Anchors Aweigh

A television reporter stands in the ocean in Atlantic City Photograph by Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

With so much cool tech these days, do we need TV reporters standing in the teeth of hurricanes?

The dramatic footage started early this time. Not from Hurricane Sandy, but from the behavior of those who are covering it. One of the first moments came early on Monday from Chip Reid over at CBS This Morning. Reid’s crew had set up close to the pounding surf in Ocean City, Md.—so close, in fact, that a single “rogue wave” managed to take down “everything but the camera,” as he told host Charlie Rose.

There was Al Roker of NBC’s Today, getting whipped about in a yellow rain jacket as he struggled to stay standing on sand dunes along the New Jersey coast. That was followed by a wave of equally soaked correspondents dotted along the East Coast, who shouted out weather updates as they, too, struggled to stay vertical. The sea foam in North Carolina was so thick on ABC’s Matt Gutman (not to mention his camera, which a colleague kept wiping) that he could barely hear weather anchor Sam Champion comment on the scene. “Look at how angry that ocean is on that shoreline,” said Champion, from the relative calm of southern Manhattan. “It’s important for us to see that picture.”

What picture? Did he mean the picture of a shoreline that was already dangerously chaotic from a hurricane 200 miles away? Or that it’s important for viewers to see ABC’s team on a beach that every other human being had abandoned? (In another segment, Gutman showed footage of himself and a producer being knocked over by yet another rogue wave.) Let’s assume he meant that it’s important for reporters like him to get out and get video of themselves doing what the politicians, police, and other officials have told everyone else to avoid.

Otherwise, viewers might not understand that a hurricane is hurtling their way. Isn’t that what webcams, satellite images, and dramatic footage of overturned trees or floating cars can do? Watching your favorite personality get pummeled by high winds and water can certainly make for dramatic TV. “Look at that guy! Will he make it? Ew! What’s that on her face? Ha!” But it seems archaic and unsafe to put people in the maw of a storm that’s left dozens dead and can be visually chronicled other ways.

Extreme weather has long been a godsend to television news. Whether they’re frying eggs on sidewalks during a heat wave or standing atop snowdrifts during a blizzard, TV reporters love to show themselves taking on Mother Nature. The worse the weather is, the stiffer the competition to get a shot of your TV reporter in the middle of it.

But the world has come a long way since Dan Rather got his big break covering Hurricane Carla from Galveston, Tex., in 1961. Back then, the only way for viewers to visualize the storm was through reports from the scene. One of the live shots he contemplated, Rather later recalled on MediabistroTV, was to “go out and strap myself to a tree.” What stopped him? The snakes? The high winds? The wife and two little kids back home? Whatever the reason, Rather “decided pretty quickly it was a bad idea.” Sure, he walked along the seawall at one point. He certainly chronicled the devastation afterwards. But much of his groundbreaking coverage came from radar images and footage that didn’t need his face in front of it.

Today, even with a camera on every corner, the most predictable pattern of any hurricane is the migration of media crews toward its front lines. The goal isn’t just to chronicle the impending weather but to stage an Olympics-style rally to see which reporter gets closest to potential injury. The frantic pursuit of live shots often verges on comical: Remember Fox reporter Tucker Barnes being pelted with raw sewage during Hurricane Irene? It can be entertaining.

“This is our Super Bowl,” CNN’s severe weather expert Chad Myers told the Hollywood Reporter. ”We have people that will be in the way of this storm, and people will probably get hurt.” Let’s hope they only look silly. CNN’s footage of reporter Brian Andrews being repeatedly blown over while reporting on Hurricane Katrina has become a case study of what not to do in severe weather. Hurricane Sandy may yield some new contenders.

Peter Doocy of Fox News may not be one of them: He fell on a beachfront boardwalk as his foot got trapped in a sandy hole. CNN’s Ali Velshi did look at risk in Atlantic City, until a trio of shirtless men crashed the shot and danced a jig behind him. At least that proved reporters weren’t the only ones who ignored New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s order: “Don’t be stupid. Get out.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.