Broadcasters shaken by massive year-end disaster

CNN's Anderson Cooper reporting from Sri Lanka - just one of many areas affected by last month's tsunami.

For broadcasters, it was supposed to be a quiet week at the end of a turbulent election year. Instead, television news operations around the globe were suddenly forced to deal with the most massive natural disaster in the history of the television medium. The death toll now stands at more than 150,000.

Spanning six countries, the initial effects of the tsunami's tidal waves were captured on thousands of video cameras operated by tourists at the scene of the disaster. Compressed video flooded newsrooms—arriving via satellite, videophones and laptops connected to the Internet.

Because of the ubiquity of the footage, there was little competition for good pictures, with the television operations from Reuters and The Associated Press finding themselves awash in video feeds from the region. All of the major broadcast networks, as well as CNN, FOX News and MSNBC, subsequently aired the footage on their newscasts.

Sandy MacIntyre, director of news at APTN, the video arm of The Associated Press in London, told the New York Times that this has been one of the most geographically and logistically challenging stories to cover in a generation because of the sheer scale of it.

Robert Muir, the acting news editor of Reuters Television in Washington, told the New York Times there had been no scarcity of video imagery. As this was happening in many places at once news agencies found many people who were willing to part with their amateur video so the story could be told.

It is a far cry from the 1988 earthquake in northern Armenia where tens of thousands of people also died; it took more than two days for images of the devastation to emerge.

Bill Wheatley, vice president of NBC News, said that at that time the network had to charter a 300-seat Soviet aircraft because it was the only thing available to get images of the Armenian disaster back to Moscow. Now they can feed video from the ground or via helicopter throughout the region.

Bob Calo, an associate professor at the graduate school of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, said that there had been something of a reversal in the newsgathering process. Previously, news gatherers would get the story and then commission a photographer to go and get the pictures. Now, he said, reporters are chasing the pictures, trying to create some context for what viewers are seeing.

With the death toll rising daily and the degree of the devastation now better known, the U.S. television networks expect the story to have a long run. By the end of last week, news organizations moved quickly to dispatch journalists and video crews to Thailand, Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia for continuing coverage of the disaster and recovery effort.

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