On the front lines with the reporters vs. the big freeze

By Tom Jones
Poynter Institute

Here’s a really good tip for reporters who’ve been covering the brutally cold weather in the upper Midwest: Use a pencil.

“Ink can freeze,’’ said Phillip Pina, deputy editor of local news for the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Another good tip? Don’t die.

That’s no joke. With temperatures dipping as low as minus-30 in the Twin Cities and wind chills reaching an unfathomable minus-55 in Chicago, this was weather that could actually kill you.

On Jan. 29, it was warmer in Antarctica and at the Mount Everest base camp than it was in Minnesota and the Windy City.

“Our biggest rule is to avoid unnecessary risks,’’ Pina said. “Have a plan to keep warm.’’

So how do you cover a story about how dangerous it is to be outside when it’s too dangerous to be outside?

Well, most news organizations start with the basics: closings, emergency updates, warnings and tips. The headline in last Tuesday’s Chicago Tribune got straight to it: “Avoid being outside.’’

Along with telling people the dangers of such bitterly cold weather, news outlets offer up such pointers as how tell if you have frostbite, how to keep your pipes from freezing and what to do if you lose power. Those are all stories that can be done in the warm confines of a newsroom.

Eventually, however, news organizations have to get out in the cold.

Or do they?

Frank Whittaker, station manager and vice president of news for NBC 5 in Chicago, sent a note to his staff last Tuesday morning telling them not to do any live shots outside until temperatures get back above zero.

“We must cover it in a way that is safe for our reporters and photojournalists,’’ Whittaker said. “We will cover the story, but we will keep (them) safe.’’

No live shots does not mean his reporters won’t go outside at all.

For the film crews who must get out into the elements, the station is providing hand and feet warmers, car battery jump kits and other cold-weather supplies. But, mostly, reporters must be equipped with common sense.

“Reporters here are used to working in extreme weather, but this story is the ultimate test,’’ said Allie Shah, who is heading up The (Minneapolis) Star Tribune’s coverage. “We tell them to dress in layers, watch the time and don’t stay outside too long. No story is worth risking their safety.’’

News outlets also have to be responsible with their coverage.

“Viewers are smart,’’ said Jennifer Lyons, news director at WGN-TV in Chicago. “They actually get angry if our reporters are outside telling people how dangerous it is to be outside.’’

In the end, news outlets simply have to be safe, ride it out and, when possible, try to enjoy it.

Author: Rachel Howell

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