Sunday, September 25, 2005

Journalistic Infrastructure

In any disaster recovery scenario, it's best to have a distributed infrastructure. I thought about this recently during the New Orleans flooding, where families who live in tight-knit groups found themselves with nowhere to go. I compared this to my own family, which is scattered along the eastern seaboard and realized that in case of an emergency in one of these cities any member of my family has another place to go. Not just to stay, for support through whatever it is that had happened.

The same concept holds true for the Internet. It's very nature of being distributed keeps it afloat, even when part gets shut down.

This concept is starting to take hold in journalism, as citizen journalists, stationed all over the world, are now able to reach the rest of the world. So in the case of the tsunami of December last year, we could see video and hear reports within minutes of the event.

Television needs to learn from this model, since it has the pieces in place. Since its inception TV has relied on local affiliates for everyday news gathering, but when it comes to the "big story," anchors and reporters parachute in from Washington, New York and Atlanta. This is a great strategy for something like the war in Iraq, in which it would be impossible to ensure that reliable sources could be had on either side of the combat lines.

But in most situations, like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, this is exactly the wrong thing to do.

A local reporter who knows the area is in a much better position to understand the nuances of a situation and provide better information. The problem is, national news people think they know best, so they'll send in Matt Lauer and Anderson Cooper and any of a number of named-brands to "report" from a beach in Galveston, Texas. What can Matt Lauer add to this situation? And the networks aren't the only culprit's. More and more local affiliates from around the country will send reporters, like 7 News in Boston (full disclosure: I worked there as a producer in the mid-90s), which sent Christopher May to Galveston for Rita.

What will it take to end this practice? Unfortunately, the inevitable high-profile death. Some day soon a major anchor or reporter is going to get killed while standing in the wind. Maybe their edit truck will get blown over, or their building will collapse. I'm not sure what it is, but it'll happen.

And only then will the bigwigs in New York and Washington start to look for a different answer.


Anonymous said...

I've had experience as a local reporter with national networks deploying their people to cover big hurricanes. In addition to their lack of understanding, they also tend to reinforce negative perceptions of journalists in general. They rarely follow rules outlined by locals, such as staying out of dangerous areas until they're declared safe, and are just plain rude to people that get in their way. I most hate how they treat people in peril because it makes for good TV. And some folks don't help themselves by unwittingly playing along to get on camera. Then they broadcasters jet off after supposedly "suffering" like everyone else (I guess having to drink generic bottled water could be construed as slumming it) in search of the next community to exploit.

Chuck Tanowitz said...

Thanks for the comment!

The rudeness and arrgance is definately a part of it. I've always hated the way that people working for the networks look their noses down at the local producers, like we weren't worth their time.

Linda Ellerbee pointed out in her book "And So It Goes" that while often local reporters ask questions that come out of left field, often that helps. According to her, it was a "local reporter" who asked Betty Ford about her family and drugs.