Local TV adds context to storm coverage

Meteorologists, reporters get out to fill in viewers told to stay put

February 07, 2010|By David Zurawik

It's a weekend of air mattresses, sleeping bags, couches, pets and even some kids in TV newsrooms as Baltimore's network-owned and affiliate stations went to "all hands on deck" to try to cover one of the area's biggest storms in decades.

"Covering a storm like this is energizing and frustrating at the same time," Michelle Butt, news director at WBAL-TV, said Saturday morning. "When you have a storm like this, it takes a toll on your equipment and your people. Things break, people get stuck out in worsening conditions, and you worry for your staff's safety. After all, we're telling everyone to stay in, and I keep sending them out."

The bad weather has been met with some very good work by Baltimore's TV news stations. WBAL, WBFF, WJZ and WMAR were all offering extra hours of storm-related coverage by Friday.

As much as some pundits try to make jokes about TV reporters in furry hats standing in snowdrifts, local TV news has been impressive in covering this storm.

In a basic sense, the weather reporters have been mostly on the mark since Wednesday in predicting as much or more than 2 feet of snow. And in beating those drums loudly, the stations performed an essential service, providing important information with some context.

Representative of the commitment that stations were making, WJZ anchorman Kai Jackson went into the field Friday night and showed some first-rate reporting skills.

Saturday morning at 6, WJZ started with three meteorologists who had spent the night at the station. Bernadette Woods seemed energized by the storm, providing solid data with sound analysis.

Mike Schuh was out in the field with snow goggles and a lime-green snowsuit straight out of a Discovery Channel documentary on Arctic explorers.

"This here is heart-attack snow - meaning it's really, really heavy," Schuh said, imparting some crucial information to viewers but doing so in a colloquial and easy-to-understand way.

While strong planning was evident in the coverage of all the stations Saturday morning, WBFF really seemed on its game with a 6 a.m. start. The station had Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake on the phone at 7 to launch an hour of hard information that took viewers through power outages and all the key developments.

In addition to its journalistic function, one of the best roles that local TV can assume in weather like this is providing a sense of community for viewers who are stuck in their homes.

Jamie Costello, who started out anchoring solo at WMAR-TV, absolutely nailed it at the start of WMAR's Saturday coverage with his opening words to the audience, "We're going to get to know one another. ...We are all family here."

Costello addressed the audience that way most of the day - as if he was talking one on one to the viewer. And while in some cases that approach can diminish a sense of journalistic authority, in the context of this storm, I suspect a lot of viewers found it very reassuring.

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