By Sopan Deb

New York Times News Service

TV spotlight

Early Sunday morning, Bill Weir, a veteran CNN correspondent, was talking to anchor Chris Cuomo in the middle of a live shot in Key Largo, Florida. He could barely stand up straight in the lashing winds of Hurricane Irma. At one point, he was nearly blown over by a gust.

As video of the incident spread on social media, criticism mounted. “Why do these news networks feel the need to put these reporters out there?” read one tweet. Another said: “This is not safe. Lead by example.”

Others pointed out that reporters were standing in conditions that they were advising residents to stay out of. Even Cuomo acknowledged the criticism: “There is a strong argument to be made that standing in a storm is not a smart thing to do.”

Weir was one of many television journalists facing potentially unsafe conditions in covering the hurricane. Hours later, over at MSNBC, correspondent Mariana Atencio stood on a boulevard in Miami and pointed to a large tree that had fallen across the street, as other trees bowed in the wind alongside her, raising the question of whether her team was in danger. And around noon, Kyung Lah, a reporter for CNN, said on the air from Miami Beach, “If I didn’t have this steel railing, I’d be flying.”

The tradition of television crews standing in the middle of a dangerous storm goes back decades, reflecting the hunger to be on the scene for a nationally significant event. But the news value of dangerous stand-ups — in which a correspondent is seen in the field talking to the camera — is increasingly being questioned, particularly with the rise of social media. Some critics wondered whether they are unnecessary and overly sensational spectacles, especially in cases where correspondents are struggling to deliver information.

But those same field reporters insist that the visuals from the storms are essential in persuading people to take hurricane threats seriously and getting them to leave the area. At the same time, veteran reporters say they take every precaution to stay out of life-threatening situations. On CNN, John Berman, in Miami, described flying debris nearby and took pains to say that he didn’t believe he was in serious danger.

“It’s blowing in the other direction, just so you know,” he said.

One MSNBC studio anchor, Ali Velshi, addressed the issue directly, saying before 10 a.m. that he wanted to pause the coverage: “I want to take a quick break. I want to reset. I want to find out that our reporters are safe.”

The custom of reporters broadcasting live from hurricanes began with Dan Rather, the former CBS News anchor, in 1961. Working for KHOU in Houston, he broadcast the first live radar image of a hurricane — Hurricane Carla — on television and took to the streets to show the conditions firsthand. CBS took the broadcast live, giving viewers around the country their first look at the threat posed by such a storm. Pictures of Rather wading through waist-high water propelled his rise to network anchor.

Today, this kind of reporting seems routine. And as it has become more common, reporters have become more aware of the criticism and have tried to justify this approach, as Sam Champion, a weather contributor for MSNBC, did on the air Sunday.

“Everyone says, ‘Well, look, if you’re standing out in the storm, Sam, then how come I can’t stand out in the storm?’” Champion said. “And what I’m going to tell you is we do this so you can see what it’s like outside.”

Reporters, at both the national and local level, echoed that reasoning.

“I think it’s a fair question: Why would you have reporters standing potentially in harm’s way who are telling people to do exactly the opposite?” Mark Strassmann, a CBS News correspondent who has covered hurricanes for 25 years, said in an interview shortly after taking part in a live special from Miami.

“Part of that is that television is all about visual proof,” he said. “You want to persuade people that what they’re seeing is real and matters to them. And if they can see me standing out there getting knocked around, it’ll convince them that they should not do the same thing.”

Local reporters have fewer resources than network correspondents and this could lead them to brave some particularly unsafe conditions. In a Facebook post on Aug. 25, Jacque Masse, a reporter for 12News in Beaumont, Texas, said she covered Hurricane Harvey by herself, acting as an “MMJ” — industry jargon for “multimedia journalist,” or a solo television news reporter. She was her own camerawoman, producer and editor. The station came under withering criticism from industry watchers.

“Sending a single MMJ to cover a hurricane is not only one of the cheapest moves we’ve ever seen, it was dangerous,” said an article on FTV Live, a website that covers television news.

In those cases, reporters said, they have to know when to say no to their bosses.

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