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Curry College Alumni Share Expertise at "Reporting Extreme Weather" Event

October 24, 2011

When extreme weather moves into Massachusetts, local television and radio news teams move out to capture the devastation from every angle. They put on their boots, load up their trucks and drive straight to the eye of the storm in an effort to keep citizens informed and safe.

In the summer of 2011, a rare collection of extreme weather patterns hit the Bay State: a powerful tornado, a hurricane named Irene and the aftershocks of a 5.8 magnitude earthquake rattled dozens of communities. Hundreds of local media professionals sprung into action to report the devastation, including five brave alumni from Curry College.

"My boss said: 'I think there's a tornado coming. It looks like it's going through Massachusetts via the Pike, so go down the Pike and cover it,'" said Dominick Aielli '95, who traveled to the eye of the tornado to capture photos and video of the "amazing destruction" on behalf of Boston's WBZ-TV.

Aililli was one of five media-savvy alumni who returned to Curry on October 17 for the live panel event, "Mass. Destruction: Expect the Unexpected-Reporting on Extreme Weather." Panelists John Hesslein '81 (Station Manager, CBS-3 Springfield), Susan Griffin '80 (Assignment Editor, WCVB-Ch.5 News Boston), Jordan Rich '80 (Radio Host, WBZ-AM 1030), Melissa Toupin '09 (Reporter, Charter TV-3) and CBS-3 News Manager Dave Ward shared anecdotes, answered questions and recapped the minute-by-minute decision-making that went into effectively covering extreme weather encounters this year.

Video:  Watch in entirety, "Mass. Destruction: Expect the Unexpected-Reporting on Extreme Weather"

Photo Gallery:  "Mass. Destruction..." Event

"We expect the unexpected," said Griffin, who is in charge of gathering news and handling logistics for coverage at WCVB.

Griffin spoke about the important responsibility her station and other local media outlets have to the public, who rely on them for a continuous stream of information as weather events unfold. Each day, Griffin works to gather news, organize reporters and position helicopters; however, when Mother Nature strikes, she plays an important role in disseminating messages from public safety officials in the field.

"There were so many layers of coverage that we had to provide, and that necessitated us staying on the air for almost 36 hours," said Griffin, referring to the day a powerful twister tore through downtown Springfield last August. She said communicating reports of road closures, downed power lines and safety alerts takes precedence over compelling video or awe inspiring photos as a storm plays out.

Hesslein watched the same twister twirl around his station in Springfield. At one point during the storm, national news broke into the CBS-3 Springfield feed so that viewers across the country could witness the incredible, unlikely scene in the North East. While Hesslein was concerned with the content streaming from his newsroom, he said his top priority during any dangerous situation is the safety of his reporters in the field and staff at the station.

"When it really happens, then you kind of get a little bit of a split personality: one is being a broadcast professional, and the other as the general manager making sure that my staff is safe," said Hesslein, who invited Ward to join the panel.

"Our staff is a relatively young staff who hadn't covered this type of natural disaster before, so it was a first for all of us on a lot of levels," said Ward, who said he hoped the presentation inspired Curry students to consider a future in television news.

While Hesslein and Ward watched the storm unfold from their newsroom, rookie reporter Toupin put on her rain boots and hit the streets to get the scoop for Charter TV-3. Toupin said covering extreme weather is a true test for any new reporter, adding that the great impact of her work became apparent when she came across a father and daughter who were scooped up by the cyclone as they sat in their car.

"The little girl was convinced she was going to die. Her dad was unconscious when she woke up. At that point, I realized how serious it was and that this was not just something that will impact my career, but is something that will impact people's lives," said Toupin.

"As crazy as storms and all general news can be, at the end of the day reporters are out there trying to help people and give them the information that they need."

Professor Jerry Gibbs of the Curry College department of Communication, host for the live event, said weather has a significant hold on human senses and is the primary reason people tune in to local media. Audiences were able to view the panel live in the room, online via the U-Stream feed on Curry's Facebook page, or on Milton's public access channel.

"Survey after survey shows weather to be the number one reason people watch and listen to local TV and radio," said Professor Gibbs.

Gibbs directed a question referencing radio coverage of extreme weather to WBZ Radio host Jordan Rich, who explained that his station is responsible for insuring that the government's Emergency Alert System (EAS) is properly put into place when a storm is imminent.

"We don't have the pictures; we just have the words," said Rich, who was not on the air through the storm but assisted in news gathering and logistics as the station. "It was a wild scene. It's that dramatic a moment, and everything sort of fell into place. We have these systems ready to go with the radio format."

Rich also paid tribute to the experience he had working days and nights at Curry's own WMLN Radio Station. He said that the training he had at school and through local internships was the impetus for him to pursue a career in the world of broadcast.

"You have to really focus on the basics still. You have to be a good reader and writer, do your homework, know about your subject matter and practice your skill sets. It's an art form whether you are on the air or not. Be proud of that, develop it and don't be afraid to ask people for help."

Curry students worked to facilitate the event by volunteering in numerous production roles. While some operated the cameras for Milton Public Television, others sat in the production room while Tom Quinlan '13 directed the live presentation. Matthew Fitzgerald '13 co-hosted the event and relayed questions to the experts via Curry's Twitter page.

"I think it was a great event for Curry. It got the school out in the open, but it was also interesting to hear the perspectives of each member of the panel because they were actually there to see the action happen," said Fitzgerald, who hopes to pursue a career in broadcast journalism.

While a live stream is often as unpredictable as the weather, the Curry alumni panel said they enjoyed the opportunity to return to the school and share their knowledge with the next generation of broadcasters. Since you can't always be ahead of the weather, Griffin said the best advice she would give future broadcasters is to stay abreast to the future of the industry.

"This is a very quickly changing medium, and my advice would be to become familiar with the ways that television and radio stations are using different kinds of media. It is not like the old days of local TV where we served a larger audience and we were the sole providers of news," said Griffin.

"Be on top of that, and stay ahead of the curve."

Related News:

New Student Convocation Welcomes Class of 2016

New Student Convocation Welcomes Class of 2016

Curry College President Kenneth K. Quigley, Jr., alumna and keynote speaker Susan Griffin '80, Assignment Editor at WCVB-TV, and several other Curry community representatives welcomed the Class of 2016 during Curry's New Student Convocation Ceremony on August 27, 2012.

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