Oklahoma City Stations Tap Disaster Experience to Get Word Out Effectively

The Oklahoma City TV stations are getting high marks for timely coverage that some feel may have prevented scores of deaths as a devastating tornado leveled much of Moore, Okla. May 20.

While the number of fatalities has varied dramatically before appearing to settle in around two dozen on Tuesday afternoon, pinpoint warnings from the stations' meteorological crews and sobering aerial footage sent a clear message that this storm was nothing short of a monster.

"Channels 4 [KFOR], 5 [KOCO] and 9 [KWTV] did an outstanding job of covering this" says Vince Orza, who runs the independent KSBI in DMA No. 41. "The total could have been in the hundreds but for their coverage. The press is the reason people are alive today."

Griffin owns CBS affiliate KWTV. Local TV has NBC station KFOR. Hearst TV has ABC outlet KOCO, while Sinclair owns the Fox-CW duo, KOKH-KOCB.

Full scale disasters are not a new concept for the Oklahoma City news crews. On May 3, 1999, a series of massive tornados struck Moore, killing 46. Four years earlier, 168 were killed when a federal office building was bombed.

"Unfortunately, we're used to it," says Rob Krier, the Griffin COO who oversees KWTV. "After the bombing, we did the same thing. After May 3, we did the same thing. We're pretty good with disasters and pulling together."

Intense rain is falling Tuesday, hampering rescue efforts. "It's made a bad situation worse," says Orza.

While KSBI does not produce news, it does air a daily talk show at 4 p.m., which will feature discussions with people who lost their homes in '99 and how they coped, while helping viewers find the right charity and avoid scams. "We're taking a different route," says Orza. "We assume everybody else is covering the scene. We'll tell people who are not at the scene what they can do to help."

The New York Times credited the Oklahoma City stations for putting their helicopters in the air in dangerous circumstances and, as the paper put it, "providing a visual exclamation point for the meteorologists who were warning residents to seek shelter." The Today showteam was up in the air with NBC affiliate KFOR Tuesday morning. One local broadcast vet says the rescue personnel asked the stations to ground their helicopters just after the tornado, as their noise was drowning out possible cries for help. The stations complied, then when given the OK, ascended to a high enough perch to steer well clear of the rescue efforts.

"The media's done a superb job over the last few days of keeping people informed about the conditions," governor Mary Fallin said at a press conference Monday night, according to TVSpy.

The reported death toll stemming from the tornadoes has varied wildly. Close to midnight on May 20, KFOR cited the state medical examiner's office in saying 91 had been killed, as did the New York Times and numerous other publications. Severely limited cellphone communications may have been a factor. "I suspect communication between first responders has been difficult at best," says Orza.

The tornado was rich disaster training for young reporters, and a tough one for even the veterans to stomach. KFOR's seasoned reporter Lance West could not contain his emotions on air while reporting about the storm's "tiny victims," and in some ways became the face of the tragedy.
"There's no class that ever prepares you for this," says Orza. "It's a war zone kind of experience."

Orza will deliver one of his "Common Sense" editorials praising the media for its efforts the last 24 hours. "A lot of people take great pleasure in blasting what is commonly referred to as the 'lame stream media' and big government," he says in it. "But on days like we've had on May 19 and 20, the media and government earned and deserve great praise."

The stations are now helping raise funds for the victims. Traffic extends a mile from the KWTV headquarters, says Krier, as people queue up to donate. KFOR reported that a little girl emptied her piggy bank for victims at the station.

"God, it just rips your heart out," says Krier.

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.