Big Storm gets big, strong coverage on Baltimore TV

It's a weekend of air mattresses, sleeping bags, couches, pets and even some kids in TV newsrooms as Baltimore's network owned and affiliate stations went to "all hands on deck" to try to cover one of the area's biggest storms in decades.

"Covering a storm like this is energizing and frustrating at the same time," Michelle Butt, news director at WBAL-TV, said in an email Saturday morning.  "... The magnitude of the coverage keeps everyone 'up' -- multiple live shots and extended newscasts are no big deal for my folks. ... However, when you have a storm like this, it takes a toll on your equipment and your people. Things break, people get stuck out in worsening conditions and you worry for your staff's safety.  After all, we're telling everyone to stay in, and I keep sending them out."


So far, the bad weather has been met with some very good work by Baltimore's TV news community. WBAL, WBFF, WJZ and WMAR were all offering extra hours of storm-related coverage by Friday.

As much as some columnists and self-annointed online pundits try to make ill-infomed jokes about TV reporters in furry hats standing in snow drifts, local TV news has been impressive on a number of journalistic and cultural levels already in covering this storm.


In a basic sense, the weathercasters have been mostly on the mark since Wednesday in predicting as much or more than two feet of snow. And in beating those drums loudly, the stations performed a core basic journalistic function of providing important information with some context and warning viewers so that they could make sound decisions about how to prepare. (Actually, Vytas Reid, at Fox 45, tentatively sketched out this weekend's snow scenario on Tuesday.)

Representative of the all-out commitment stations were making, WJZ anchorman Kai Jackson went from the anchor desk into the field Friday night and showed some first-rate reporting skills. (At least, I think that was Jackson buried in an Alaskan-looking parka.)

Saturday morning at 6, WJZ started with three meterologists who had spent the night at the station -- and the ever-steady Don Scott at the anchor desk. Meterologist Bernadette Woods seemed totally amped on the storm, and was coming at viewers a million words a second with solid data and sound analysis.

Mike Schuh was out in the field with snow goggles and a lime green snow suit/parka straight out of a Discovery Channel documentary on Arctic explorers.

"This here is heart-attack snow -- meaning it's really, really heavy," Schuh said, both imparting some crucial information to viewers, but doing so in an colloquial and easy-to-understand way.

One of my favorite in-the-field teams Saturday morning was WBAL's, which included Rob Roblin and Sandra Shaw. Roblin-in-the-snow has become an iconic Baltimore TV news image. I missed seeing him doing a report sitting in a lawn chair Saturday morning, I am told. But I'm hoping to see a screen grab of it before the weekend ends.  (UPDATE: Here's a link to the video.

Roblin, a veteran's veteran of TV news snow coverage, was perfectly balanced by Shaw, a weathercaster and former university track star, who seemed to be actually having some fun as she hurried from snow drift to snow drift in Canton. She brought a jolt of energy and joy to the screen every time she appeared.

"People all gravitate to Sandra," co-anchor Deborah Weiner said to Lisa Robinson, her partner at the WBAL anchor desk, as they returned to the studio after Shaw managed to find yet another young man in near-blizzard conditions who seemed delighted to stand in the snow and chat with Shaw about the weather.


While strong planning was evident in the coverage of all the stations Saturday morning, WBFF really seemed on its game with a 6 a.m. start and Jeff Barnd and Patrice Harris at the anchor desk. The station had Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake on the phone at 7 to launch an hour of hard information that took viewers like clockwork through BGE power outages and all the key area emergency and medical operations.

Fox 45 was also pushing hard on the digital and social media fronts, putting up Facebook comments, Tweets, and showing images sent on a cell phone of a roof that collapsed on a Baltimore city church as a result of the snow. The station's interactive, "See it. Shoot it. Send it." promotional campaign was paying off nicely.

In addition to its journalistic function, one of the most powerful roles that local TV can assume in a weather situation like this weekend's is in providing a sense of community for viewers who are stuck in their homes -- and, in some cases, may be anxious about the storm and potential power outages.

Jamie Costello, who started out anchoring solo at WMAR-TV because Megan Pringle could not make it to the station initially, absolutely nailed it at the start of WMAR's Saturday coverage with his opening words to the audience, "We're going to get to know one another. ...We are all family here."

Costello addressed the audience that way most of the day -- as if he was talking one on one to the viewer. And while in some cases that approach can diminish a sense of journalistic authority. in the context of this storm, I suspect a lot of viewers found it very reassuring. (And I don't think it compromised WMAR's sense of authority as a source of reliable information at all.)

Channel 2 also did a nice job with its "community" pictures -- images sent in by viewers. Think: Rudy, the West Highland Terrier, momentarilty disappearing into a mound of snow, with Pringle and Costello smiling at the pictures.


News directors at all the stations expected to be in an all-out coverage mode throughout the weekend given the severity of the storm and the incredible disruption to life in Maryland that the snow will surely cause for days to come.

"We are all hands on deck," WMAR's Groft said. "Fortunately we positioned people in hotels overnight in various areas of the county so many of our crews are set up in hotels that are close to their live locaitons.  As for those of us in house, we have air mattresses, food, water and are in this for the long haul."