Brisbane floods posed major challenge to TV newsgatherers

Brisbane, Australia, 10 February 2011:  Newsmen in Australia have never known a year start quite like this one. Severe flooding in Brisbane and a destructive cyclone have tested TV news organisations to the limit.

7 News coverage
“Most definitely the flooding story was one of the hardest we’ve had to cover,” said Ric Carter, Network News Editor at Channel 7. “Because the affected area was so vast, we just had to keep throwing resources at it.”

He told TVZ, “In particular, the real problem was the lack of communications. The mobile phone networks weren’t working properly and sometimes in order to get a call through, people had to get to the top of a hill. Sometimes we’d lose contact with a satellite truck for several hours simply because they couldn’t call in.”

One of the men on the frontline for Channel 7 was the head of News Operations in Brisbane, Craig Dyer. He told TVZ, “Getting information over to crews was a critical area and very hard to do. Always the hardest thing is to lose communications. The problem for us was that the cell towers for the mobile phone networks started to go down and, at the same time, more and more members of the public were trying to use their phones to talk to friends and relatives who may have lost their homes.”

But it wasn’t just communications that were the problem: how do you get to a story when the area is flooded? Craig said, “Logistically it was one of the hardest events I’ve ever had to do because with normal news gathering you hop into a car, drive to a point, hop out, interview some people and then jump back into the car and drive back to the station. But with the flooding – that just wasn’t possible. It was a matter of getting to where you could, access a boat, a canoe or walk through extreme water and film what you could. At the same time we had staff affected by the flooding; I had a cameraman who lost his house in the floods who happened to be out west at the time; so we had to race out and pick him up so that he could be with his wife.”

A big story calls for big resources and for Channel 7 that meant throwing everything at it that they could. Crews were sent in from all parts of the country; SNG trucks and flyaways were despatched and engineers, technicians, reporters, producers and everyone else attached to the network suddenly found they were at the centre of the world’s biggest story and were working round the clock to beam live video not just to Australians but to the world. Craig said it was an ‘amazing’ time: “We had staff sleeping on air mattresses in offices, edit suites and hallways. Plenty of people were doing in excess of 20-hour days. The phones were constantly ringing, people calling to give their opinion, telling us what should be done and what we should be doing, asking for help, asking where they should go.”

7 News helicopter
Camera positioned underneath
7 News' Craig Dyer
As with so many other things, when covering news you sometimes need to get lucky. And Channel 7 did. Just a month before the floods began, they took delivery of a new camera system that was installed underneath their news helicopters which greatly enhanced their newsgathering capability.

Craig said, “In the past what we’d do is put a cameraman sitting with his feet outside the helicopter shooting off the shoulder. But it’s very hard to keep a steady picture over a long period of time; in fact, you can give the viewer a bit of sea-sickness because the image can be very wobbly if you’ve got bad weather conditions. Whereas the new Flir UMHD system is a self-contained camera unit positioned underneath the aircraft; it’s got gyros that keep it stable and it’s got twice the length of lens that we’d have on a normal camera. So the camera operator can now sit inside the safety of the aircraft and operate the camera with a viewfinder and joystick. He can zoom in while the aircraft is moving."
He went on, "In the past the aircraft had to be hovering overhead but now we can be shooting from up to 5 kilometres away. That’s how powerful it is. And you can just sit on that image for as long as you want, so long as you have fuel and it’s safe to be in the air. You can just zoom in on this image, tight or wide; it’s just incredible.”

As well as deploying their own three helicopters, Channel 7 chartered an additional two. Craig said, “Our back car park was evacuated so that we could get five helicopters in and out of here. It was like a busy bus stop - choppers coming in, choppers going out.”

The other newsgathering tool that proved invaluable to covering the story was amateur video. Craig explained, “The big difference to 1974 [a previous flooding disaster in Brisbane] was that we didn’t have to rely on getting all the video ourselves. Some of the greatest stuff came from viewers who rang us and said ‘Hey, I’ve got this great stuff, can I send it to you by email or phone or SMS, or can I put it on YouTube.’ Sometimes we’d take it off YouTube or give them a server address and they’d FTP it to us.” A producer constantly monitored the internet for amateur footage, sometimes using several short clips a day.

Craig said the era of the amateur video journalist has greatly enhanced TV news coverage: “Even going back to Cyclone Larry we had a person videoing from under a mattress and just saw this whole roof tear back and blow away."
He added, "In the past you’d have crews in the middle of cyclones risking life and limb to get the footage; you still have to do that kind of stuff but now it’s much easier because there are people with cheap cameras and normal home computers and so it’s very easy for them to shoot something, put it on their computer and send you an email with a Quicktime movie. We put it into our editing system and bang, it’s on television. That’s the new media.”

Comment on this story

Comment: I saw C7's coverage of the cyclone and was impressed how they used Skype vision to send back pictures from a moving vehicle on the way to Tully, while the reporter was giving a live commentary. As far as I know you can't use an IPhone for Skype Vision (although you can for audio). I have discussed this with a number of people and nobody has an answer. Can anybody from C7 shed light on this? Roger Maynard, Aimsmedia.

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