Blanket snow coverage by news crews becomes mostly background noise

WJZ's B&O reporting is a bright spot, but rest was a lot of chatter, fluff


The Snowstorm Of 2003

February 18, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Early yesterday afternoon, WJZ-TV anchor Sally Thorner, posed this penetrating question: "Remember when a couple of inches of snow would have been our lead story?"

Why, yes, now that you ask. That would have been back in the days long ago, before Saturday, actually, when television weather forecasters were sent into fits of excitement by the most modest flurries.

But real snow socked the region this weekend, and the city's news stations followed the weather's example, blanketing their viewers with coverage. Stories of duct tape survivalists, trampled Chicago nightclub-goers and throngs of anti-war protesters all but melted away for more than a day and a half, as Maryland was trapped by snow.

The radar maps, the stationary weather and traffic cameras, and the sweeping live shots of the city all combined to give an immediate sensation of what was happening beyond one's neighborhood. Until midday yesterday, for example, the interstate highways largely appeared as thin white ribbons - visual proof of how impassable the region had become. Television news became the diverting background noise for the duration of the storm, meant to be kept on throughout, but not scrutinized.

There's school of thought that people who are housebound want diversion. Baltimore's television news executives do not firmly share that view. While WMAR-TV offered a split screen during its broadcast of an NBA game, the event was too small to be seen clearly; WJZ, meanwhile, passed up its golf broadcast entirely.

WJZ executed some smooth moves. Late Sunday, the station made quick use of its downtown cameras to provide a bird's eye perspective of the collapse of the B&O Railroad Museum's roof. Yesterday morning, Marty Bass displayed digital photographs of the museum that had been e-mailed to him by viewers. The station's helicopter also provided what Thorner happily called "dramatic footage" of what looked like a minivan that had caught on fire. It wasn't really news, but the sight of the blaze broke up the pale tyranny of the snow.

People who ventured out did so at their peril: They were exposing themselves to that newly resurgent plague - the person-on-the-street interview. Not everyone, to put it gently, is a natural at insightful conversation. We heard from urban skiers, maniacal joggers, barking dogs, balky kids, uncommunicative parents, and indulgent public safety officers. WBAL reporter Tim Tooten referred to nearly everyone jovially as "doctor" -- as in, "How you doing, doctor?" - while his colleague Jayne Miller looked determined to ask the toughest questions she could think of about the weather. As state and city officials were giving interviews and holding news conferences throughout the day, such questioning was unlikely to yield much new.

If you watched long enough, you could hear the talking heads contradict one another, and even themselves. It was either too risky to leave snow on the carport roofs or too risky to remove it. Reporters hailed people for their adventurousness for heading out into the storm to stock up on groceries (or, more to the point, doughnuts), even as anchors admonished viewers that it was not yet safe to hit the roads. People were reassured about state and city safety efforts on their behalf, even as they were warned about the dangers of indoor carbon monoxide poisoning over the next few days and flooding later in the week.

As the snow fall tapered off yesterday morning, the coverage shifted from useful information to mildly interesting information to too much information, with reporters asking each other about personal shopping habits and eating practices.

All of this is the stuff of which too much live television is made.

As early as Friday, Elizabeth Hart of WBFF-TV and Bob Turk of WJZ hinted to viewers about the potential for a major snowfall. Others were a bit more conservative in their projections - not necessarily a bad impulse, given the inexactitude of the art of weather prediction. And the next time a few inches of snow falls, perhaps the stations can take a few deep collective breaths and consider Thorner's judgment for future coverage of the weather: "Man ... the bar just got raised."

There are, after all, a few other things happening in the world.

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