“Oof!” said veteran Weather Channel reporter Jim Cantore as a tree branch knocked him over during a live broadcast from Punta Gorda, Florida, on Wednesday. Cantore jumped up and continued, without missing a beat. “You know what? I think I’m just going to come in here for a second,” he said before making his way, through the 110-mph winds of Hurricane Ian, to grab onto a signpost.
“Jim, come on in for some cover, my man, come on in,” said Mike Bettes, the anchor, as the cameras cut away to the studio. “We can have a conversation when you’re under some cover. That’s too much.”
Live, on-the-scene storm shots have been a longtime staple of weather reporting. Yet, as videos of Cantore and of other reporters spread on social media, some asked: Is it necessary to send television crews to the middle of a dangerous storm? And how ethical is it for reporters to be put in such risk when everyone else has been ordered to evacuate?
Nora Zimmett, the president of news at the Weather Channel, said that having meteorologists broadcasting live from the field was critical to the channel’s mission of giving people the information they needed to stay safe.
“It is very hard to do that when you’re showing a static shot that has no context of how conditions of wind and water can affect a human being,” she said. “Without the context of a human being in the elements, I can tell you, people still don’t understand why they’re being told to leave.”
She said that the channel used unmanned cameras this week in places that were too dangerous for reporters, such as in Fort Myers, Florida.
Aside from concerns about the safety of weather reporters, some worried that the dramatic shots of reporters on the ground could encourage others to attempt to make similar videos to rack up followers on Instagram or TikTok, where videos related to #HurricaneIan had more than 2 billion views as of Friday morning. Zimmett said that the Weather Channel regularly warns people not to venture into dangerous conditions to shoot their own clips.
Deb Aikat, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, said that local television networks, concerned about ratings, send reporters to the center of storms to distinguish their footage from the competition. But local news stations, which are struggling with declining advertising demand and decreasing viewership from young people, typically have fewer resources than national networks and could end up in unsafe situations.
Still, Aikat said live broadcasts offered substantial news value. “I feel worried, but at the same time, it’s precious coverage,” he said. “Media are competing in a very tough space, so journalists want to extend themselves.”
Jack Maney, a meteorologist with KLBK, a CBS-affiliated television station in Lubbock, Texas, said he understood the ethical concerns, particularly if networks were sending in teams of people who did not sign up for that specific risk, but that meteorologists typically wanted to be on the ground. He added that meteorologists were trained to read the storm and knew how to assess risks.
“I’m one of the people who wants to be there in the action, feeling the storm, being there at the center of it all and seeing the things that we study for years and years of our lives,” he said. “That’s one of the fascinations of it.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.