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TV & Radio

Feb 3, 2011

iPhones in hand, they rushed to the scene of Yasi devastation

TV coverage of cyclone Yasi became the Race for Tully this morning as it slowly dawned on waking Queensland and Australia that the community was one of the worst hit overnight. The ABC was left on the starting block.


TV coverage of cyclone Yasi became the Race for Tully this morning as it slowly dawned on waking Queensland and Australia that the community was one of the worst hit overnight.

And in that race the commercial networks sped ahead of the ABC which seemed to give up on the challenge by focussing on events on the other side of the world rather than on one of the biggest cyclones in recorded Australian history.

While Seven was pioneering a novel form of mobile reporting and Nine was managing to balance the other big national story — the death of a soldier in Afghanistan — the ABC was stuck fast in its rigid studio-based format with very few outside reports and less sense of being connected to this huge story.

At Seven and Nine it was the weather men, Grant Denyer and Steve Jacobs respectively, who literally forged a trail into the worst hit areas. Denyer used Skype and an iPhone with a handheld camera to travel light and fast into Innsifail and south towards Tully. Along the way he was in constant contact with the anchors, Mel and Kochie, who were broadcasting on-location from Cairns and Townsville, talking to each other across the path of the storm.

Throughout the morning they regularly marvelled at how well the links to Denyer were working. Kochie explained Denyer had given lots of thought to make them work; Denyer admitted more than once he was surprised the system was functioning so well. Even the regular drop-outs, as the audio struggled to keep pace, added to the drama.

Denyer was soon Skyping from a banana plantation near Innisfail, confirming the crop had been flattened. At last there was some respite from all those hackneyed file images from overnight. It didn’t matter — as it often doesn’t — that the new images were grainy. It was the freshness and the accuracy of the information that mattered. Within minutes, Karl Stefanovic on Nine was interviewing Anna Bligh about the plight of the banana crop. Denyer’s innovative reporting was having an immediate affect on the national coverage.

Nine’s Jacobs was travelling with a traditional crew, trying to get into Tully too. He was blocked by a river 38km from the town and forced to do interviews against a backdrop of the swollen water. Denyer meanwhile travelled closer, through what he described as an “obstacle course”. He was travelling with rescue teams, filming them cutting down trees as they went.

Over on the ABC the cyclone had been relegated behind a repeat of Ben Knight’s report from Egypt. Normally it would be a big story. But today it struggled to get any traction. Later the network rigged up some live pictures from Cairo. But it could not compete with events in Queensland. Virginia Trioli’s news sense kicked in during an interview with a Red Cross spokesman — she quizzed him about a woman who had taken the initiative to move several elderly people during the cyclone, probably saving several lives in the process.

Back on Seven, Denyer had found a family in its roofless house — laughing at the ordeal they’d survived. “Sorry we didn’t get time to clean up,” said a woman in her dishevelled lounge room. They were powerful images. It was adroit reporting. It was live around the country. Nine went big on the story of the child born in an evacuation centre. The network lucked out during an interview with Cairns councillor Linda Cooper when Carol, the British midwife, came on the phone to talk us through the birth.

Nine focussed on tracking down interviewees by phone. It found “Pete the builder”in Tully who had lost half a million dollars as a banana farmer in another cyclone, only to find himself in the midst of this one. He reckoned the town was ruined. It sounded like he was choking back emotion as he quipped: “I had a shortage of work up here but I don’t now.” He gave a beautiful description of the eye of the storm: he could see the stars perfectly when the wind died, allowing his neighbours to run from their damaged houses to join him. As they were running up the stairs they could hear the wind coming from the other direction. It was “like 10 freight trains”.

Nine also spoke to its reporter Melissa Mallet, who had been based in Tully overnight. She explained: “I can’t see one house that hasn’t been flattened… It looks like the end of the world came through last night.” It wasn’t until after 11am that the first images from Tully emerged, thanks to Mallet’s reporting. In the end, neither Jacobs nor Denyer had managed to get in quick enough to get reports out before the news agenda shifted again when Lt General Hurley called a press conference to announce the death of Corporal Atkinson in Afghanistan.

Early in the morning the ABC had managed to reach a reporter from the Tully Times who gave a moving account of the devastation. She was probably the first to report that about a fifth of the roofs in town were missing. Later the ABC spoke to News Limited photographer John Wilson, who filed some pictures of Tully which the ABC broadcast. It was telling that two of the highlights of the ABC’s coverage came courtesy of reporters from other media outlets.

The conclusion from watching this morning’s coverage is that ABC TV is either too poorly resourced or too cumbersome to compete with either Seven or Nine when it comes to events like this. Over the course of today it will catch up with plenty of fine reporting but it is a shame that it is so poor at the breaking coverage of big events. This morning it dabbled with social media to fill the gap by reading the tweets and emails and text messages of viewers. But even in this regard it was way behind Nine, which made a virtue of social media by making it an integral part of its coverage.

The biggest error of the morning however belongs to Kochie at Seven, who claimed that 18-metre waves had been recorded off Townsville’s coast last night. Even casual viewers knew that Anna Bligh had gone to considerable lengths at her news conference yesterday to say the readings were wrong and should be ignored. To his credit Kochie quickly corrected the mistake.

He probably gets the award for the quote of the day too. It went something like this: “Bush and Obama may have had a war on terror, but here in Queensland we’ve got a war on nature.”




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29 thoughts on “iPhones in hand, they rushed to the scene of Yasi devastation

  1. shepherdmarilyn

    Give it two weeks tops and the rest of the country will start the same whine about the price of bananas as they did after Larry and the pictures show much greater destruction of the banana plantations this time around.

  2. SusieQ

    Although I have not seen much of the coverage so far today, I can agree with the general view of this article – it is such a disappointment that the ABC’s 24 hour station is often behind the times when things are happening – lost count of the number of times I’ve turned onto 24 to catch a breaking story, only to see a repeat of Australian Story or similar. Its a shame that an organisation that has so much coverage throughout the country and so many journalists can seem to be ‘asleep at the wheel’ at times.

  3. LisaCrago

    good story but you make no mention of RADIO coverage…last time I looked Radio was still considered ‘media’. Last night local ABC talkback radio was running hot with live reports from those being directly hit. Although Kelly the midnight to 5 am presenter was most inappropriately chipper and laughing on air saying things to people who were in the eye of the storm like ‘hello there, how are you are you gooooood’ ?!? wtf these people were having their motherducking roofs torn off sitting in the eye of a cyclone waiting to be whipped even harder by its tail. Who is this woman? was she on drugs or something? Sure just a little local backwater abc radio talkback but THE ONLY voice that these people had and it was streaming all round the world. The other mention just has to go the the crew at the Cairns Post bunkering down in the Sebal hotel after evacing their offices who kept trying to answer questions using twitter all night. Well Done. True community service, unlike the big TV stations.

  4. Liz45

    I don’t know! I watched the ABC last night; I listened to ABC RAdio, there were interviews with people in the affected areas. Frankly, I thought the commercial channels were being goulish? All the info they were giving, supposedly to those affected wasn’t much good, as some/lots had lost power at about 9-10 pm. They were listening to ABC Radio and some rang in to ABC’s ‘Nightlife’? I don’t need to watch every gruelling bit of heartbreaking film to care about those people.

    It’s been my experience with the commercial channels, that they take advantage of everyones’ misery just to get some footage about human misery. I’m sure, that on occasions they just get in the damn road! The police and SES were battened down – but the commercial channels – why were they taking up space in ‘cyclone proof’ motels/hotels while many residents were in car parks or overcroweded shopping malls?

    In short, the words ‘over kill’ spring to mind! They’ll also be pushing whatever line Abbott wants to push to make political mileage out of. Watch this space! Their concern for Queenslanders will taper off – just like it did with the floods. They’ll push the conservative barrow! I find them obscene!

  5. Scott

    It’s a question of focus. The commercial free to air channels depend on large amounts of viewers to justify advertising revenue used to bankroll their operations and keep shareholders happy. Domestic news sells better than foreign news, hence the FTA focus (and talent) in producing quality, innovative coverage and distribution of domestic news (Channel 7 has become the master of the human interest story). ABC have no need to justify themselves to shareholders and are funded by the taxpayer. Hence they can stay in their ivory tower and have no need to “slum it” covering domestic issues. The only area ABC still leads in is analysis (Lateline rocks), but even that will go if they aren’t careful.

  6. SusieQ

    Can I just add to my earlier comments that last night I listened (online) to ABC far north and the coverage was excellent – warnings, taking calls from those affected, regular updates etc etc. Good work all round.

  7. bereasonable

    I find the media race to find the most devastating, destructive images and stories soul-less.

  8. paddy

    [“Bush and Obama may have had a war on terror, but here in Queensland we’ve got a war on nature.”]
    Quote of the day??!!!!
    Bloody hell Andrew, what have they been putting in your bananas?
    That sounds more like the Wankley winner to me.

  9. LisaCrago

    What? NO ONE covers (or slum it as you say Mr Scott) domestic issues on a local or using digital streaming on an international level like the ABC…especially the radio broadcasts. When you have no power and are needing ‘analysis’ in times of trouble who is right there with you and so NOT in an ivory tower? The A B fcking C.

  10. Liz45

    Do people remember during the horrific aftermath of the Victorian bushfires, when one of the journalists from the commercial channels told that poor demented young man that his whole family were dead – on AIR? Appalling! They hover like vultures to see who can be ‘there’ to see the worst of the misery?

    @SCOTT – I don’t think the ABC looks on these domestic stories as “slumming it”? After all, they’re the ones with the responsiblity of being the Official Emergency Response/Information organisation – and they do it very well – particularly via radio. TV isn’t much good without power – but people have a battery radio with them. Commercial channels? Money is their god, not the people?

    @BEREASONABLE – I agree! I turn off after a while – as it’s repeat after nauseous repeat, and why do they have to paraphrase what the Premier had to say during her media updates – immediately after it’s over? Drives me nuts!

  11. Tuxedo

    Actually, I didn’t think that the ABC coverage was too bad although I would love to see them better resourced.

    What I like about the ABC coverage is that is is BALANCED with the other big news items of the day. The ABC actually reports the news evenly, without engaging in all the disaster porn hyperbole.

    By contrast, Seven and Nine fill our screens with slow motion tragic footage set to a soundtrack of haunting strings music, while their “reporters” (who last week, were covering the latest Charlie Sheen weekend-bender) are shown striding the streets, shoving microphones and cameras into the faces of people who are clearly overwhelmed and distraught.

    This morning, Channel 7 stopped a Brazillian backpacker on their way to the airport, who seemed in no kind of panic, simply making her way down the street, and they tried to lead her into the most emotionally charged account that they could squeeze out of her. And as she walked away casually, tried to portray that she was fleeing in some kind of terror.

    Like LIZ45, I find the commercial coverage of these events obscene, excessive, and opportunistic.

  12. Observation

    I watched the ABC this morning for five minutes and got the update and information I needed. Any more just would have been sensationalizing the event. I would anticipate the ABC radio stations would have passed on all the relevant overnight info to the ABC TV.

    And yes, 7 and 9 will stop reporting on this when the locals have had enough of their manipulation to exaggerate the misery and they run out of graphics to replace constructive narrated journalism.

  13. drsmithy

    That’s why the commercial channels have news “shows” and the ABC has news “programs”. The difference between being entertained and being informed.

    As an expat, I’m just glad the ABC dropped its geo-filter from the ABC News 24 streaming site again (like they did with the floods), so I could keep up to date with what was happening. Sadly I expect they’ll reinstate it in a few days like they did last time.

  14. shadow boxer

    2 words – disaster p@rn

    the networks love to telecast constantly when available because they know we all love it, we can’t get enough of it and its cheap production TV. as for everyone being dirty voyeurs & such…we all know you use the internets just for news & email

  15. LisaCrago

    NOW this is REAL journalism, what it really is supposed to be all about, for the people, out of need to provide information at a time when there is no power and they were bunkered down in a hotel for the entire night. They had to evac their own homes at 6 am yesterday morning and then their offices as well.

    as tweeted by Gavin King from Cairns Post

    Against all odds, free copies of Cairns Post special edition is now being distributed in Cairns at any shops open.

    I may diss news ltd when it is trash, but dedicated work like this can not be forgotten.

  16. Patrick Brosnan

    For dog’s sake, this article is almost as worthless than the ongoing 24hr, moment by moment coverage of this storm. The creation of the story started even before the cyclone got here, almost 2 days before. Al sorts of dire predictions. The SMH is still holding out hope that alls not well in Cardwell. Honestly you’d think all you’d need would be regular, accurate and unadorned reports on the position and strength of the storm. But that would be information, this is entertainment.

  17. Salamander

    That wasn’t my experience of ABC1 TV last night in Sydney. It was wall to wall cyclone with other programs cancelled for hours. Plus they have their 24hr news HD channel. What do you want?

  18. Tamo

    I congratulate all the radio and TV channels along with the DIY alternative communications via the internet.

    Despite the sometimes faults, usual agendas,show-biz foolishness that afflicted all of them at some time or other, they brought all of us into the drama.

    A country of our size needs this sort of coverage to help us maintain our unique social cohesiveness. Faulty or not we need it so that what impacts some of us impacts all of us.

  19. Cuppa

    The ABC has become a disgrace.

    Its “News” channel is Australia’s version of FOXNews -UNfair and UNbalanced.

    Its website is basically a clearinghouse for Liberal Party press releases.

    The blog The Drum Unleashed is a sheltered workshop for ex-Liberal Party staffers.

    And ABC Radio dresses up Liberal press releases as “news”.

    The Managing Director is a known partisan. Under his management the ABC has become the propaganda organ of the Liberal Party.

    Sack Mark Scott.

  20. LisaCrago

    Gavin King:
    Inside Cairns Post building our internet network is still down. Operating on wireless internet and mobile phones at the moment trying to produce a comprehensive 64-page newspaper for tomorrow and provide this live web coverage

    More real live journalism

    cairns post was going to shut down their live question answer blogg at 6 pm but the need for it to keep going out weighed their personal needs for sleep while still attempting to put together a paper for tomorrows streets. As many in Cairns STILL DO NOT HAVE POWER print media is all they have and bless the Cairns post for pushing thru to do so. We still do not know how isolated areas have managed. They now face a night of full on rainfalls and more grief after many already loosing shelter.
    This is not sensationalist journo work, this is as close as a news ltd will ever get to a community service in a time of urgent need.
    Iphone and twitter has changed the face of how we can communicate live in a natural disaster. These journos are just facilitating it.

  21. Rena Zurawel

    I would like to commend the State Government of Queensland for an incredible effort to plan and conduct the rescue campaign.
    Forget the media. They were not able to get safely everywhere, and report on every falling roof, anyway.
    For me, the information from Anna Bligh was more important than any would- be sensational news from the media.

    I think Anna Bligh and the Police Commissioner ( I don’t know his name) must have been awaken all night and have done excellent job, and displayed both professionalism and empathy in rescuing people.
    It was really moving to hear that new and healthy babies were born in the shelters during the cyclone.

    Anna Bligh,
    You made me feel very, very moved and sentimental. Thank you.
    Rena Zurawel from South Australia

  22. shadow boxer

    Yes, yes Anna Bligh sensational effort. If only there where extraordinary natural disasters every week of the year. Then we could all be constantly distracted from the other pile of human disasters you & your gov’t manages to create. I guess when things are not going according to your plans & but going adverse to those with mother nature they deserve your attention. Your response to these emergency situations makes me feel all warm & fuzzy. BTW has the Qld public hospital nursing staff been paid lately?

  23. juvenile

    What bollocks. We should be grateful that the ABC is not engaged in the trashy one-upmanship played by the 9 & 7 News. We do not need more disaster porno and low-res blurry camera phone footage sent in by the punters. The cyclone coverge was completely overdone, thankfully the grown-up news organisations relegated it behind the real stories of the day coming out of Cairo.

  24. Liz45

    I think Anna Bligh and the Police Commissioner and the interpreters for the deaf or hearing challenged people; but applaud the others that we don’t see – quietly going about their business, saving lives and or caring for people. Thank goodness for the ABC. If any of the MSM are doing a good job for Queenslanders, good on them too!

    But, I don’t need to see every individual person’s trauma. Seeing people break down or look white & shocked is an invasion of their privacy – like sticking a microphone under someone’s nose at a funeral. It’s just damned runde. I don’t need a ‘but, how do you feel’ bit of sensationalism. These so-called journalists want people to crack, whether they’re Premiers or ordinary people like me. It doesn’t inform me, it just makes me feel for the person who’s suffered – but 24 hrs worth of hazy photos or interviews? Over and over again? From this town this time? This city street? Over and over? No!

    When residents are asked if they want to be interviewed, OK, but I suggest, many have no choice!

    I did hear an ABC journalist last evening state, that the people living in the destroyed home didn’t want to appear on camera, but had given their permission for it to be filmed! Wow! I was impressed! That’s having real respect for how vulnerable these people are feeling now! Many are in shock – they’re traumatised!

    I DID love hearing about the new babies born that night! 7 of them? I can only imagine how their mothers felt? ‘Cyclone? What cyclone?’

  25. drmick

    They are doing disasters like they do sport. Skype, twitter, and all the rest are the stump cam of the disaster.
    The coaches gee up before the match is the state premier delivering her brief about what is to happen.
    The “game” / disaster is relayed from limited angles, and with accompanying gormless statements of the obvious , but delivered in strained tones, complete with feigned sincerity, while standing in the rain rather than under an umbrella or in a dry warm studio.
    Major errors are ignored, dismissed or end up not shown because, “that wont get us any ratings”.
    Half time and quarter time are the insertion of commercials into what is reportedly, ” the worst disaster since the big bang”. There is always time to make sure the sponsors dollar fits in between disasters and cameos within the disaster.

    I was personally aghast at the fact they were turning away people from shelters because they were full, and then finding alternative accommodation scarce, and there would have been nearly 300 press from the continuous call teams taking up valuable beds, food and space from the real victims of the disaster.

    I wonder if someone wil come up with a “disaster app” for android and iphone?

  26. Liz45

    @DRMICK – I agree! I raised the same thing myself – journalists taking up beds and room that the residents could’ve taken advantage of.

    I’ve decided to make sure I don’t turn on commercial TV for????I’ve had enough of them! I’ll watch and listen to the ABC TV and radio!

    As to the commercials. I thought that myself the night Yasi hit. This was a traumatic and serious incident, and they went to commercials for whatever? Sickening! I suppose they had to find the money for all those motel/hotel rooms?

  27. Moira Smith

    My sister and her family sat the storm out in Townsville and listened to ABC local radio all night on a battery-powered radio (the electricity was off). My sister said the ABC presenter was wonderful, comforting and informative and deserves a medal. Kochie can’t do that ….

  28. Moira Smith

    PS and the ABC presenter was just doing her regular midnight gig, time she was promoted to days, says my sis.

  29. drmick

    This is why it is very important that at least ABC radio is left out of the rush for ratings.

    I listen to the Sydney and Illawarra announcers during weekdays, and there is no difference between them, and the chardie and Zoloft lah de dahs on the commercial stations.

    A little bit of dog whistling from the “announcer”, and the right wing of the great unwashed respond with tongues out, salivating about their favourite cause of every problem, “(the government luvvy)”, and providing audionic evidence that there is a rampant, untreated, mental health problem in this country.

    That is why a real radio announcer ,who understands their responsibilities in an emergency, shines out like a beacon. They provide accurate information and facts as supplied to them. They pass on personal messages and are empathetic to the people relying on them for information. They do not have to worry about rating and how many are listening; they are providing a public service; and there is the difference between what the ABC was, and what it is.

    It is a lot easier to deliver facts and provide accurate coverage than it is to make up a story, and present the disaster/problem/discussion, in the terms of the pre determined story.

    Mmmm that sounds familiar doesn’t it?
    e.g. JG`s announcement the other day regarding the levy did not fit the predetermined story the press had been ready to print as fact. So they dutifully ignored what she said, kept their predetermined figures and attitudes, and attacked her.


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