When the tsunamis struck South Asia and East Africa, WFOR Miami reporter Brian Andrews was vacationing in Colombia. A day later, he was racing to Phuket, Thailand, to join station photographer Rudy Marshall on the scene of the disaster. Like all TV reporters in the devastated countries, Andrews tries to convey the magnitude of the wreckage and detail the relief efforts. His challenge is to bring the story home to South Florida viewers.
“People like to see their local person on the front lines,” he said last week from Phuket. “The scenes here are very moving and sad. We’re always looking for the local connection.”
Nationwide, stations are covering the disaster intently, but Andrews is one of a handful of local reporters deployed to the region. KABC Los Angeles quickly dispatched Phillip Palmer to Thailand. Belo’s WOAI San Antonio anchor Randy Beamer is accompanying relief workers. Fox-owned KDFW Dallas reporter Richard Ray and photographer Jeremy Pollard are in Sri Lanka.
The Cost of Coverage
CBS O&Os are especially aggressive. WBBM Chicago sent reporter Jon Duncanson and photographer David Fox to Indonesia with local charity World Vision. KPIX San Francisco dispatched medical correspondent Dr. Kim Mulvilhill, along with a producer and photographer, to Sri Lanka to report on medical relief. KTVT Dallas medical correspondent Dr. Mona Khanna and photographer Billy Sexton are also in South Asia.
But given the extensive reports on broadcast and cable TV, it can be hard to justify a local crew. Such overseas trips can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. While network teams are blessed with translators and field producers, local reporters are usually two-man bands.
“You have to be a journalist, field producer, tech producer and diplomat,” says Andrews. He hired a Thai driver and is armed with a satellite phone and cellphone. He uses a crude roadside satellite uplink manned by three Turks to send reports back to Miami. “It looks like three trash cans with metal easels on top, but it works.”
Given such difficulties, some stations choose to keep their reporters on the home front. Emmis’ Honolulu Fox affiliate KHON considered sending a reporter to the scene but will focus on local connections instead. “Hawaii has more ties to this story than other places,” says News Director Dan Dennison. “People think about what they’d do here, like evacuation plans and stockpiling supplies.”
Initially, WFOR was also conflicted. Miami doesn’t have a large Asian population, but when Florida Gov. Jeb Bush decided to travel to the region, “that pushed us over the edge,” says VP of News Operations Shannon High-Bassalik.
KABC Los Angeles’ News Director Cheryl Fair says her station can find “plenty of local connections” with an Asian-centered story.
Aside from local coverage, many stations are involved in relief efforts. The cast of Fox New York O&O WNYW’s Good Day Live will collect donations for Ameri-Care. In Minnesota, Hubbard Broadcasting outlets are fundraising for Direct Relief International. Cox Broadcasting’s KIRO Seattle is partnered with locally based World Cares and the Red Cross, while CBS’ KCNC Denver joined the Red Cross and the Fire Department.
On Jan. 5, a WNBC-produced fundraiser simulcast on NBC’s 14 O&O stations and 30 affiliates generated $10 million. “We debated if we should go but decided the best way we could help is to give cash,” says Dan Forman, WNBC’s SVP and station manager.
Separately, NBC and its sister networks—USA, Sci Fi, Bravo, Telemundo, MSNBC and CNBC—will air a special Jan. 15 at 8 p.m. Some broadcasters held local telethons, including Hubbard’s WHEC, ABC’s KGO San Francisco, WXYZ Detroit, and Viacom’s seven Philadelphia radio and TV outlets in Cleveland and Chicago.