Why News Anchors Go to Disasters

From a story on The Poynter Report headlined “Why news anchors go to disasters like the wildfire in Hawaii”:

Norah O’Donnell, anchor of the “CBS Evening News,” opened Monday night’s newscast standing in front of burned-down buildings in Kula, Hawaii — a community devastated by wildfires.

Over on NBC, Tom Llamas stood in front of incinerated cars and dusty fields where homes once stood. National correspondent Miguel Almaguer was in Lahaina, Maui County, Hawaii, where the landscape looked like something out of an apocalyptic movie with buildings destroyed and smoke still floating in the air.

And ABC’s “World News Tonight” showed frightening images of residents clinging to sea walls and standing in the ocean while fires raged in the distance. A team of reporters interviewed those who somehow survived the fire and told the stories of some of those who didn’t.

The coverage was powerful and critical — not only to tell the rest of the world what has happened in Hawaii, but also to begin digging into what could have been done to prevent such a tragedy.

Noticeable was major networks sending anchors on location.

To be clear, all three major networks had extensive coverage from the ground in Hawaii. It has been quite common to see evening news anchors such as NBC News’ Lester Holt and ABC News’ David Muir anchor from the site of disasters, such as hurricanes or tornado outbreaks or wars.

This time, it was O’Donnell, Llamas (anchor of NBC’s “Top Story”) and “CBS Mornings” co-host Tony Dokoupil who traveled to Hawaii to report on this story.

So why is it important for anchors to go to the actual scene of stories when they could cover the news from studios back in New York or Washington?

In an email interview, Llamas, who has been reporting from Maui since last Friday, told me, “I think in some cases, especially with major news events, you have to be on the scene. You can interview someone remote, but sitting with someone, looking into their eyes, and feeling their grief, gives you a better understanding of the story. You have to talk to people directly affected, walk the area impacted, and feel what is happening — and we want to show that to viewers. Bringing the broadcast to the location allows you to shine the brightest light possible on those impacted.”

There are also impactful moments that seem to carry more weight when told by an anchor who is reporting. An anchor on the scene tells the viewer: This story matters, this story is important.

That’s why Dokoupil went to Hawaii for the story.

During his reporting, Dokoupil spoke with Hawaii Gov. Josh Green, tagged along with Oprah Winfrey as she provided aid to survivors and spoke to those who lived through the nightmare.

Dokoupil told me, “Some stories are too big to pass through the lens of a camera or words on a screen, and disasters like this are often that kind of story. You have to see it with your own eyes and then share it with your own voice. It’s journalism as old as the human voice and as natural as one person telling another what they saw just over the hill.”

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