New technologies help stations cover the news

If the spate of tornados across the country has taught us in the broadcast industry anything, it’s that linear television should not be considered the only way news is disseminated anymore. What has worked has been a combination of broadcast and broadband technologies that have helped reach people before, during and after the storms.

For stations, planning was (and continues to be) critical. Days before the tornadoes formed, Oklahoma City television stations were mapping out their coverage. Storm chasers and news crews were positioned throughout the state.

“In times of crisis, local broadcasters are a reliable first informer in providing emergency weather coverage that saves lives,” said Gordon Smith, NAB president and CEO.

Indeed, thanks to GPS, radar-equipped laptops and streaming video, reporters, storm chasers and regular citizens have been able to get incredibly close to these deadly storms and report back what they’re seeing. While live footage of a tornado depicts the force of the storm much more vividly than radar images or government warnings, the use of a variety of unconventional technologies has clearly saved lives.

“If you can show a live tornado with a camera, there's no doubt that people will react in a more urgent way,” said James Spann, meteorologist at ABC affiliate WBMA-TV.

Like many in the area, the station — part of a group of ABC affiliates consisting of WCFT, WJSU and WBMA that cover the Birmingham, Anniston, Tuscaloosa and areas in between, used a handful of Web-based tools to provide the local community with ongoing coverage of the devastating storm system that tore through the state. It supplemented its traditional TV coverage of the tornadoes with live online streams of weather radar; blog entries from staffers and viewers with photos and video; and posts on Facebook and Twitter.

On-air interactive weather systems from companies like Accuweather, Baron Services and WeatherCentral have certainly helped, but when there’s no power in people’s homes, cell phones and battery-operated TVs become the only lifeline. All of these companies provide the ability for stations to send weather forecasts to multiple screens using a station’s on-air branding.

In recent years, new video technology has also empowered a small industry of professional storm chasers, who capture twisters on camera at close range, then sell the footage to media outlets. The most sought-after video this week was shot by an amateur and distributed for free on YouTube. Two of the three nightly newscasts played it, and more than 750,000 people watched it online.

It actually wasn’t much of a video. It was an audio recording of the storm captured on a smartphone or camera as it passed over a convenience store where about 20 customers were trapped inside.

And news dissemination related to storms not only relied on video. With dozens of frustrated families around Joplin, MO. desperately looking for lost relatives, medical professionals in Wichita used a new technology to try to reunite an unidentified patient in critical condition at Via Christi Hospital on St. Francis with his loved ones.

“The system is basically like FedEx or UPS,” said Seth Konkel with the Sedgwick County Health Department.

Patients’ tags were scanned into a computer system. If they didn’t have identification, a picture was taken. All the information was then loaded up to a secure website used by a network of hospitals and the Red Cross.

“By us being able to transmit a picture of this unknown person, we can help identify a family source,” said Andrea Snyder with Via Christi.

Sometimes covering the story meant following it from above the ground. An ENG helicopter from KFOR-TV, the NBC affiliate in Oklahoma City, tracked one storm as it slammed the McClain County town of Goldsby, south of Norman, and plowed across farmland beyond. As the copter’s camera zoomed in on one obliterated house, a family emerged from a storm shelter.

As tornadoes wreaked havoc, social media and technology helped to spread the word.

This live Ustream video from Birmingham television station ABC 33/40 came from where meteorologists broadcast to thousands of online viewers. (See video below.) The weather personnel used sophisticated radar tech to spot funnel clouds, warning residents to take cover.

As residents uploaded dozens of pictures and videos with their mobile devices, the Weather Channel’s Twitter feed for breaking news was busy, retweeting images of the destruction.

Even though television stations often unnecessarily inform viewers of impending rainstorms, this is not one of those times. Users were watching live TV feeds, using computers for we sites and monitoring Twitter feeds coming in every few seconds. Facebook updates about the tornado reached the accelerated rate of 20 posts per second early in the week.