By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun
12:56 PM EDT, October 29, 2012
Local coverage of Hurricane Sandy has been going on since Friday night -- if you want to be technical about it.
But it really kicked into gear over the weekend.
Saturday night, WBFF Fox45 messed up stretches of the World Series to run mostly unnecessary crawls about the impending storm.
I don't mind needless information in crawls -- it has become the norm on cable -- but every time a crawl appeared, the audio of the game from Fox was screwed up. During several stretches, it was a full five seconds behind the action viewers saw on the field. And the level kept going up and down, as the local folks cut in and left. It was outrageous for an event of this proportion.
Sunday, Fox45 was splitting the screen a lot with anchorwoman Jennifer Gilbert and various reporters on half of the screen, and the game on the other. I am fine with this choice. I am glad to see Fox45 on the story that was building to the point where it demanded coverage, and the split screen seemed a solid compromise.
The best TV news moment I saw Monday morning amid all the coverage that swamped the screen came at 8:28 a.m. on WBFF as reporter Kathleen Cairns stood in Ocean City in a soupy area between sand banks and condominiums.
There was a pathway through the middle of the banks that went from the condos to the water. As she reported on the way the water was threatening the condos, a surge came rushing down the path straight toward the soup in which she stood.
The camera work was terrific. The visuals and the reporting were informative and dramatic. It told the story of the storm, the angry ocean and vulnerable buildings and city as well as it could be done in one report. Great work.
WBAL and WJZ were out in force, as usual. And I was glad to see Ava Marie, who was on the ground for WBAL in Ocean City, urging her anchors back in the safe warm studio not to believe everything they see in social media. In this case, it was a report that the main pier in Ocean City had been washed away.
"That's the dangerous thing about social media, things start swirling around, and some are just not true."
She urged them to wait until she could check it out -- and find out which pier was involved and whether it was a matter of damage rather than total destruction. Good for Ava Marie, remembering good journalism even as she stood in the rain and the wind.
(And, yes, I am trying to make a point about anchors at all the stations sitting at a desk and acting like they are doing something epic.)
But I also have to say that one shot during Channel 11's Ocean City report at 9:05 a.m. made it seem as if Marie was standing on a street high above the beach area, and looking down from quite a distance at the very ocean water in which WBFF's Cairns had been standing as she reported the surge. (Marie said, "Here on 32nd Street," at one point, so I am assuming that's where she and her videographer were.)
That's a big difference in how the two crews engaged the storm coverage: One reporter was in the soup, so to speak, and one was a relatively safe distance away. Both were offering useful information, but the perspectives were different, and I think it matters.
But speaking of anchors sitting in studios and coverage from a distance, one of the worst moments of the morning came with WMAR anchor Megan Pringle telling viewers to stay with Channel 2 for the best coverage -- as she urged them to add a new mobile app that would allow them to watch live stream coverage on their mobile devices if they lost power.
Now, the mobile app to watch storm coverage is a big deal for all the stations, and Pringle is just doing her job in promoting it.
But the producers went from her words to a long shot of the beach in Ocean City from what looked like it was a million miles away. You could see nothing but gray and rain on the lens of the camera.
My thought: WBAL's reporter is practicing good and responsible journalism in the middle of the storm, and WBFF's reporter is up to her hips in onrushing ocean water telling viewers how it is about to reach a bunch of condos.
WMAR, meanwhile has a camera shot that is so far away that it could be from Mars, and the anchor is telling us Channel 2 is the one to watch for best coverage.
DirecTV is now distributing WBAL's coverage of the storm to all subscribers.
In terms of politics and storms, I see Gov. Martin O'Malley all over WJZ. Good work by Mike Schuh grabbing an informative interview with O'Malley at MEMA headquarters.
And I see Baltimore Mayor Stephanie-Rawlings Blake is already on CNN talking storm response. I hope she does better with Sandy than she did with last summer's storm when trees were blocking intersections for days while she was on national TV saying how everything in Baltimore is under control.
So far, the stations are not losing advertising dollars in covering the storm. They are still running ads, and that seems perfectly acceptable to me when they are providing so much coverage around the ads.
But the word is that they will go wall-to-wall without ads around dinnertime when the storm is expected to be particularly intense, and that could cost some money, even as they lay out out more dollars for coverage.
I say could cost, because most of the ads that are pre-empted will be replayed at a later date. And with the political ads, that might be a good thing from the advertisers' point of view -- being closer to election day.
Check back for more coverage as the storm continues. ...
Tell me about some of the highs and lows of your TV storm viewing in the comments field below.
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