Did NBC Nightly News Mislead with Tornado Video?

NBC Nightly News got it wrong when it showed video of one Alabama tornado in a story focused around one’s man’s experience escaping another tornado.

I know I’ll catch some flak for what I’m about to write.

But, as a longtime viewer of NBC Nightly News, I had to point out a slight video flaw that dances dangerously close to an ethical line.

Television is a visual medium.  It conveys emotion even in ways strong still images can’t.

But, sometimes in the effort to find the right video, we can stumble.

I think the NBC producers/editors stumbled tonight in their story about Reginald Epps, the Coaling, Ala. firefighter, whose tale of survival has been told by several other national media outlets.

Here’s the key point:  Epps and his three sons and wife– were caught in an early morning tornado on Wednesday that rolled through Coaling, Ala.   ( I watched on one of the Birmingham TV stations that caught the storm as it blew through downtown Tuscaloosa minutes later)

Unlike the tornado that claimed dozens of lives here in Tuscaloosa that came through late Wednesday afternoon, some have called the most-documented storm ever,  the  pre-dawn tornado that struck  Coaling was NOT caught on tape in Coaling.

In Lester Holt’s piece tonight, the producers used “cover video” of the evening tornado in Tuscaloosa.

Isn’t that a bit misleading?   In his narration, Holt described the Coaling tornado as  the “first of many that day” as they showed Chris England’s famous video of the afternoon tornado.

As a middle school kid wanting to do TV news, I watched Lester Holt  as a local anchor at WCBS-TV Channel 2  in New York City. He’s a class act.   At one time, Holt was known as “the most visible African-American newsman in broadcast television.” But, this video issue spoiled what could have been another one of his great examples of broadcast journalism.

In the haste to tell great stories when we need good video, we as broadcast journalists have to be especially careful that our images are always telling the WHOLE TRUTH.

I had heard Reginald Epps’ story earlier this week on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition and read it in the Wall Street Journal. It was also reported on Web site like The Daily Mail.

Nightly News’ story showing Holt at Reginald’s bedside here in Tuscaloosa’s  DCH Medical Center— one African American father to another African American father– was the best of the bunch.  It tied together the morning and afternoon tornadoes and the experiences of those (both doctors and patients) who went through both storms.

It’s a shame that the video editing was a little sloppy.

Am I being nit-picky?   Yes, probably so.

But, I download Nightly News in my iTunes feed almost every night.  Elsewhere, I’ve praised the show’s producers when they’ve gotten it right.

Because of a poor video choice, this story wasn’t one of those times.

Conveying the Scope of the Tuscaloosa Tornado’s Devastation to the World

Convey finer points to the international media trying to cover the devastation in the wake of the tornado that came through Tuscaloosa Wednesday.

It’s now 7  a.m. in the Central Time Zone and literally the whole  world is waking up to what happened here in Tuscaloosa yesterday.  After my earlier blog list, celebrating the return of electrical power to my home, I got a call from the British Broadcasting Company (BBC).

Joined by a University of Alabama student, James and another resident of Birmingham, (that would be the largest city in Alabama), we took questions about asked to share our perspectives on what happened.

The conversations about the tragedy of a tornado are different from the news reporting of death tolls, street closures and relief efforts.

Right after the BBC Interview,  I went on to talk about the situation on John Hockenberry’s The Takeaway. which airs on WNYC here in the United States.

In doing these first two interviews, it’s interesting to note the following:

The importance of being accurate about what the tornado did and didn’t do

Some have reported that the tornado left destruction on the University of Alabama campus.  But, no UA buildings sustained structural damage

Explaining the geographic landscape to  those unfamiliar with West Alabama

The pictures taken along the roads like Veterans Memorial Parkway or McFarland Boulevard might give the impression that the entire town was leveled.  This is not a small town with one traffic light.  As the commerce center for West Alabama with more than 80,000 residents, Tuscaloosa City and County are largely intact except for tree damage.   The parts where the storm hit are heavily damaged or destroyed.

Those of us talking to the rest of the world have to convey these finer points.

Showing that we DID prepare for the possibility, but can never be prepared for the impact of  a tornado

It’s hard to believe, but for those of us who live in this neck of the woods.  we know how to prepare for a possibility of severe weather.  The University did that.  The local meteorologist told us two days in advance that Wednesday would be a rough weather day.  The local schools closed in anticipation of the severe weather warnings.

in a breaking news situation, especially driven by tweets and text messages, it’s important for those of us on the ground to be the source of accurate and reliable information.

Let There Be Light

Today we mark the beginning of the day after a devastating tornado ripped through Tuscaloosa, Ala, the home of the University of Alabama.

The time– 3:15 a.m.  Central Daylight Time,

The day, Thursday, April 28, 2011, the day after a devastating tornado ripped through the commercial center of West Alabama– Tuscaloosa.

Thanks to a battery-operated cassette radio that I’ve had for more than 25 years, I was able to stay in touch with the outside world.

D-batteries and my radio got me through the last 9 hours.   Well, I slept about four of those hours.

But the restoration of power to my home makes all the difference.

For hundreds here in Alabama, that is not the story.

It was expected,. It was anticipated– bad weather, severe weather.

But, you have to understand the threat of severe weather is not an uncommon occurrence here.

A tornado that  goes down one of the busiest east-west thoroughfares in town– that is uncommon.

While I lament the inconvenience of being without power for 9 hours, I pray for those families who’ve lost their loved ones, their homes, their life’s belongings.

As the morning news cycle begins shortly, it will be interesting to see how the world sees this college town, the epicenter of the devastation that has affected so much of the Southern United States.

I thank God for sparing my life.  Now I must know I’ve been spared for a reason– blessed to be a blessing to someone else.

Washington Post Reporter Talks about New Book on BP Oil Spill, Previews What To Expect on High School Journalism Trip to The Gulf

Washington Post reporter Bill Achenbach talked about his experience covering the Gulf Oil Spill on Studio SPJ, sponsored by the Alabama Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists

If you haven’t seen it– you should read A Hole At the Bottom of the Sea,  the first major account of the nation’s worst environmental disaster, the Deepwater Horizon Disaster than began a year ago this month.

This summer, I will be on the team of journalists taking 18 high school students from seven states  to the Gulf for an intensive team reporting experience a year after this major environmental and political story.

This afternoon, The Alabama Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists sponsored a 30-minute talk with Joel Achenbach about his book on a new program, Studio SPJ.

It’s a podcast that is produced LIVE .

According to Achenbach, what made the Deepwater Horizon incident such an incredible story was not just the unprecedented nature of the environmental disaster, but the lack of a similar experience on which journalists could depend to know how to cover the story.

As journalists, we learn how to “routinize the unexpected.”

But there were no routines for this story, which really became national news about 8 days after the initial incident.

“There was no template for it,” Achenbach said. “Not a lot of people in our newsroom knew about off-shore drilling.  I certainly did not.”

Achenbach is an acclaimed science writer for National Geographic and more recently has become a veteran reporter and blogger for the Washington Post. 

He says his book is as much about crisis management with politics as a sub-plot as it is about the long, tedious tasks of scientists trying to plug a leak.

The interview was conducted by Alabama SPJ Pro President Dennis Pillion, who himself spent some time covering the oil spill for al.com.

I came away from today’s talk with Achenbach with a lot better understanding of what was going on behind the scenes and what directions we should take in our “one-year-later” journalistic efforts this  summer.

Birmingham News Interactive Leader Shares Wisdom with UA Students

Birmingham News Interactive Director Staci Brown Brooks visited students in the Capstone Association of Black Journalists Wednesday evening.

Birmingham News Interactive Director Staci Brown Brooks addressed students Wednesday night at the Capstone Association of Black Journalists Meeting at University of Alabama.

She  may have been at The Birmingham News for nine years, but not until tonight has University of Alabama alumna Staci Brown Brooks been in the position to return to her alma with the stature of one who’s on the cutting edge of multimedia journalism at Alabama’s largest news operation.

As director of interactive content for what has historically been Alabama’s largest newspaper (recently multimedia organization), Brooks is now carrying a cross-platform message about meeting readers of The Birmingham News wherever they are giving them their news whenever and in whatever format they want it. 

Like no other year, 2011 has been one where The Birmingham News has been viewed/consumed in more platforms and formats than ever before, the latest of which is a successful iPad app commemorating Auburn University’s national championship.

Brooks carried around her MacBook Pro, an iPhone and an iPad as she visited UA students in classes this afternoon and gave a talk tonight to the Capstone Association of Black Journalists.

Her visit to the same campus where she studied journalism back in the 1990s, comes just four month after The Birmingham News launched its “This is Our Story” marketing blitz.

Tonight she told that story to a multicultural crowd of students attending an organizational meeting for the University’s affiliated of the National Association of Black Journalists.  Students in journalism, public relations, advertising and other areas of communication listened closely as she talked about some of the News’ latest digital successes. 

Staci Brown Brooks (Center) paused for a quick group photo with Capstone Association of Black Journalists leaders. They are Caryl Cooper (adviser),Amber (President), Amethyst Holmes (Vice President), and Jasmine Williams.

As a 1998-99 Chips Quinn Scholar, Brooks is one many journalists of color who are setting the standard, often as trailblazers in their roles in the nation’s newsrooms, for excellence in our profession. 

These days instead of just reporting or working on the copy desk, Brooks is spending her working hours developing concepts for iPad apps and ways to capitalize on traffic on the al.com Web site, which is The Birmingham News home on the Web.

NPR Political Editor Makes Virgin Voyage To State of Alabama, Lectures at The Capstone

He’s analyzed every congressional race in the nation since 1984, but until this week National Public Radio’s Ken Rudin had never step foot in the state of Alabama.

After a stop in Montgomery where he visited  Southern Poverty Law Center Founder Morris Dees on Monday, the self-proclaimed “political junkie” brought his decades of wisdom here to Tuscaloosa  to the University of Alabama campus for a lecture sponsored by the Honors College and UA’s Housing and Residential Communities.

Rudin recalled how the late Former Governor George Wallace was making headlines “when he was a kid,” but that in all of his years following electoral races he had journeyed to Wallace’s state.


With just about six weeks to go until Rudin’s latest project, Impact of Government, launches, the former ABC Newsman took his fellow journalists to task for not covering the stories that really matter, especially when it comes to events in government. 

 “The stuff that affects people is what journalism really should be about,” he said.

A New Project
Starting in June, NPR will officially roll out a multiyear initiative to put additional state level reporters to work in 50 states over the next three years. 

The initial rollout involves eight states (Alabama is NOT among those first eight)


After his lecture, Rudin showed University of Alabama students and faculty pictures of some of the hundreds of political campaign buttons that he's collected over the years.

What’s Wrong with Journalism?

While this new Impact of Government initiative launches, Rudin hopes the new broadcast and digital reporters hired will not be like many he says are in the profession today. 

“Journalists are lazier,” he said as he noted how many newspapers have suffered layoffs in recent years.  He noted that there are more cases of plagiarism than ever.  

And as for those talking about politics…

“It’s just remarkable who they have on TV now as pundits.”  Rudin told the students.