues it’s the local TV news teams that provide the first images and reports, feeding the national networks — cable and broadcast — before they get crews in.
You may be watching CNN, Fox or MSNBC but in the early bewildering, frightening moments, when the unthinkable has occurred, that video you are watching is likely being provided by local TV boots on the ground.
When Capt. Sully (Chesley Sullenberger) amazed the world by safely landing his US Airways jet in the Hudson River, in most cases it was local New York TV stations that provided much of the first video of that heart-stopping scene. When a tornado ripped through Joplin, Mo., local TV was there, first on the scene.
The same with the horrific wildfires in California. And in 2017, when a terrorist in a truck mowed down bicyclists and pedestrians on a Lower Manhattan bike path, local TV provided much of the very early coverage, even in Manhattan, home base for most network news operations. The stations’ local communities and the nation were well served.
Local news reporters, often operating alone as MMJs or one-man bands, and photographers, come to work every day expecting the routine. But they know that they may wind up struggling to keep a live signal up or cobbling together bandwidth for a feed and digging for facts in hostile and/or ambiguous situations, to keep the world, not just their Main Street, informed.
Their bosses tell them often and earnestly that their safety is paramount, that no story is worth endangering safety or lives. But, they are committed to delivering the story, especially in a critical situation, and accept the inherent risk.
They risk lives even in covering news in the seemingly safest of venues. The murders of reporter Alison Parker and photographer Adam Ward of WDBJ in Roanoke, Va., while interviewing a Chamber of Commerce official about recreational events shattered any illusion of a safe bubble.
It’s time to recognize and reward the hardworking, determined and dedicated people of local TV news for what they are: first responders who are a vital part of our emergency infrastructure, in cities big and small, ready every day to bring the story to America when it needs it most — and there is no other way to get it.
It’s a responsibility that local TV news stakeholders accept with pride. That includes people you never see — including office, technical and studio support at home base and ownership (nobody answers phones during a hurricane better than account executives). The only things that count are safety of teammates and getting out the story.
We all extend our appreciation and condolences to the families and friends of Mike and Aaron, and their WYFF and Hearst families. Their loss is heartbreaking. Let’s also remember what they stood for and be grateful that your local news teams are standing by to respond to the bell right now.
Dick Reingold was most recently VP and general manager of WCTI Greenville-New Bern, N.C. Earlier he was a news director at stations including at WRC Washington and WMAQ Chicago.