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.

Andrew Dodd

Media lecturer and journalist

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!

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