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As Haitian quake coverage continues, reporters strain to convey level of horror

January 15, 2010 |  3:19 pm

Overwhelmed by the bleak despair in Haiti’s ruined streets, network television reporters who have fanned out across the destroyed capital of Port-au-Prince are struggling to convey the scale of the devastation and the urgent need for basic supplies.

“This city has been crushed,” NBC anchor Brian Williams said at the opening of his evening newscast Thursday. “From the air, it looks like the life has gone out of it, and from the ground, it almost has.”

All three network anchors -- Williams and his counterparts, ABC’s Diane Sawyer and CBS’ Katie Couric -- remained in Haiti for another day and plan to anchor their broadcasts from Port-au-Prince again tonight, a sign of the magnitude of the story.

Some network staff, such as ABC’s Robin Roberts, headed back to the U.S. today. She was replaced by Chris Cuomo, who tweeted when he arrived: “This is not over ... there is a lot of dying being done U hear it, u see it, u smell it.”

Having finally gotten teams and equipment into the country, the networks are confronted with an overabundance of heart-wrenching stories. At every turn, there are frantic people pleading for food and water, clawing at the concrete rubble of pancaked buildings to free those trapped inside. Dust-coated bodies mount in the streets.

“You can take a few steps and talk to another person and get another story,” said Fox News anchor Bill Hemmer, who called from outside the remains of the Hotel Montana, where he witnessed a team of French doctors successfully dig out an American man who had been buried inside for 72 hours. “One thing viewers and readers need to understand is the sheer magnitude of the devastation and the number of people affected. I would say it’s difficult to get your head around this tragedy, and it’s impossible to get your heart around it.”

Reporting conditions are not easy. While Hemmer said Fox producers had located a hotel for its team, NBC and ABC staff were camped out at the airport. “We are sleeping on the concrete runway,” NBC correspondent Kerry Sanders wrote in a blog post today.

“We have MREs that were in my garage. I keep them there for hurricanes, but I had only three boxes, and there are 20 of us and more are coming,” he added, calling it “a mind-bender to see all this tragedy. If I could nod off, I might have nightmares. My heart is so sad for the people here.”

ABC’s Dan Harris, who has also spent the last few nights trying to catch a few hours of sleep on the tarmac, fortified by granola bars, said he’s been heartened by how much the story appears to be resonating with the public.

“I would have thought the challenging aspect would been to get Americans to tune in and focus on Haiti …but I’ve been amazed and pleasantly surprised how much people seem to care,” he said.

One of the difficulties has been the sheer amount of sorrow reporters are witnessing. “You have to be cognizant of the fact that you can get into heartbreak overload,” Harris said. “You don’t want it just have a laundry list of indistinguishable sob stories.”

Faced with such massive despair, many of the networks have tried to personalize the story by focusing on children – particularly those slated to be adopted by American families. CNN’s Kieran Chetry interviewed an Austin, Texas, family that had finally gotten word through Facebook that the boy they hope to adopt was alive and safe. Roberts helped track down a young girl in an orphanage whom her adoptive parents in Iowa had been desperately trying to find. And her ABC colleagues George Stephanopoulos and Elizabeth Vargas interviewed a couple in Portland, Ore., who frantically were seeking information about three young boys they want to adopt.

“This must be excruciating for you,” Vargas said – before revealing that ABC had found the boys, who were then shown on the screen live via Skype, much to the relief of their emotional parents-to-be.

-- Matea Gold