Reporting from the field

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By Tony Samson

JUST TO show that news is not just about reading a script, disasters, weather disturbances, and unusual political developments provide the opportunity to project immediacy. Coverage of news as it happens is supplied by field reporters sent to where the action is. The live report is accompanied by video footage of related happenings that put context to the reporter’s story.

News items like a volcanic eruption causing ashfall in Metro Manila, tremors, and evacuation of towns does not lend itself to the open-and-shut case of the usual typhoons visiting these islands. Before, during, and after a weather disturbance that can be tracked through satellite images, reporters are also fielded out to various locations.

The format of live coverages pre-empts regular programming and assign rotating anchors from the talent bench. In the volcano story, the multiple locations of towns covered in ashfall, animals being led away from the danger, and whole towns shut down and evacuated consume the viewers. The legs of the coverage continue with refugee centers, the appeal for donations, and, for the light touch, volunteer performers cheering up the refugees with songs and dances.

The field reporter is shown to be clearly in the scene as establishing shots are mandatory to indicate that the correspondent is where she claims to be. She is wearing a face mask with the smoking volcano smoldering in the background. The designated anchors sit in the studio as they too sport jackets which in this case can be considered merely as costumes. Conscious of their relative safety, the anchors merely prompt the reporter to give a report, almost limiting themselves to introducing the intrepid colleague in the midst of devastation and misery.

While typhoons are clearly shown leaving the area of responsibility and exiting to faraway cities being battered in their turn, the volcano that has stopped spewing ask and rocks does not quite end the coverage. Experts are interviewed with their dire warnings of a false calm and centuries-old tantrums cited just for effect. No timeline is provided — it can explode anytime.

Media coverage of gripping events and breaking news has greatly improved in terms of harnessing expert opinion and being more mindful of the sensibilities of those touched by tragedy. Gone are the days when earthquake victims pinned in the rubble and not yet rescued are interviewed live on their perilous straits — can you feel your toes? The guesting of experts in the studio gives context to the reporting. Thus, a meteorologist can compare the typhoon to others that were visited on other countries, including how storms behave.

Volcanologists had their day and even when the spewing had stopped, they could intone the need for caution. It can blow up again anytime next week or another three decades.

Still, an expert can stray into other fields not within his area of competence as his comments alight on the inadequacy of shelters and the slow relief operations. Some other personality can comment on this mismatch of the severity of a disaster and the initial response to it. Even well-meaning donors are ribbed for sending bridal gowns and oversized shorts.

The status of TV networks as well as the positive role of media is enhanced by these live coverages and how well they explain disasters and their impact. The absence of ads in such a format only further bolsters the image of sacrificing commercial gain in favor of the need for a citizenry to be informed. TV enhances its supremacy as the first recourse and the main medium for understanding what’s happening and being on the scene with all the resources at its command.

The scenes of individual tales of survival and grief can only draw the nation together in the common place of hope and fellow-feeling. John Donne’s words beckon: “Any man’s death diminishes me/because I am involved in mankind/and therefore do not send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

In its coverage of breaking and heartbreaking news, TV has become the comforter of the afflicted. In the law of unintended effects, however, too good a coverage of human misery results in a feeling of helplessness and abandonment.

When will the next eruption take place?

There is no time frame on when any sort of volcanic eruption may occur or where. Eruptions are unpredictable and unprovoked. They can leave ashfall of a toxic kind even on the economy. And a face mask won’t always help.


Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda.