News networks treat hurricanes like war zones, and in Atlantic City last week, Ali Velshi was in the trenches.
As Hurricane Sandy slammed the Jersey shore on Monday, Velshi stood for hours, freezing in the rapidly rising waters of downtown Atlantic City to report the 80 mph winds and floods. The CNN broadcast must have been like watching a car wreck. Water that started at Velshi’s angles rose to his waist, signs seemed poised to topple and strike anyone standing nearby, and the rain just kept pouring.
The footage was gripping, but controversial, spawning a flurry of Twitter concerns about Velshi’s safety and the ethics of sending reporters out on such dangerous assignments.
Michael Moore openly criticized Velshi’s brand of reporting in an interview on Piers Morgan’s CNN show.
We need fewer of the reporters standing in waist-high water seeing if they’re going to be blown over and more real reporting, real news, like what’s really going on.
Morgan and Velshi were quick to defend these claims, saying that such broadcasts fulfill a journalist’s duty to inform, ultimately keeping viewers safe.
People ask, why are you standing in the water, is there some place you can stand that’s not in the water? Yes, yes there are high spots in Atlantic City, there are high spots everywhere that ever floods. But you know where I’m standing? I didn’t find a puddle in the middle of Atlantic City. This ocean, this river of water is downtown Atlantic City….So the point is to tell people, this is a real storm.”
The point of him doing that…is that anyone mad enough to think they should be going out for a little stroll, walking the dog, whatever, looks at that and thinks, ‘I’ll stay in.’”
Although the same up-to-date reports were not possible, print media – including the New York Times and the New Jersey Star-Ledger – echoed Velshi’s desire to emphasize the absolute worst of the storm.
In a New York Times feature story Sandy was described as a “monster” to the residents of Atlantic City, the storm chasing a small family “in all of its steadfast fury.”
The quote that followed seemed more appropriate in a Batman movie than a weather story, with a city official saying AC was “under siege.”
The Huffington Post ran a news story that was equally sensational, including a slideshow of the devastated area. Reporters led with the visual aspects of the storm described in the NY Times story and in Velshi’s coverage. Floodwaters surged through the streets and “pounding waves” broke up sections of the boardwalk.
The Star-Ledger also offered a dramatic picture of Sandy, though perhaps with more of the informational, contextual quality that Moore suggested. By outlining the storm’s record-breaking nature and its place in shore history, that paper kept its feet firmly planted in the ground. Anything that might have qualified as sensational otherwise was reined in.
Should reporters cover hurricanes like they cover wars? I’m not sure. I guess that like anything else, what matters is whether they’re doing it out of a desire to titillate or to inform. It seems possible that national outlets like the Times and the Huffington Post were a little too interested in the entertainment factor, seeking an audience outside of the storm’s reach – one they didn’t need to protect. But I also believed Ali Velshi when he said that he wanted to show people what Sandy looked like in order to keep them safe. It’s possible that his producers had other motivations, but the optimist in me is going to side with the reporter who’s standing on the front lines, with water up to his waist.