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The pros and cons of sending big-name anchors to Egypt

February 3, 2011 |  3:14 pm

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That wasn't exactly a welcome wagon that rolled out in Egypt these last few days for U.S. journalists who rushed there to cover the civil strife. CNN's Anderson Cooper and his crew were shoved around, a Fox News team ended up in the hospital and CBS "Evening News" anchor Katie Couric also ran into unruly crowds.

While the happenings in Egypt are an incredible story and worthy of lots of coverage by the broadcast and cable networks, a debate could be had about how much is gained by dispatching high-profile reporters who usually spend the bulk of their time behind a desk to hot zones. No one questions their courage, of course, but is this the best way for TV news divisions to utilize their resources?

By sending Couric and Brian Williams, the anchor of NBC's "Nightly News" who is also in the region, the networks are sending a signal to their viewers that what's happening in Egypt is important. It is their belief that unless a star anchor is there a story won't be noticed. There may be some truth to that, but perhaps the answer is to do more foreign reporting and less fluff rather than shipping a big name overseas every time a major story surfaces.

The costs that go into sending an anchor to a trouble spot are not to be taken lightly. While the networks will say that the security of all their staffers is paramount, rest assured a lot more precautions are taken when a $15-million-a-year anchor is there as opposed to a freelance producer or part-time correspondent. Those are resources that might be better spent on beefing up coverage in general with more people with roots in the region or at least a lot of time on the ground there. 

Indeed, Couric already hopped a plane back to New York while Williams anchored Thursday's news from Amman. Did sending Couric there for such a short stay really advance the story? They were not even there long enough to try to leverage their clout to get big interviews.

In fact, it was Christiane Amanpour of ABC News who snagged the first interview with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. While Amanpour is a big name in her own right, that came from years of reporting from trouble spots around the globe, not from sitting behind a desk. ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer stayed in New York.

The arrival of big names can also detract from the story itself. Not only do they become potential targets by protesters, their mere presence can shift the tone of coverage from what the events in Egypt mean to Egyptians and the rest of the world to how is the media responding to the violence or how is the unrest impacting the coverage.

Every reporter knows the feeling that when a story is breaking they should be there. Sometimes, though, that urge to rush in needs to be balanced with what is best for the story.

If one thing should be clear to the reporters there, it's that being a journalist is not some badge of immunity. As consultant Andrew Tyndall, who tracks and analyzes news coverage, notes, "Journalists are more often targets of violence, less often respected as neutrals."

-- Joe Flint

Photo: Christiane Amanpour interviews Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

For the record: This post was updated to note that Katie Couric had already returned to New York to anchor the Thursday newscast while Brian Williams anchored from Amman.

 

 

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