Amid all the expensive camerawork and sharp matching windbreakers on the major TV networks’ coverage of Monday's tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, the best dispatches largely came from local TV news. In the Times, Brian Stelter quoted John Welsh of KFOR, the NBC-affiliated TV station, eyeing the ruined landscape from his helicopter and repeating the word “gone” as he realized how many local landmarks had been leveled. CBS-affiliated KWTV had a helicopter hovering over the scene less than 15 minutes after the tornado. And two of the most memorable clips were Emmy-winning KFOR reporter Lance West choking up via phone as he ran toward the demolished Plaza Towers Elementary School, and then again on-camera while standing in front of the ruins. “I understand they are going to start pulling these tiny victims out of the rubble here shortly,” he said during the latter report, fighting back tears.
These moments could have felt false on a bigger network. On KFOR, though, they rang true. And the emotion did not make West's report, which was full of useful, vivid details, any less attentive or substantive. Yet in both instances the news anchors kept interrupting West, apologizing for his visible emotion. When his voice broke on the phone after saying, "This is without question the most horrific—," an anchor cut in: “OK Lance, we need to get this information.” When he finished his report, one of the anchors followed up with a long apologia: “You gotta understand when you go down to these scenes, and you see them firsthand, not just through the prism of the television, but when you’re there living it, it is an extremely emotional event for reporters as well as all those involved. And Lance is one of our best reporters, an Emmy-award winning reporter. He’s gonna get that information for us, but he’s human just like the rest of us.” It was an unnecessary disclaimer, a weird little bit of contrived Cronkitism in a TV landscape that clearly abandoned the pretense of journalistic neutrality long ago. And it was a case of local news misunderstanding its role—reaching for gravitas when it should have been embracing its unscripted, on-the-ground immediacy.
It’s no secret that local TV news has struggled to maintain its relevance and its audience in the past few years. A recent report from the Pew Research Center found that local news viewing was down across all networks and across every key time slot in 2012. In 2006, local TV viewership among under-30 adults was 42 percent; in 2012, it was down to 28 percent. And these days local TV broadcasts are mostly limited to predictable, formulaic coverage of weather, traffic, and crime. But Tuesday was a reminder of what local coverage can do at its most ambitious. Local news is supposed to be touchy-feely and in-the-fray, produced by journalists who ostensibly are our neighbors; that is why we watch it.
So it was particularly refreshing to see West’s display of real emotion set against the phony pathos1 of national TV news, where reporters are at this point expected to drum up vicarious outrage or sorrow, no matter how artificial it feels. Take Megyn Kelly’s melodic little “ohh!” and theatrical pause on Fox News after a young girl finished recounting how she clung to the walls of her school to survive, or her colleague Shepard Smith flatly intoning, “The spirit of these people is as inspiring as anything I’ve ever seen.” Or CNN's John King meaningfully informing us, as evidence of one home’s total destruction, “I can see into the small bathroom of this house.”
In other moments the national TV reporters on the ground in Moore ended up seeming robotic and out-of-touch, jumping to politicize the disaster with premature indignation. CNN’s Chris Cuomo mistook an Oklahoma state representative for a congressman, grilling him about the importance of prioritizing the relief effort and referring to “you guys in Washington” until the representative politely corrected him. It played like a goofy parody of Anderson Cooper rebuking Mary Landrieu after Hurricane Katrina. Lance West, meanwhile, has been covering tornadoes in Oklahoma City for almost two decades. He has surely earned the right to be affected by what he sees. And visceral, invested reporting like his is what makes local TV news worth watching. It's too bad most stations only produce such reports when disasters strike in their backyard.