Sandy and the Death of Television News

Amity Harbor after Superstorm Sandy

Amity Harbor after Superstorm Sandy (Photo credit: NewYorkBrass)

There was a moment, as Superstorm Sandy hit the east coast of America this week, when you could tell that it was going to be serious. When even those of us watching from thousands of miles away knew this time it wasn’t going to be media hype. It was when the television reporters starting going indoors.

For hours they had been standing against the most dramatic backdrops they could find, the sea raging behind them, water swirling around their feet, ramping up the tension. “This is a pretty dangerous place to be,” one of them intoned.

“The streets are deserted,” claimed another, as people strolled behind her in clear view of the camera.

But then, as the storm made landfall, the reporters were suddenly nowhere to be seen. No more live pieces to camera. On one network, the anchor was presenting the news by telephone, while the screen showed pictures taken from fixed cameras, or peering out of windows. That was when you knew it was for real.

But we already knew. We knew  from Twitter, from Facebook and emails from friends.

Like most people watching from afar, I imagine, I had the television on for pictures, but I was also following social media. When the television reporters strode out purposefully into the storm, grim determination on their faces, I had a friend in lower Manhattan on instant messenger telling me nothing was happening yet, that it wasn’t even raining. As the reporters claimed the streets were deserted, I could see Facebook updates from friends who’d just been out on crowded streets.

But as the night wore on and the storm picked up, as the reporters retreated, the message from social media was changing. My friend in lower Manhattan disappeared as his power was shut off. People updating on Twitter and Facebook started posting that it was looking bad after all, that they were getting inside, that the sound of the wind was frightening and buildings were shaking.

One of the advantages of social media is that people don’t have the professional media’s trained fear of changing the narrative, They have no qualms about admitting they were wrong, saying that the situation has changed.

A few hours into Sandy, the TV networks were hunting Twitter for news of what was going on, their reporters unable to move around. The best pictures came from Instagram and Youtube, footage of trees falling onto cars shot from inside some one’s living room, accompanied by live commentary of “Ohmygod” — pictures a television crew could never get.

I remember covering the 2002 floods in Prague for The Independent, watching as television reporters who had just flown in followed each other to the one street that had badly flooded, where they waded in and stood up to their knees in water, pretending much of the city was in the same condition.

I know why they did it, they’d missed the story the day before, when we’d watched from the Charles Bridge as the river rose before our eyes. And the events of that night, when Czechs came out in their thousands and quietly, purposefully made their way down to the river where they built a wall of sandbags that held back the waters.

The television networks had spent a fortune and they wanted a story: flooded streets made better pictures than a city that had kept the waters back. But they couldn’t do that today, because we’d all know the truth from social media.

Another memory: reporting on the 2001 crisis in Macedonia than nearly spiralled into civil war, on a street in Tetovo where a television reporter was doing a piece to camera. Behind him was a view of deserted street, with gunfire ringing out in the distance. In front of him, out of the camera shot, was a group of small boys nonchalantly playing football. He was a good journalist, everything he said was true, but the simple realities of television presented an illusion, that the city was deserted, when in fact children were playing in the street.

There was a time when we got our view of the outside world from television pictures. But now social media provide what we couldn’t get before: context. Now, when we look at the images on the television news, we see them as a part of a whole. What our friends tell us on Facebook, what we read on Twitter, fills in the rest of the picture outside the frame.

It means the role of television news has changed. It no longer sets the agenda.

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  1. Nice Piece. By the way, with mainstream media houses going digital. What changes do you see in the traditional way of reportage??

    • Justin Huggler says

      Thanks Imran. It’s a fascinating question: everything’s changing fast and no one knows quite how the cards will land. I think there will always be a place for the professional media: investigative journalists, specialists who spend years learning one field or sector inside out and building contacts, expert analysts. But I think in the field of general reportage the professionals are facing competition from a world in which we can all be news-gatherers on our laptops.
      The strange thing, to me, is that a lot of the professional media have been moving in the opposite direction, dropping specialists and encouraging everyone to be a general reporter. We’ve had newspapers trying to compete in the breaking news market, instead of providing analysis. We’ve had experienced writers suddenly handed cameras and told to take photographs or do pieces to camera. I think the professional media’s future lies in where it adds value, imn the expert comment and analysis it can provide, and in the sort of sustained or investigative reporting that requires time and resources.
      That’s my hunch, but the truth is nobody knows which way things are going to go. All we know is that they’re not going to stay the same.

  2. I completely agree with what you are saying. I am a New Yorker and was without power for four complete days: that meant no land line, no t.v., no internet, no radio, no lights, no cell (no signal available), no traffic lights in the streets when I wanted to go for a long afternoon walk , no heat or hot water. I longed for news and it wasn’t television news I wanted. I wanted the raw truth uninterrupted — that meant my computer. But all was lost to me until 5:20 Saturday morning when power came on. I made myself a pot of strong coffee and braced myself for the worst, for the surge of e-mails and Facebook messages from the people I loved who loved me and who gave me the hard facts, no holds barred. The truth comes from those we trust. Who do you trust?

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