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TV News Flocks to Cover Thailand Cave Rescue

James Longman has been on site in northern Thailand for more than a week, ready to catch a glimpse of a miracle.

Longman, a veteran international correspondent for ABC News, has been one of the journalists standing by to see if divers can rescue 12 young boys and their soccer coach after they became marooned by floodwaters in Thailand’s Tham Lung network of caves. Longman and his crew try to arrive at 3:30 or 4 a.m. most days, get as much information and video as they can for ABC’s “World News,” then go back and grab a few hours of sleep so they can return and do the same thing for the network’s “Good Morning America.” He has also been preparing reports for ABC Radio, ABC News live-stream and for Walt Disney sibling ESPN.

“I really, really want to be here until the boys come out,” says Longman, via a phone interview. “We are hoping they come out soon.”  The rest of the world is watching with him.

U.S. TV news networks have had to train their cameras on a place thousands of miles away in a bet they can bring home a feel-good story to a nation that in recent months has seemed in sore need of one. While Longman was among the first wave of international journalists to reach the caves, other U.S. outlets have now joined him. And many are featuring the story on multiple programs throughout the day.

A happy ending is not guaranteed: a volunteer diver aiding the rescue effort died while working his way through the floodwaters.  “Everyone wants to see that sort of rapture and to be there to picture it. It would be remarkable to do so,” says Janis Mackey Frayer, an NBC News correspondent who reached the caves Tuesday. “But there is a lot of uncertainty and I think what happened overnight has been a reality check.”

Similar conditions hovered over the rescue of 33 men from a copper and gold mine in northern Chile in 2010. The effort lasted between August and October of that year. Even NASA lent a hand to a bevy of Chilean government ministries working to free the miners, and the story captivated viewers around the globe. These events “have a clear beginning , middle and end, “ notes ABC’s Longman. “You can see what needs to happen. There is a trajectory, It’s clear and simple.” ABC News President James Goldston saw the allure of the story quickly, Longman says. He was dispatched quickly from London last week. “We’ve just go to be there” was the consensus, he says, to cover “an obviously clear, personal human story.”

The prospect of having all go well is enticing enough that the story is being covered by all major U.S TV outlets. CBS News’ Ben Tracy has been on the ground since Tuesday and the network is “committed to covering for the foreseeable future,” according to a spokesman. CBS is also working with the BBC, with which it has a content partnership. NBC News has since late June highlighted the story regularly on “Today” and “NBC Nightly News,” and has also assigned Bill Neely to cover the rescue efforts in Thailand.

CNN has dispatched two correspondents to Thailand and is working with another from Britain’s Channel 4 News. Fox News Channel has tapped Sky News for on-the-scene reports and highlighted the story on shows ranging from early morning’s “Fox & Friends” to late-night’s “Fox News @ Night with Shannon Bream.”

The assignment can be challenging. There’s no way to get live footage of the kids. Thai authorities have ensured the media has no access to immediate family members. ABC News’ Longman says he and his crew went to explore other caves in hopes of giving viewers a sense of what the children and divers are facing, but had to be mindful of weather conditions. ABC News, he says, has also made drones available to his team.

And the mood, which had tuned optimistic, appears to be in flux, says NBC’s Frayer, who is normally based in Beijing. “There was a momentum. They had found the kids. They were trying to figure out how to get them out.” With the death of the diver, she says, workers have to focus on conditions at hand.  “It’s still not at a stage where anybody is convinced that there’s a 100% guarantee. Some the children are weak. They don’t know what order to bring them out in. Everything is a calculated risk.”

Until the rescue path becomes clearer, expect more dispatches from reporters on the ground Thailand or from overseas news services covering the same. “Nobody knows what the timeline is on this,” says the NBC News corrrespondent.

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