COMMENTS: Preparing for a Live Feed of Chilean Lives Saved

The subterranean drama of the last 24 hours beneath Chile's Atacama Desert is grabbing global headlines. Tuesday night, all three network nightly newscasts led with the countdown to the beginning of the rescue of the 33 miners trapped for ten weeks half a mile below ground. They each followed up with a background feature. Altogether the prospect of a happy ending accounted for 36% of the three-network newshole (20 mins out of 57) and not a single live miner had yet surfaced. By the end of the week the 33 live Chileans are bound to attract more coverage than was devoted to the 29 dead West Virginians (79 mins) in April's Big Branch explosion.

The human interest appeal of these trapped miners rescued from a claustrophobic doom is certainly compelling. CBS' Seth Doane visualized a "nail-biting, terrifying, hair-raising" journey to the surface. ABC's Jeffrey Kofman visited families who had imagined "the hardship, the horror of what their husbands, fathers and sons have been going through." NBC's Kerry Sanders told us that this rescue "once seemed impossible."

Human interest aside, the story is also instructive for the confused and disorderly way in which it has been covered.

Video journalism finds itself at a crossroads. Old television forms are still popular even as they are fading. New online video forms supersede the old even as they struggle to build audiences. The coverage of the Chilean mining disaster epitomizes the dislocation of this churning.

Never was a story more suited to a continual live videostream than the stakeout at the top of the rescue shaft. The story consists of its visuals and little besides--the gloomy cavern underground where the trapped men await their rescue; the sunlit surface where bleary-eyed, they emerge from the darkness into the embrace of their loved ones. Yet it would have been perverse for the nightly newscasts, scheduled for a 24-hour news cycle, not to have led off with an update from Chile…perverse, despite the fact that the packages thus filed had no chance of having a useful life of anything close to 24 hours. How could they ignore a story that was on everybody's mind?

The newscasts on Tuesday evening were in effect participating in a charade. Their reporting purported to fulfill the mission of covering the day's headlines even as their content consisted of a minute-by-minute update of an ongoing event that they knew would be streamed live throughout the next 24 hours. We find ourselves in a liminal state, embracing both legacy television news and embryonic online video news, and so there is no clear demarcation about what form of coverage best suits what type of news story. Some three decades ago, the nightly newscasts would have been the go-to source for breaking--not summary--coverage of a story such as the Chilean rescue. It is no longer such a source…but neither has it completely relinquished that role.

So what we find is inefficiency, waste and overkill.

From London, Richard Sambrook, now in public relations but formerly of BBC-TV News, tweets us that his old employer offers "5-star coverage." From The New York Times, Brian Stelter, the onetime CableNewser blogger, offers a survey that mentions not only BBC's live streaming, with its posse of 25 journalists dispatched to the Chilean desert, but also the coverage plans at CNN, MSNBC, Univision and so on. ABC News plans to expand its broadcast coverage to include live reports on Nightline and in primetime on Wednesday. PressThink professor Jay Rosen summed up the entire orgy of coverage with a plaintiff tweet. "Wait: you've got 1300 reporters at the miners rescue AND you're asking, 'Who's gonna pay for the Baghdad bureau, people...' You're sure now?"

Mentioned only in passing was an irony. "The Chilean government has really orchestrated everything, choreographed everything. They do not want any pictures--if any problems should occur--to get out to the world media. So we are seeing a lot of pictures but mostly happy ones," CBS' Doane explained. Indeed this afternoon, I checked out the live online feed of the rescue at CBS and at NBC and at ABC and the images turned out to be identical and simultaneous to those on my cable TV screen from CNN and CNNI and FOX News Channel. All video was courtesy of TVN, Chile's national broadcaster. So a swarm of journalists is over-assigned to saturate a story yet the images consist of a single, government-controled non-exclusive feed.

There is another ridiculous aspect of this phenomenon. As extreme as the coverage has been and as riveting as the human drama, I am sorry to say that this feelgood story is actually no big deal. It attracts headlines because it resonates with our atavistic anxieties about helplessness and our desperate desires for happy endings but the fate of these 33 miners has no global significance. None. Nothing can demonstrate more vividly that timeworn journalistic axiom: what is newsworthy and what is important often do not amount to the same thing.

What lesson should the nightly newscasts draw from this wretched and wasteful display of journalistic overkill?

It is futile for them to try to match the ubiquity and the currency of the 24-hour cable news channels and videostreams online. Instead the 24-hour news cycle can become the nightly newscasts' friend. It offers enough breathing room to provide substance in competition with superficiality. The best use of a newscast's resources is to produce packages that will still be interesting a day later, even a week later--not those that compete with the breathless evanescence of the never ending live stream.

There were hints of such coverage on Tuesday night. ABC's John Quinones explored the group dynamics of the 33 as they organized to survive their ordeal. NBC's Natalie Morales introduced us to the miners' families in their makeshift camp where the escape shaft was drilled. CBS' in-house physician Jon LaPook explored the medical and psychological complications that the miners might face upon their release. LaPook was clearly proud of his closing line: "It is one thing to try to handle the sunlight but it is a whole other thing to handle the limelight."

I say that such a balance should be shifted yet further. Make the introductory news story from the site briefer and make the explanatory follow-up feature deeper and more permanent. What is the psychology of claustrophobia? How dangerous was this copper mine compared with other mining conditions around the world? Why is the management of this story so important to the government of Chile? These are the types of longer-lasting angles that should be the beat of nightly newscast reporters covering this story. There is no need for them to compete with the other 1,300 on site for access to those fleeting, breaking moments that are better seen live and online--and whose half-life of interest is measured in minutes, not even hours, let alone days.

UPDATE: Juan Cole at Informed Comment points out that TV news in general has avoided covering the labor angle. He accuses the San Estaban mining company of skimping on safety and the government of Chile of a failure to regulate the mining industry. Commodity prices for copper and gold are booming, yet those good times have not trickled down to this workforce. Cole's comments are certainly accurate, at least so far, as far as the network nightly news is concerned. Shades of their coverage of this spring's West Virginia disaster.


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