Local News Operations Are First Responders

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.

Comments (11)

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mrfixit says:

May 31, 2018 at 8:59 am

The news crew deaths were very tragic – however you are completely out of touch if you haven’t realized the Public has been the first responder to Breaking News for years now. The public on Social Media has been one of the only things keeping news Alive – actually just simple text on Twitter has become an increasing portion of news. You talk about the Miracle on the Hudson – but I can talk about the JFK assassination, the Rodney King beating and the first plane striking the twin towers on 9/11 which were shot with low quality by amateurs. Most breaking news of natural disasters (flooding, volcano’s, twisters etc.) are from the public. News organizations have been following amateur video for the last few years and will never get ahead of the public as first responder – you are totally wrong.

Joe Bottoms!! says:

May 31, 2018 at 9:16 am

Nice fluff piece by a person who is living in the past..Rah rah sis boom bah doesn’t work any more…Agreed Mr.Fix it…

tvn-member-2426019 says:

May 31, 2018 at 9:37 am

You say it so well Dick.

jdshaw says:

May 31, 2018 at 10:10 am

What about the other 98% of the time when local news is manufacturing "breaking news", "team coverage", "alerts", and other nonsense? What about the daily numbing sameness of crime, car wrecks, house fires, assorted mayhem, and endless weather hype? Yes, when there is a real disaster local TV news is there. Along with thousands of people shooting phone video and posting on-line.

OldSchool says:

May 31, 2018 at 12:35 pm

News gave way to social media 10 years ago. Local media for the most part is police scanners, public service and continuous "the sky is falling" weather promotions.

tvn-member-1103977 says:

May 31, 2018 at 11:21 pm

During the April 27, 2011 tornado Super Outbreak; Birmingham & Tuscaloosa, AL stations went wall to wall on the coverage & tornados including the Cullman & Tuscaloosa-Birmingham storms caught live. Although 238 people lost their lives that awful day, many hundreds more were saved by their coverage of the event. They continue to do so anytime there’s a significant weather event happening. I’d rather depend on local news & weather that have a vested interest in this area any day of the year than depend on a national organization that may go to commercial or one that continues to run reality TV shows instead.

HopeUMakeit says:

June 5, 2018 at 10:44 am

the camera phone supplying local news content is a direct result of the phone owners learning they could document injustice.. from watching local news reporters do it. Only an idiot would think that local news reporters can be everywhere after Wall Street directed corporate offices have spent decades gutting local news staffs. I received a frantic call from a colleague who told me that his group CEO had the nerve to stand in front of their station staff and state that her station would be able to "box above their weight", meaning they could lay off droves of people and fly in reporters from their other markets. I thought about that when Harvey hit the gulf coast ?. Fly into where ? drive in from where ? float in from where ? I am sure that station had far and away the worse coverage because they were the most shorthanded after the storm.
Reporters can be heroes and can take the pressure of emergency responders by keeping the population informed about where not to go and what not to attempt. I own a battery operated TV to go along with my battery operated radio. Cell phone lines jam up with heavy traffic if they are getting power. I have seen it happen first hand. Social media is a subscriber based media. It will never, ever, replace OTA TV and radio.

Snufdog says:

June 5, 2018 at 11:47 am

What’s with all the haters? Richard is just making the point that journalists are at times the first on the scene. Yes times have changed — but there are still journalists and we are still the eyewitness to many events. At least Richard is putting himself out there and NOT hiding behind some made-up name.

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