If there's one thing many may remember from the hours and hours of television coverage of Hurricane Sandy, it might be the sight of CNN's Ali Velshi, parked on an insanely windy and wet block in Atlantic City, New Jersey, for hours. Velshi became one of the star reporters covering the storm earlier this week, as his increasingly apocalyptic live shots in the midst of Sandy's wrath became a huge topic of discussion on social media sites.
Velshi withstood the hurricane's strong winds and intense flooding, but viewers grew more and more concerned for his safety as the hours passed by. Even Atlantic City's mayor warned Velshi to get off the streets, stressing "self-preservation." His ordeal sparked the kind of criticism that often arises during hurricane coverage -- namely, that news networks stress sensationalistic reports and live shots that can provide viewers with a skewed perception of the storm.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Velshi — who has covered a number of hurricanes in the past, including Katrina, Gustav and Ike — took the criticisms in stride, but stressed that safety is of utmost importance to his team. He spoke aboard CNN's "Election Express" bus in Youngstown, Ohio, having shifted immediately to campaign coverage after the worst of Sandy passed.
How are your legs?
I didn't realize until I watched the shot back that I was really moving. I thought I was standing still [in the flood water]. It was a workout.
Take me through the live shots in Atlantic City. What safety precautions were put in place?
So fundamentally, the dangers to me out there would have been, falling over obviously, but I had a fence 20 feet from me on the right, and I had people all around me. Number two, things that fall and things that fly. And number three, power wires.
We were very conscious of the power wires situation. Every moment I'm not on TV, I'm turning around, I'm scanning around me to see if there was anything that looks remotely loose or swinging, and my producers are watching all around me at the same time.
The fourth thing is we have to call into our [assignment] desk on a very routine basis. Every time we call in before anybody discusses anything, they ask you: 'Has your situation changed? Are you feeling secure? Is everybody in your team feeling secure?' And then as I'm about to do the hit, there's a senior executive who is saying, 'Can you ask Ali to move in? Can you ask Ali to make sure he's not too deep?'
There was one hit that I did [with] Anderson Cooper, where you'll notice I was holding on to something because the senior executive said, 'I don't want this hit going on TV unless Ali is tethered to something or holding on to something.'
There's nothing cavalier about it. People watching may think, 'Oh Velshi showed up in the middle of a thing of water.' It's not that cavalier. It's all very well-sited and thought through.
You seemed so far away from the camera during some of your shots.
There are a couple reasons for that. One is that our point is to show people what's going on. [Also,] being further away from the camera was actually safer for me. There was a wind tunnel closer to the camera.
How important do you think the live shot with a reporter in the midst of the storm is to a news network's coverage?
I read a lot of the criticism and I have to say, I take it well. I think one of the great things about CNN is I know we will have discussions about this. I know people will talk about this internally, and we'll sort of continue to evaluate what it does for us.
Can we evolve into a way of doing it where we can do it and the viewer doesn't get frightened on our behalf? Quite possibly we can. And I'm certainly open to evaluation on how we do that and whether I did exactly the right thing. But we did take our safety into account and we felt we were able to adequately convey how dangerous the storm was while keeping ourselves safer than a layperson would be able to do.
I think the criticisms are well-intentioned and fair, and we will continue to evaluate how we do these things. We are all very interested in making sure we're safe while doing the service we feel we need to be performing.
What's going through your mind as you're interviewing residents who you know are in harms way and have decided to stay put?
I must tell you it challenges every journalistic bone in my body not to ask these people, 'What were you thinking? Why do you somehow think this wasn't going to happen to you despite all of our reporting?' It makes me want to redouble the effort to report the way that I do to show people how serious this is. It really frustrates me because people put themselves in harms way and it takes emergency services to get them rescued.
After Hurricane Irene, people said, 'You know you guys blew it out of proportion and nothing happened.' My general view on these things is that if we are wrong in how seriously we treat this, nobody gets hurt. If we don't cover it that seriously, people do get hurt. And I really wish people would heed these warnings.
Unfortunately, many of the people who lost their lives [during Sandy] didn't lose their lives because they were being unsafe or being renegades. These are very dangerous things. So we really want to make sure people understand [that] we are doing this because we really think we can keep people safer by informing them about what's going on.
Note: this interview has been condensed and edited.
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