Outlets Kept News Flowing After Storm

Feb 27, 2006  •  Post A Comment

In its simplest, most basic form, the First Amendment exists to ensure the free flow of information to the public. That’s why five television station groups and two radio groups with local broadcast facilities that were in the path of Hurricane Katrina last August are being recognized by the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation.

The station groups will receive the foundation’s First Amendment Leadership Award March 9 in Washington.

The award marks the first time the foundation will pay tribute to a group of stations at its annual awards dinner, where the RTNDF honors journalists and executives for service to the First Amendment.

“What could be more important in a time of terrible national disaster than to be assured you are going to get the information you need to protect your family and make quick decisions for yourself?” asked Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association.

Broadcasters in the disaster area were stretched to the limit, presenting news 24/7 to serve the public, she said. “It required a major commitment from their companies to allow them to do that. We felt the companies that owned these stations and the stations themselves really stepped up to the plate to make sure New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Mississippi had the information they so urgently needed,” she said.

For some stations, that meant shifting quickly to the Internet. Hearst-Argyle’s NBC affiliate WDSU-TV in New Orleans turned to its Web site, where it broadcast live and generated more than 12.4 million page views and served 1.3 million streams in the first three days following the hurricane. The group’s ABC affiliate WAPT-TV in Jackson, Miss., pitched in, operating as a temporary quarters for some WDSU refugees in the days immediately after the hurricane.

Hearst-Argyle also quickly struck a deal for WDSU’s signal to be carried by Paxson stations in New Orleans (WPXL-TV) and Houston (KPXB-TV), where the decision was made to run WDSU’s coverage because of the large number of evacuees in the area.

“This is journalism at its highest level, journalism under pressure, journalism that tests your ability to think and respond,” said Fred Young, senior VP of news for Hearst. “I’ve never experienced anything like this before.”

Then there’s WVUE-TV, the Emmis-owned Fox affiliate in New Orleans, which is located in a two-story building that took on 6 feet of water when the hurricane slammed down. The first floor, which housed the news operations, had to be completely gutted; WVUE broadcast from sister station Emmis-owned Fox affiliate WALA-TV in Mobile, Ala., until shortly after Thanksgiving.

“This was a completely shared event and everyone did their part,” said Dave Ward, senior VP of programming and marketing for Emmis. “It really took everyone doing what they did to get the information out there, and everyone had the sole purpose of getting information out there any way we could, whether on-air, through the Internet, calling, driving. … Information was like gold then.”

The coverage demonstrated journalism at its core, he said. “It just got back to the basics: letting people know, making sure the information was correct, getting the facts out, doing it the old-fashioned way. It didn’t have bells and whistles,” Mr. Ward said.

Sharing the award are television station groups Belo (WWL-TV, New Orleans), Emmis Television (WVUE), Hearst-Argyle Television (WDSU), Liberty Corp. (WLOX-TV, Biloxi, Miss.) and Tribune Broadcasting (WGNO-TV, New Orleans) and radio groups Clear Channel Communications and Entercom Communications.