Guest Commentary: Bill Fine, WCVB Boston Pres/GM, TVB Chairman

This guest post comes from Bill Fine, GM at WCVB Boston.

When Crisis Strikes Home, Viewers Turn To Hometown TV Stations

The Boston Marathon is a major annual event, a spectacle all Bostonians know will always receive widespread local television coverage — typically uplifting stories of athletic endurance. We live for and love the third Monday in April. It is our own special holiday and the world shares it with us.

However, in one jarring moment, and then another 13 seconds later, this year’s race immediately pivoted from celebrating the triumph of the human spirit to witnessing the devastation of terrorism.

In the immediate moments that followed, and stretch to today and beyond, the people of Boston demonstrated the kind of human endurance seen in elite athletes as well as heroism reminiscent of the courage of our historic patriots.

Today’s patriots are the first responders. They are the ones who put the public’s safety above their own — police, fire and medical personnel who rush into dangerous situations without delay. They are also ordinary citizens who react with extraordinary valor. Everyone has seen the amazing pictures showing — despite the uncertainty of how many more bombs may have been planted in Copley Square — hundreds of police, firefighters, medical staff, volunteers and everyday citizens rushing to save lives. Through the lens of television, we have a shared collective consciousness of that tragic day and the searing image of the heroics of these modern-day Minutemen.

The local broadcast stations themselves are a crucial part of this first-response team. Boston’s Big Four stations were on the air in mere minutes, providing the necessary vital information to a community plunged into crisis.

It is exactly during moments like these that local television is often at its best, not only delivering the want-to-know information, but, more importantly, the need-to-know information that’s critical for public safety. Federal, state and local officials relied upon local broadcasters to relay this information to the public in the best, most wide-reaching way possible: on television.

The marathon bombing is yet the latest example of the absolute necessity of preserving our local broadcasting system.

When all else fails, over-the-air broadcasting does not. People know that they’re not alone when they hear the voice of their trusted local news anchor. With the additional resources of streaming video, web and social media, we also served anxious Bostonians living away from home and desperate for information. Every Boston television station provided its affiliated network (and cable networks picking up our signals) with better pictures, and, more important, better information than any national source. Our connection with viewers led to numerous tips, calls from the scene, pictures and videos — all of which helped us communicate the necessary information.

When the bombs went off in Copley Square, they represented an attack on all of Boston — and all of the United States. The local television stations had to be the eyes and ears for those who weren’t there. Local reporters provided a way for the public to deal with the shock of the moment.

It’s human nature to need to understand — especially during times of great emotion — and the best person for that job is the local news professional. When the unthinkable happens, these local broadcasters are ready to deliver the facts, as they develop, to help to re-establish the emotional security of the community. Moreover, local broadcasters connect their local community to the national community.

Local TV reporters possess the home team advantage; we are Boston natives who know the streets and the people, and who could pinpoint exactly where the shootouts between police and the terrorists were unfolding. When our news personnel responded to the climactic breaking events in Watertown, they knew that they were in a suburb of Boston, not a section of Boston, as many outside sources reported. Local connections paid off in ways both big and small — from relationships with municipal resources for more reliable information, to knowing which street corners to stand on for direct access to breaking events.

Simply put, local broadcasters are nimble in their market knowledge, while outside national media need to navigate unfamiliar territory.

Local broadcast stations, nationwide, have been the communications linchpin during many times of massive local disaster — whether it’s Katrina, Aurora, Oklahoma City, Newtown, Virginia Tech, 9/11, or, now, Boston. Viewers have relied upon local television to provide emotional touchstones — for understanding, and for healing.

As a Massachusetts native and a broadcaster in Boston for most of the past 31 years, I’m extremely proud that our local television broadcast community continues to be the leading source of credible information for this terrible event. Each and every member of the news community was touched by this tragedy. We are now all engaged in helping the city and region heal, and helping “One Fund Boston” raise well over $23 million in a mere few days, every penny of it dedicated to the victims and their families.

On that tragic day, despite their own emotional toll, our journalists dug in, responding like the true professionals they are, determined to bring the story to all through every outlet and means at our disposal.

My Boston broadcast colleagues, like so many of my station colleagues throughout the country before us, responded to an immediate crisis with honor and grace. We broadcast, we streamed, we posted and we shared. Boston’s local television stations became a news source to the nation.

And through it all, each of us remains Boston Strong.

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.