There was something supremely strange yesterday about the spectacle of CNN’s chief business correspondent, Ali Velshi, standing outside in Atlantic City and getting battered by the rain from Hurricane Sandy. It’s odd enough that news networks drop all other subjects, foreign and domestic, when a big storm bears down on the U.S. (not that such storms shouldn’t be covered). But there’s something particularly strange about the decision to focus on on-the-ground reporters, rather than on reporting on actual disaster management, most of the decisions about which are made inside government and non-profit offices, rather than at the edge of bodies of water. And it’s particularly strange that we’ve focused on making reporters take risks that carry with them very little possible information reward.
There wasn’t much information that Velshi was communicating that he couldn’t have conveyed from inside the building: it’s not as if he couldn’t have told CNN viewers that the streets were flooded without standing in the street with water lapping over his boots and the wind tearing at his clothes, or that power in Atlantic City had gone out. For much of his time on air, Velshi wasn’t actually verbally communicating information and observations at all: he was just the focus of shots showing him being buffeted by gusts of wind. The point of having him out in the storm was to show him being vulnerable to it, despite the fact that all government officials, in-studio anchors, and people with any damn sense agree that you should not actually venture out into a hurricane at risk to yourself and the people who may have to come rescue you. I understand that there’s an extent to which storm reporting is a visual medium, but the same image repeated over and over again doesn’t actually convey new information. And showing Velshi talking about events, like the reported flooding of the New York Stock Exchange, that he couldn’t possibly have been party to or been able to verify or deny, in the storm is a weird form of novelty reporting. He was out there because it’s nerve-wracking and exciting to see him out there, not because it furthered CNN’s reporting in a substantial way for him to be there.
There are enough reasons journalists have to consider whether or not to take serious risks that are absolutely necessary for them to incur in order to get information that wouldn’t be available otherwise. It wouldn’t be remotely amusing for us to watch Lara Logan experience sexual assault in Egypt or Anthony Shadid die of an asthma attack in Syria, even though those scenes might have given more precise context on the stories they were covering than people standing around in raincoats possibly could about the specifics of a hurricane. So there’s something deeply strange about the idea that we treat seeing Velshi and his colleagues out in the storm as if they’re entertainment or information, that there’s this competitive streak about which correspondents stay out longest, when we could maybe get substantive information about relief efforts or available resources instead. Or as my friend Katie Welsh tweeted, “Dear CNN, If your reporter has to HOLD ON TO A TREE, we DO NOT WANT TO WATCH THEM OUT THERE.”