Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Day's Other Big Story

Watching last night's coverage of Super Tuesday, most television viewers in New York, Washington or Los Angeles were blissfully unaware of the day's other big story, the deadly tornado outbreak across the south.

As cable and network pundits discussed primary results and delegate counts, waves of super-cell thunderstorms lashed wide sections of Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Kentucky and Alabama. According to the Storm Prediction Center, there were at least 73 tornadoes, and literally hundreds of reports of damaging winds and large hail. At least 50 people were killed by the storms, described as the deadliest in more than a decade.

Yet, if you were following election returns on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News or the broadcast networks, there was scarcely a mention of the weather story. According to TV Newser, CNN offered a brief update at 9:32 p.m., reporting on a tornado in the Nashville area. By that time, storms had already ripped across four states, and were moving into the Ohio Valley. Better late than never, we suppose.

Still, CNN was way ahead of its main rival, Fox. As the FNC team searched for meaning in Delaware's Democratic vote, there was virtually no coverage of the tragedy unfolding across the south. Ditto for MSNBC and the networks. But, as the scope of the disaster became apparent, the TV news operations began moving crews and correspondents to the affected region. This morning, you couldn't miss the tornado story.

To be fair, Super Tuesday was big news and, with ratings and ad revenue at stake, the networks and cable news outfits pulled out all the stops to attract the widest possible audience. After spending all that money on anchors, fancy sets and exit polling, news executives weren't about to dump their political coverage for something like a tornado outbreak.

But a weather event of that magnitude was clearly worthy of immediate coverage, beyond a few cut-ins from a cable meterologist, or a crawl across the bottom of the screen. And that tends to reaffirm our suspicions about big-time TV news, and how they cover stories in fly-over land. True, tornadoes are hardly a rare event in the south and Midwest, but you don't see a lot of national media types reporting on that subject, beyond the obligatory, "morning after" shots from a mangled trailer park.

That makes us wonder: how would the networks and cable news channels cover a tornado outbreak if it happened in New York or Southern California. From a meterological standpoint, the odds of that happening are very remote; tornadoes are rare events in those areas. However, it's a sure bet that killer storms in a media capital would receive much wider play than those in the hinterlands, even on Super Tuesday.


ADDENDUM: With friends and property in the Mid-South, we abandoned politics for streaming weather coverage around 9 p.m. WREG, the CBS affiliate in Memphis, did a solid job, both on-air and on-line. Knowing the importance to weather to its viewers, WREG went wall-to-wall with severe weather coverage at 4:30 p.m., as the first round of storms pummeled the area.

There was virtually no mention of politics on Mid-South TV last night; one of WREG's anchors summarized the results of the primaries in Arkansas and Tennessee--without graphics--around 10 p.m., then tossed it back to the weather crew. Similar coverage was provided by Channel 3's competitors in Memphis, along with broadcast outlets in Little Rock, Nashville and other affected cities.

Journalism "purists" have long debated the merits of continuous storm coverage by local broadcasters, claiming that it's more hype than substance, and may cause unnecessary alarm. In a 30-county broadcast market like Memphis, they argue, is it really necessary to drop regular programming for a warning that affects a relatively small area?

But last night was hardly a routine weather event. In less than seven hours, the National Weather Service office in Memphis issued more than 130 warnings and many of the tornadoes occurred within a 100-mile radius of the city. That's why we'd say the Memphis stations--and other broadcasters in the region--made the righ call by dumping politics for the weather. As for the folks at the networks and the cable new channels, they need to learn that some stories in "Jesusland" are worthy of airtime, even if it means a little less political coverage.

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