Peabody Awards: Tackling Hurricane Reporting Head-On

May 29, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Allison J. Waldman

Special to TelevisionWeek

“We’re creating news content across multiple platforms 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We were built for this; this is really what we do,” said Jim Walton, president of CNN Worldwide, talking specifically about how his network covered Hurricane Katrina, the storm that devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in August 2005. But when it comes to delivering the news, the statement applies across the board for CNN. The network is built for stories like Katrina.

A 2005 Peabody Award will be presented to CNN at the June 5 ceremony in New York, in recognition of the network’s comprehensive, multiplatform effort on the Category 5 hurricane and subsequent flooding of New Orleans. “No other national, 24-hour news service provided more essential, up-to-the-minute information for viewers, listeners and online users,” the Peabody organization said in a press release announcing the award. “CNN’s continuous live coverage became a go-to channel for the most current news about Katrina and its effects.”

To a lot of people, CNN is the gold standard for news coverage. “I think many people feel that way worldwide,” Mr. Walton agreed. “It’s part of our brand. Our brand has attributes like immediacy, accuracy plus integrity. I think that resonates with many, many people around the world.”

CNN was on the job days before Katrina made landfall on Monday, Aug. 29. “This story was enormous and it covered a large geographic region, and we needed to amass as many people as we possibly could to try to cover the storm from as many angles as we could,” Mr. Walton said.

The network flexed its muscles, using all of its outlets and reaching more people than ever before. “It was a lot of coverage in a lot of places. … We were able to go very wide and very deep on this story on multiple platforms,” said Mr. Walton.

That meant wall-to-wall coverage on all the CNN cable outlets, and Katrina coverage was disseminated online on CNN.com and over the air with CNN Radio. Through CNN Newsource, important news and report packages were provided to numerous affiliates in the Gulf Coast region and elsewhere. “We have over 700 affiliates worldwide and we provide materials to them for them to use in their own broadcasts,” Mr. Walton said.

CNN.com, which was so important during Katrina and the aftermath, is the No. 1 news site online. “We handle on average over 5 million unique users-that’s different people who access the CNN Web site every single day. That’s not page views, that’s actual people. And then when you look at the actual time [visitors spend] on our Web site, it’s again far and away No. 1,” Mr. Walton said.

Looking back at the magnitude of the coverage, Mr. Walton said, “It was a tough story to cover. And the behind-the-scenes folks on our staff who got the convoys together-and we sent truck after truck after truck of supplies down there and helped many, many, many people in that region because, remember, they didn’t have running water or electricity or food, and we were able to help a lot of people as well.”

With so much manpower covering New Orleans and the Gulf Coast during the storm and its aftermath, CNN was in a position to be on the spot when news broke. “We’re in the 24-hour news business and we elected to stay live,” Mr. Walton said. “The initial reports were that the hurricane didn’t do as much damage as had been anticipated, and part of the reason we were able to tell the broken levee story first is because we were on the air live. We kept staying through the story into the overnight hours.”

At 2:27 a.m. Aug. 30, CNN was the first to report a massive break at the 17th Street Canal levee. “We were there,” Mr. Walton said. “We try to position ourselves in the right place at the right time, but you never know where those places are or the time when something’s going to happen. We benefited in this particular case because we had a lot of boots on the ground.”

CNN’s strength is not only in the way it delivers the news, but in the news professionals who write and report the stories. One of the first reporters to articulate the horror of Katrina was Jeanne Meserve. Her phone call from New Orleans to “NewsNight” described the rising waters in the city, the trapped residents and the dire consequences when rescuers could not reach those in need.

“She is the most incisive, articulate and human reporter on any network reporting on Hurricane Katrina, maybe anywhere. The impact of the hurricane aftermath didn’t hit me until I heard her emotional report Monday night,” wrote George Silverman, a marketing consultant and author of the Word-of-Mouth Marketing Blog.

Perhaps the CNN reporter who drew the most attention-and positive reviews-for his work on the Katrina story was Anderson Cooper.

“Anderson was very human through all of this,” Mr. Walton said. “He showed both passion and compassion. We were able to see the humanity in such an enormous storm. He asked the questions that needed to be asked. It provided for some meaningful television moments, some very emotional moments that resonated with the viewers.”

The Peabody Award isn’t the only major honor CNN has earned for its work during 2005. Among other accolades, the cable network received the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for its coverage of the aftermath of the tsunamis generated by an earthquake in the Indian Ocean on Dec. 26, 2004. “We have had a very strong year,” Mr. Walton said.

Awards are good, but Mr. Walton is quick to add, “We’re not defined by the awards we win. We just roll up our sleeves and try to do the right thing. But clearly it’s a nice feeling when you see the announcement that you’ve won an award. I’m especially happy for the men and women who did all the hard work. We are pleased that the Peabody panel deemed our work to be worthy of one of the most prestigious awards in journalism.”