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Competing TV reporters brave high winds, waves for Hurricane Sandy reports

As coverage of Hurricane Sandy filled cable TV channels, network newscasts and social media on Monday, it was a stubborn, repeatedly recurring sight — no matter how much ridicule it inspired online:

TV reporters stumbling in high winds, big waves and harsh weather.

ABC's Matt Gutman and his crew were tossed around by waves on the North Carolina coast Monday during a report for Good Morning America. Today show forecaster Al Roker, whose on-camera tumble during a 2005 report on Hurricane Wilma remains a viral hit, tweeted a photo of himself standing feet away from gigantic waves in Point Pleasant, N.J.

CNN's Ashleigh Banfield could barely be understood during a report from windblown Battery Park. Even CBS anchor Scott Pelley delivered an hourlong Evening News report from a blustery New Jersey spot, hair dripping with moisture.

Does any of this really help cover a storm expected to affect 60 million people with wind damage, flooding and rain?

Helen Swenson, senior vice president of live programming for the Weather Channel, offered an emphatic yes.

"The power of mother nature is best felt through pictures," said Swenson, an Inverness-raised University of Florida alum with experience covering hurricanes for TV stations in Miami and West Palm Beach. "We're in the business of conveying that drama."

At ABC News, James Goldston, the network's senior vice president of content and development, said Gutman thought he was in a safe area, only to be knocked over by a "rogue wave" forcing his team to move to higher ground. "We don't want unnecessary heroics," he said.

Such shots are an often-necessary result of the "arms race" that breaks out when competing news outlets try to dominate coverage of the same event, said Stacey Woelfel, news director at KOMU-TV in Missouri and an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism.

"Is it ratings driven?" he asked. "Sure, but it's also reporters going where the audience isn't able to go. Where it crosses the line ... if people laugh at you or fear for your life, you're distracting from the story."

Network TV morning shows were expected to devote all their time to Hurricane Sandy coverage today, following extended newscasts and primetime reports Monday.

And their efforts moved beyond TV: ABC News used a social media desk to push all of its content onto platforms like Twitter and Facebook, while the Weather Channel streamed coverage of the storm on its own sites and YouTube, attracting over 1 million stream starts.

Newspapers such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Baltimore Sun dropped their website paywalls. And news outlets ranging from the Sun to CNN and the Weather Channel agreed to avoid using the term "frankenstorm," for fear of trivializing a major emergency.

Several New York-based entertainment shows also were canceled Monday, including the Daily Show, Colbert Report and Jimmy Kimmel Live, which had traveled from Los Angeles for a week's worth of shows from the host's Brooklyn hometown. CBS also yanked new episodes of its Monday primetime shows.

This was a dance Florida residents know well, the seemingly endless stories about preparations and possible damage before a storm slowly wreaks havoc.

Still, those live shots where reporters warn people about the same weather they're standing in — one CNN reporter even criticized a family while showing them waving happily on camera — will be with us for a while.

"We're out to show how dangerous mother nature is," Swenson said. "For every live shot you see on the air, you don't see all the times we tell them to shut down, or reporters tell us they're shutting down."

Competing TV reporters brave high winds, waves for Hurricane Sandy reports 10/29/12 [Last modified: Monday, October 29, 2012 7:55pm]
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