By DAVID BAUDER, AP Television Writer
NEW YORK – The Weather Channel’s Mike Bettes arrived in storm-ravaged Joplin, Mo., right after a tornado had ripped through its soul. He looked around, spoke to the camera and began to cry.
His emotional outbreak during coverage of Joplin became one of the defining television images of the tragedy. Yet the extent to which Bettes’ reaction was subsequently aired on The Weather Channel and elsewhere creates questions about whether genuine emotion is diluted by repetition.
In the day or two afterward, the clip ran repeatedly — on the “Today” show, on “Nightly News” and cable news networks. The Weather Channel ran it as well and it soon became confusing what was happening live and what wasn’t. The clip also spread widely online.
At some point dramatic reports that are widely repeated can become like video wallpaper, seen so many times that the power is siphoned away.
It’s an issue that has long interested David Westin, former ABC News president. Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he ordered that ABC News no longer show video images of the airplanes striking the World Trade Center or the towers collapsing. He was concerned about the psychological impact of repeating the horror, particularly on younger children.
Watch Mike Bettes’ Break Down:
Westin, who said he had not seen the Bettes video, said that in such cases producers need to ask themselves the purpose of showing the material.
“There is a point at which it is shown often enough that you’re not informing people, you’re showing it to elicit an emotional reaction,” Westin said. “It’s a very difficult line to draw and different people will draw the line in different places. For me, the important point is: Can we agree that there is a line?”
Bettes, a meteorologist who has been with The Weather Channel for more than seven years, is in the midst of a tornado tracking project and equipped with a special NBC News van used in war zones (The Weather Channel is owned by NBC Universal). The van makes capable live video transmissions from a moving vehicle, and no time-consuming satellite set up upon stopping.
He was chasing the storm cell that so far killed 132 people in Joplin on May 22, a cell that passed right over them before the tornado formed.
When Bettes and his crew arrived in Joplin, they saw light damage at first. But they knew something might be up when a frantic man darted into the street in front of them, slipped and fell, then ran off again just as quickly. They soon reached a surreal moonscape of more horrific damage. Bettes hopped out and began a live report.
“All I can say is it looks very much like what we saw last month, excuse me, in Tuscaloosa,” Bettes said. He began to cry, and walked away from the camera. He took some deep breaths and struggled to regain his composure.
“It’s tough,” he said. “No question about that.”
It wasn’t a specific image that affected him at that moment, Bettes said in an interview later. Rather, it was the thought of Tuscaloosa, the hardest hit locale in an April 27 tornado outbreak that killed 236 people in Alabama alone.
“There were a high number of fatalities in that tornado and it just struck me, you know, this is the same thing,” he said. “What I’m witnessing is people who have died, and it’s happening right now.”
Pictures of the devastation were compelling, but Bettes’ reaction went a long way toward making the point resonate with viewers. Emotion from reporters usually sends a powerful signal. Pictures from Hurricane Katrina were shocking enough, but the visible anger of journalists helped make the government’s reaction a story. John F. Kennedy’s assassination is remembered in part by the image of Walter Cronkite glancing at a clock to check the time of death, then briefly removing his glasses to wipe away a tear.
“It’s like when a parent cries,” said Mitchell Stephens, a New York University professor and author of “A History of News.”
“We expect our parents to keep it together and we expect our journalists to keep it together,” he said.
No one has questioned Bettes’ emotion. His boss, Weather Channel programming chief Bob Walker, said the company is proud of him, particularly because the meteorologist’s first instinct was to help, by searching through nearby wreckage to see if anyone was trapped.
Searching For Survivors in Joplin:
It’s not entirely clear how many times the clip was aired on television. The Nielsen Co. determined that Bettes’ name was used some 242 times in less than 48 hours surrounding the tornado. There were 194 mentions on The Weather Channel, 26 on MSNBC, 10 on CNN and nine on NBC. His name also came up on HLN and CNBC, Nielsen said.
“When you have a chance to show raw human emotion like that, it demonstrates the magnitude of what happened in Joplin,” Walker said. “It’s real tragedy and real people and real emotion. We think that’s an important part of the story.”
The Weather Channel, like most cable news networks, shuffles new audiences in and out throughout the day. So if it wants to give a report wide exposure, a certain amount of repetition is inevitable.
Walker said The Weather Channel is cognizant of not exploiting Bettes’ reaction for its coverage. He said the video offered important context on the depth of the tragedy.
If a viewer feels the video has been shown too much, Stephens said, “my answer to them is, ‘Turn off the TV.’”
Clearly, viewers have found The Weather Channel’s tornado coverage gripping. Nielsen said the network averaged 848,000 viewers on Sunday night after the Joplin tornado hit, or 245 percent over The Weather Channel’s prime-time average of 246,000 for the three weeks prior.
“It was a real moment,” Bettes said. “That’s what I was feeling at the time, and I hope it makes it easier for the people who are watching to connect with the story.”
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