Editorial: This Just In

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Sandy plowed up the East Coast last week, leaving almost unimaginable damage and a number of indelible TV images in its wake: The crane boom in New York that snapped in high winds and swung precariously 90 stories above the city, the Breezy Point, Queens, conflagration that consumed more than 100 homes and whose images captured on TV Mayor Michael Bloomberg said reminded him of wildfires out West, which also burned themselves into our memories thanks to TV images; the still photo of water gushing around the door in a PATH train station; and the evacuation of patients—some of them newborns—from a hospital without either power or backup power among them.

The devastation from the storm was incredible and in a sense unprecedented. What wasn’t unprecedented was the commitment of the electronic journalists who brought us those and other images, ones that put a frightening, but human, face on the storm. Without journalists willing, even eager, to document those scenes, such tragedy could be reduced to statistics or compartmentalized as someone else’s problem, something terrible but remote.

With broadcast and cable and satellite and online journalists blanketing the storm 24/7, geography proved no barrier to empathy and understanding.

To watch those houses consumed by fire, or those neonatal unit babies hand-carried from the powerless hospital, was to share in the pain and pride that are always intertwined in terrible situations that always manage to bring out the best in people.

Broadcasters fighting for respect in a town— D.C.—with a laser focus on reclaiming spectrum for broadband again demonstrated their commitment to getting the story and getting crucial emergency information out to the public. Stations in Washington, Baltimore, New York and elsewhere dropped regular programming to cover the storm for hours, or in some cases a day or more. That included putting themselves in harm’s way—rushing waters, flying debris, the deadly combination of water and live wires—to make the point that Sandy was a more potentially devastating storm than its barely-category 1 designation.

“I salute the remarkable work of our radio and TV station colleagues now putting themselves in harm’s way to keep millions of people safe and informed on the devastation of this deadly storm,” said NAB President Gordon Smith as the storm prepared to make landfall last week.

Of course, it’s Smith’s job to highlight his members’ public service. But so did Baltimore Sun reporter David Zurawik, who was sufficiently impressed to publicly praise a news crew from WBAL in particular, but also the role of news media in storm coverage more broadly.

“I know in these snarky, all-you-need-is-irony, postmodern times, lots of folks, including some journalists who should know better, like to make fun of TV reporters standing in high winds and driving rain or snow to report on a storm. I could not disagree more. I want someone out there on the edge of the ocean and the tip of the storm bearing witness to the power of nature—and reporting on the danger the storm portends for the rest of us back in our homes.”

That was a point CNN made as it received concerned communications from viewers over its reporters stand-ups in high winds and water.

Ali Velshi may have overtaken Anderson Cooper as the latest iconic face of storm coverage, thanks to his daylong stand-up in Atlantic City.

But while we are praising, we need to offer a little constructive criticism. Most of the official press conferences from governors and mayors with updates included signing interpreters for the hearing impaired, but in several cases the media outlets confined their coverage to close-up shots that excluded the signing. That defeats the purpose and there should be a general policy that all such shots be wide enough to include that translation.

We also encourage media outlets to continue to focus on the story and not be too quick to chase the next Kardashian or Lohan sighting. We are reminded once again of how good TV can be, and how proud we are of the people who do it with incredible skill, and, in some cases, sacrifice.

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