How the media covers fires

What can they do to improve?

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Alissa Cordner

The video below about how the media covers fires features professors from Whitman College and Oregon State University.

They talk about the myth of how after a disaster there are often reports of widespread social upheaval and discontent, which may not be accurate. And the media, they said, tends to concentrate on the singular focus of damage and short term effects.

When a wildfire occurs, obviously what  you will see or read on the news will be the immediate effects, especially on populations near the fire. You will hear about homes burned, structures threatened, roads closed, people that have been injured or killed, and evacuations. And all that is appropriate as the incident develops.

The media also has a responsibility during the event to help spread information that can save lives. Too often we hear how government systems that are supposed to warn residents about an approaching fire have not been effective, were used improperly or not at all.

There may be examples of media outlets that exaggerate or hype the emergency to get ratings, but when covering fires most respected media organizations do their best to provide accurate information as quickly as possible. (Unlike the political reporting we see.) But we should keep in mind that breaking news may not be accurate news.

There are other aspects of fires that could be covered more throughly such as fire ecology, fire dependent ecosystems, “normal” fire return intervals, fuel management, prescribed fire, and the physical and mental health risk firefighters experience. Plus, of course, the five things that are the responsibility of homeowners and state and local governments to make structures and communities more resilient — so they can live with fire.

The media sometimes reports on the costs of suppressing a fire, but that is only about nine percent of the real long term cost, according to a study by Headwaters Economics. Those additional expenses may be missed by the casual observer or consumer of news.

Additional costs can include:

  • Short and long term landscape rehabilitation
  • Lost business and tax revenues
  • Home and property loss
  • Depreciated property values
  • Property, energy, and infrastructure repairs
  • Degraded ecosystem services
  • Aid relief and evacuation

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

12 thoughts on “How the media covers fires”

  1. Actually, the media isn’t any worse when reporting wildfire than they are about anything else. The reporters have pressures and deadlines and a lack of understanding and perspective on just about everything they deal with. And, no offense to the great PIOs out there, a significant number of IMT and agency PIOs lack the knowledge and skills to get the message across effectively. And perhaps we can agree that fire managers aren’t always the most effective, or articulate, communicators for mass media.

    Fire suppression and management and ecology are very complicated and nuanced, and those qualities don’t fit well with the evening news format. For that matter, most people watching the evening news don’t care that much about detailed discussions of fire ecology and the role and effects of fire in wildlands.

    That said, one thing that could be improved is ‘geographic bias.’ It’s always killed me how even moderate fires in California get aggressive and intense news coverage on national news, compared to other areas. I guess having several million cameras ready to go in California has a big part to play in that.

    One other thing news media could to to improve wildfire coverage and reporting is to set me up as the centralized all-powerful wildfire information wonk. I could straighten their s#*% out. 😉

  2. Here’s one of my many rants at the media:
    If you’re a journalist writing about wildland fire, don’t make up your own creative terms to describe the facts. The firefighters or incident management team will tell you the fire is contained, so don’t write for your readers that it’s “surrounded.” It’s not, and fire crews roll around in the dirt laughing at you if you write that. …. Don’t say that homes were “charred.” What is that supposed to mean? Were they blackened around the eaves or were they burned to the ground? … The Saddleridge Fire (and Fire is a proper noun that’s capitalized) did not “jump” to 7,500 acres, nor did it “spark” evacuations. Fire crews are not teams, and teams are not crews — those terms mean entirely different things and there’s no excuse for you to mix them up.

  3. The Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources in Missoula has put on a multi-day workshop the last two years that brings in journalists and provides them with expert lectures on most aspects of fire. – its for a small group of roughly 20 each year, but hopefully plants a seed by fostering some good stories,

  4. The public counts on the press to be somewhat in tune with what is happening or is going to happen during a wild fire. (does anyone really believe the press?). Time line, fire is still burning out of control. Run for your lives. Fire has been contain two days ago, days old video of death and destruction, press loves to fearmonger. Terminology, the fire “sparked” what happened to ignited? Fire-fight, another interesting term adopted by the press. Are fire fighters shooting the fire out with guns? The list of press developed wildfire jargon goes on forever. Many times its more interesting to listen to the reporter than paying attention to what is happening on the fire, waiting for a new fire terminology. (disaster comedy) Reporter: “how did the fire start? F.S PIO we don’t know but it started at ten acres.” one of my favorites.

  5. All too often they add the modifier “so-called” to the name of the fire- “The so-called Cade Fire…” It’s been officially named by the professionals responding to the incident, and that’s that!

  6. oooooh, Rob, good one. More than once I’ve sent the reporter an email and asked whether the so-called story was written by a so-called reporter for the so-called newspaper. The term does not just mean “they called it this” … it implies it’s not REALLY a reporter, it’s just CALLED a reporter.

    Other stuff to tell reporters:

    You will never hear a fire crew or IMT talking about “seeking to gain the upper hand” on a wildland fire. Quit writing that.

    Ahead of a wildland fire, neither the Forest Service nor the BLM nor CDF (aka CALFIRE) has the authority to order residents to evacuate the area — that legal authority belongs to the county sheriff. No matter who bangs on your door, though, I can guarandamntee you they do not tell you to FLEE. If you’re a reporter or a headline writer, PLEASE STOP WRITING THAT.

  7. Yep, we could go on and on, and it’s been this way for years. Please can someone in every PIO community send some kind of fact sheet out to their local news media outlets to educate them on making correct statements. Some of the LA stations are starting to get it, but it’s still far from accurate.

  8. Good point, jeff …. because I’ve had one foot in the green (journalism) and one in the black (USFS fire) for a couple years, I see both sides, or at least some of the media side. They’ve often had government employees lie to them or get really cagey and deceptive, while government employees often consider reporters evil enemies. There’s validity on both sides.

    Some of what reporters do is truly evil (I’ve heard the stories) but a lot of what govt employees insist on with reporters is idiotic too. AND YOU’RE RIGHT about SoCal media — they are the BEST in the country for fire reporting (now that Judd Slivka in AZ and Sherry Devlin in MT aren’t reporting anymore). I believe part of the reason for the California expertise is exactly what’s covered in Conrad Smith’s book about developing working relationships between fire people and media people — plus the fact that California has CDF (CalFire) expertise and the other states don’t.

  9. My personal favorite is seeking out CalFire for a quotes when the fire is on BLM, USFS, or tribal land. All firefighters then become CalFire in the reporters mind.

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