Disaster Coverage in the age of Internet News

5 Nov

I spent this week glued to coverage of hurricane Sandy on TV and the web. For one thing, my mom was visiting from Baltimore and her flight home got cancelled twice, leaving her stranded in Chicago for several days. More importantly, however, is that my dad lives on a small Long Island barrier island that lay directly in the storm’s path. The night the storm made landfall, I gathered with friends of mine from the east coast to watch CNN’s coverage of the storm (I’m the only one of us with cable). Given our discussion in this class, I couldn’t help but notice some interesting aspects of CNN’s coverage of the storm.

First, judged purely by information imparted, the coverage was terrible. CNN checked in each hour with reporters in Atlantic City, Fire Island, and Battery Park who rarely had anything new to say. The coverage was based around the spectacle of seeing these reporters battered by wind and rain, a stylistic approach that has come to typify CNN’s coverage of national disasters. There were no meaningful graphics to illustrate the extent of the storm’s damage, as the data for these graphics wasn’t available in real time and thus unusable to a 24 hour continuous news cycle. Furthermore, broadcasting from Manhattan and the surrounding area was complicated by power losses and the ability of reporters and film crews to move their equipment into damaged areas. At one point, viewers were shown the New York skyline, completely dark. This image was poignant, at first, because we are so used to seeing the skyline lit up on TV, yet quickly lost its punch because there’s nothing visually appealing or interesting about a darkened city. It’s really the one thing the visual medium of Television can’t quite capture. Furthermore, CNN’s coverage ran with commercials that were squished on the top half of the screen with a wind speed graphic cycling through the average wind speed in random cities. CNN also maintained the branding and structure of each of it’s “programs” without breaking from covering the storm, so for an hour during the Situation Room, Wolf Blitzer asked field reporters questions and welcomed viewers back from commercial breaks, then an hour later it was Anderson Cooper, then someone else. This all follows Caldwell’s notion of style-driven television – CNN is quite effectively producing a spectacle that is attractive to viewers, appealing to advertisers (don’t even get me started about the pharmaceutical advertisements) and yet remarkably uninformative. There’s really no solid information that gets imparted in these broadcasts, for the reasons I outlined earlier – basically, the newsmen know nearly as little information as we do. So what we get instead is a hyper-stylized bit of television that is most compelling when thought of as self-parody, as CNN doing its very best to give us “Great Storm Coverage”, constrained and made to look foolish by the ideas of continuous uninterrupted coverage that they themselves worked so hard to make essential to many Americans.

Through all this nonsense, a clear alternative emerged – the internet. When I wanted to know how my father and his family were doing, I couldn’t rely on CNN or other major TV outlets for coverage because they strategically overlook lesser populated, often lower-income areas (lengthy discussion of this here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/05/nyregion/in-sight-of-manhattan-skyline-a-population-lives-forlorn-and-in-the-dark.html?hp) in favor of coverage focusing on cities and major markets, regardless of how “central” they may be to the storms path. So Twitter becomes people’s first stop for news, as the convenience of a smart phone allows for the people most dramatically affected by news to share their experience, unmediated. Michael Winerip, who lives in my father’s town, is a reporter for the New York Times and was able to film an entire segment on the town during the storm the day after it made landfall (http://nyti.ms/VH20YR). This got some rudimentary editing and was uploaded to the NYTimes video portal. It’s clean, simple, unmediated – “on the ground” interviews with people affected, sharing their stories. It borrows, in many ways, the sort of rapid-fire MTV style editing that contrasts with CNN’s long shots where they basically just train the camera on something for ten minutes, uninterrupted and their increasing reliance on pundits and television “experts” who don’t offer the same sense of authenticity and directness as the people in this NYTimes video.

CNN has an audience, and ratings are its chief concern. Its audience is nationwide, maybe even worldwide. Their priorities are informed by this. They favor spectacle and sensation, manipulating news to create the sort of cliffhanger feeling that keeps us coming back after the commercia break. The New York Times has a localized role – they are the source of news for New York city and the region, and their responsibility was to inform their audience (read – their subscribers, not viewers) with INFORMATION. Like their current coverage, which from the home page of their site offers transit status, maps of areas still without power, and nearly real-time photographs. It’s impossible to find any of this information on CNN, even on their website, which is a vehicle for their content, not their information. In many ways, this relates to fundamental differences in how TV and print media create an industry of news-making, from their contacts on the ground to the experts they solicit for advice. But in some ways I also think it relates to changes in how the internet has changed what we desire from information and media. On the one hand, as this article points out, established news organizations have policies of making judgements and offering information that protect them from grossly misinforming people (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/05/business/media/a-media-vow-of-election-night-restraint-despite-social-media-clamor.html?hp) yet they’ve also made significant mistakes in just this year alone, which makes us even less trustworthy of their coverage. But I would argue that when something happens now, we don’t look to CNN’s overblown somewhat meta-representation of things, their interpretation of the “larger effect”, their vague generalities and platitudes, their attempt to crystalize or immortalize the sentiment that they believe all Americans, broadly construed, are feeling. Instead, we want specifics, information – we want to home in on important details, the likes of which we have come to expect from the internet. We want to know exactly how many people don’t have power, we want to then be able to seamlessly visualize this data on a map or as a percentage of total customers. We don’t want CNN to interpret the facts for us, we want to analyze the data ourselves, the way computers and the internet encourage us to do. These are examples, but I think it’s an important thing to think about. The value of CNN’s style of news coverage seems, to me, to have been called into question with this tragedy. And it has had some far-reaching implications, as I’ve decided to watch Tuesday’s election night coverage streamed online from the Times rather than dealing with CNN’s saccharine production values and commercials for however many hours it takes to determine a result. CNN was the first satellite news network, meaning their signal could be broadcast from anywhere in the world, which allowed them to be the only news source live when the Challenger shuttle exploded in 1986. At the time, they were the intense, precise information that had eluded audiences of network news broadcasts that held news until 7 PM when they could air their stories. And for a long while CNN really offered something unique, but I think things have really changed since then. I wonder if anyone else has felt this sort of souring towards the idea of breaking news on TV; it just seems to unreal to me.

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One Response to “Disaster Coverage in the age of Internet News”

  1. hcloftus November 12, 2012 at 1:38 am #

    I think everything Andrew discusses is completely valid, but certainly not all of CNN’s viewers are conscious of the fact that what is being presented by them isn’t “information” but “information” regurgitated in an aesthetic pleasing manner. Using the internet the way described is first, something particular to a younger generation, and second, something particular to the educated and interested. There are plenty of consumers that either don’t want to analyze the facts themselves, or don’t realize that CNN doesn’t present the solid facts, but favors presentation instead. That, and unless one watches C-SPAN, there aren’t many options to get full coverage of the news.

    While CNN may not be the most reputable source of news information among those that essentially have a clue, to the typical TV watcher, it’s between that and either Fox News or MSNBC. The election saw CNN as the most watched cable station (although behind NBC http://www.tvweek.com/blogs/tvbizwire/2012/11/clear-winner-among-broadcast-n.php); clearly, it is still a significant influence among television watchers, whether or not they were drawn in by the style. For those uninterested in putting in the effort of forming their own conclusions, CNN is a reliable alternative.

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