In Haiti, news crews know disaster drill

Thu Jan 14, 2010 10:59pm EST
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By Paul J. Gough

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - When the catastrophic earthquake rumbled through Haiti before dinnertime Tuesday, it set in motion a response among the networks molded in part by the South Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina six years ago.

It's impossible to compare the human tragedies. Yet each taught journalists lessons in bringing back video amid a crumbled infrastructure, how to deal with widespread suffering and how to equip personnel, build supply lines and keep everyone safe and healthy. Coverage this week has been informed by those experiences, just as much as the individual experiences of journalists such as NBC's Brian Williams and CNN's Anderson Cooper, who covered each of the stories. And though no one is counting the bills right now, covering the Haitian earthquake is going to be expensive.

"It's one of those times when every penny you invest in this coverage is worth it," said NBC News president Steve Capus. "We have the resources to do this. We're not breaking the piggybank."

Every move -- from the chartering of multiple private jets (five in NBC's case alone) and choppers to bringing enough food, fuel and medical supplies to take care of its contingent -- means that covering the Haitian earthquake has become a million-dollar decision for the networks. Like the army of aid workers and soldiers who will provide relief to the suffering Haitians, the networks had less than 24 hours to establish and replenish supply lines. That's not to mention that security personnel regularly accompany journalists in potentially fluid environments

.TV journalism learned during Katrina that prepositioning everything from TV equipment to trucks to meals-ready-to-eat was crucial. Networks drew upon their stores in the early hours of the Haitian earthquake, and established connection points in Miami and the Dominican Republic as well as Port-au-Prince.

"Our marching orders for folks heading down there is to bring everything you need to work and live," said David Reiter, vp of newsgathering at ABC News. "You can't assume that anything will be available."

Haiti has almost no infrastructure. Generators and transmitting equipment have to be brought in by land, sea or air. But the networks did catch a break: Haiti is two hours from the mainland U.S., not half a world away like Banda Aceh, Indonesia.

Costs for all of the networks combined could be in the range of $5 million or more, though no one will discuss figures. It's not cheap but it's not expected to be as expensive as the coverage of Hurricane Katrina, which continued for months, or of the tsunami, which span several countries a half world away.   Continued...