Time to assess the initial coverage of the incredible Joplin tornado by The Kansas City Star and local TV stations.
The highest grade, an A+, goes to KMBC, Channel 9, which had at least two reporters and one or more camera crews on the scene and devoted at least the first 15 minutes, it seemed to me, of its 10 p.m. newscast to the disaster.
Anchor Lara Moritz and chief meteorologist Brian Busby stood on the set and delivered the news in front of a backdrop of video from the storm. Their positioning — not sitting behind the desk — sent a clear signal that something big was afoot.
Amazingly, The Star had no one on the scene last night, at least no one who was reporting for the morning edition. It relied on “staff and wire reports,” with the staff reports being provided by two reporters, Brian Burnes and Eric Adler, who made calls from Kansas City.
From this corner, The Star gets a grade of D-minus.
The Star did send a reporter, Brad Cooper, to Reading, Kan., to cover that city’s tornado, which struck Saturday night. But only one person died in that tornado, and it’s a very small town, near Emporia.
By contrast, Joplin — with 50,000 people in the city and 174,000 in the area — lost at least 89 people, and the level of destruction was jaw dropping. (At 4:15 p.m., CNN was reporting that the death toll was 116.)
I didn’t learn about the storm until 9:58 p.m., when I saw it on CNN’s website. The CNN story quoted an American Red Cross official as saying, “I would say 75 percent of the town is virtually gone.”
I gasped…But it was a gross exaggeration. On a CNN video report today, an official-sounding person says that 25 to 30 percent of the town suffered “major or significant damage,” and Channel 9 was saying last night that the southern third of the city suffered major damage. There’s a big difference between 75 percent and 25 or 30 percent (or even 33 percent).
After scanning the lead CNN story, I ran to the TV and started flipping channels. It was clear that KMBC, the top-rated station in Kansas City, was well ahead of at least two others — KSHB Channel 41 and KCTV5.
I’m not much of a TV news devotee, so in my haste to get the best report, I overlooked FOX4.
Today, representatives of all three stations — 4, 5, and 41 — said they had crews in Joplin last night and that they aired reports on the 10 p.m. newscasts.
Peggy Phillip, news director at KSHB Channel 41, said that her station sent one crew at 6:45 p.m. — 45 minutes after the tornado struck and put another on the road about half an hour later. KSHB’s coverage led off at 10 p.m., she said, with “a multi-media journalist reporting live (by phone) over video” from The Weather Channel.
By 10:15, Phillip said, the station had one of its journalists on camera, at the scene.
Someone on the assignment desk at KCTV5 told me today that they had four people on the scene last night, but, in my channel flipping, I was underwhelmed by the station’s coverage. As I recall, they were emphasizing local weather at the top of the hour. For a station renowned for hyperventilating about even the prospect of bad weather, Channel 5’s coverage seemed totally disproportionate to its usual hyperbole.
Now, more about The Star’s coverage…
The danger of using “staff and wire reports,” instead of sending reporters to the scene is that you get a lot of second-hand information.
Sure enough, in the third paragraph of today’s front-page story, The Star picked up the CNN quote from Kathy Dennis of the American Red Cross: “I would say 75 percent of the town is virtually gone.”
Even as I gasped when reading that on CNN’s site, I was skeptical. The Red Cross official could not have surveyed the entire town, so how could she say 75 percent of it was gone?
It was irresponsible and very unwise of The Star to run that comment without having its own reporter on the scene, and the quote draped a shroud of skepticism over the entire story.
Perhaps more ignominiously, The Star relied on The Wichita Eagle, a fellow McClatchy-owned paper, for significant coverage. The credit line at the end of the lead story attributed the reporting to The Associated Press and The Eagle, as well as Burnes and Adler.
The Star’s coverage also included a stand-alone, 12-column-inch story on Page A-8 by The Eagle’s Beccy Tanner, from Joplin.
Why is this important?
Well, according to MapQuest, it’s 184 miles from Wichita to Joplin. From Kansas City to Joplin, it’s 157 miles. Who has the quicker, easier access?
But, no matter, The Star was all over that tornado in Reading, Kan. — population 231.