Media Actually Gets One Right

[ Posted Tuesday, August 27th, 2013 – 17:51 UTC ]

I thought I'd go generic with the headline today, mostly because I do consider it shocking news when the mainstream media actually does something right these days. Especially in August, a month normally known for the silliness of the stories the media obsesses over. But this August has been surprisingly silly-free so far, leading to one of those "it's quiet out there... too quiet" tension-filled movie moments. Of course, this is ignoring the recent orgasmic behavior of the media over Miley Cyrus doing what dozens of female pop stars have done -- literally for decades now -- in an onstage performance. And make no mistake about it: I am ignoring all of the Cyrus-hating because it deserves to be ignored. Pop culture aside, even the political news has largely yawned over Republicans whimpering about impeachment and other such August sideshows. Even the rodeo clown story never really got traction. So, after an awfully slow and non-obsessive August, it is indeed refreshing to see our national news media -- collectively, even -- do something right in the reporting of actual news in a way that actually imparts important information to the public. Yes, journalists everywhere -- even on television! -- are incredibly living up to the basic definition of journalism. And all it took was one big fire.

I'm almost positive I've written about this before, but (alas!) a quick survey of the archives didn't turn up the ranting and raving I sincerely remember myself doing in the past, so I'm afraid I can't provide a link. Because I am almost positive I have taken the media to task for their refusal to impart important information previously, I feel duty-bound to applaud them when they finally have seen the error of their ways. I do precious little applauding of the media for reporting news informatively (which I consider a lack on the media's performance rather than a lack in my own commentary, personally).

Since I can't find what I'm pretty sure I previously wrote, though, I'll recap my complaint briefly. The national media absolutely love natural disasters -- this is a known fact. It often produces a flood (pun not intended) of what I call "disaster porn" -- that endless loop of video of the fire, flood, hurricane, tornado, or other disaster. Viewers eat this sort of thing up with a spoon, so it's no surprise that the news media gladly feeds it to them in heaping servings.

But when the disaster in question is a wildfire, the news media (up until now) just completely fails on providing any sort of concrete and useful information beyond "the fire is now X percent contained." In a word, what is lacking from their coverage is a map.

Instead of a clear map showing exactly which areas have burned and which have (so far) not, when a wildfire becomes national news, the graphics department of every television network spends 99 percent of their time creating the coolest, most-animated, orangiest flickering flame graphic they possibly can. The spend the remaining one percent of their time slapping it on a map with a laughably large scale (like: the entire United States), to "show" where the actual fire is actually burning. Print news is usually not a whole lot better, I should mention.

But here's the thing -- fires actually have a pretty clear "footprint" on a map. Unlike other disasters which may affect an incredibly wide area (such as a hurricane, or a flood, or even a tornado), the fire's damage is contained into an area you can draw quite easily on a map.

Until this year's "Rim Fire" (which has now entered Yosemite National Park and is threatening San Francisco's water and power supplies), though, maps simply were not provided by the media. This is an inexplicable failure of the media to give the public the facts. What is truly indefensible is that for virtually every forest fire of any size, the media is provided with the map information by public officials. The media just refuses to pass it along to the public.

Whenever a fire burns, there is always at least one information center provided by the valiant people fighting the fire. The fire marshal (or chief or other firefighting leader) briefs the media on the extent of the fire, how fast it is moving, what problems they face in fighting the fire, and an approximation of how "contained" the fire is. If you look closely, you can almost always see an easel in the background of these briefings. The easel is there to provide an up-to-date map of exactly what has burned. All the media would have to do, really, is send a cameraman over for an extreme close-up of this map. They could run it for about ten or fifteen seconds at the end of the story, with a voiceover giving other information.

But they don't. At least, up until the Rim Fire they didn't.

The only possible excuse I can even conceive of for not providing the basic information of "where the fire is burning" (one of those famous "Ws" of basic journalism) is if perhaps the fire officials and law enforcement officials were concerned with the possibility of looting in evacuated areas. It's not a pretty subject to contemplate, but there are often some nice vacation homes in remote areas affected by fires, and often the fires reach into some fairly urban environments (suburbs, mostly). After people in danger zones are mandatorily evacuated, there is a whole lot of property sitting around with no people -- which could be ripe for thieves who wouldn't have to worry about the neighbors seeing them break a window to raid a house.

Mind you, I've never actually heard a single instance of this happening. Not one. And we have so many fires out here in California, we have an actual "Fire Season." [Shakespearean "aside": the idiots who pass for journalists on national networks almost always get this wrong, because they just assume that if any fire is burning, it means it is "Fire Season," which is just flat-out incorrect. Hmmph.] So every year we get blazes all over the state [another side note the media is still missing out on, even with the Rim Fire: this year's Fire Season has been a pretty mild one, outside of the Rim Fire itself]. But in all the years I've lived here, I have never -- not once -- heard of looting in an evacuated area. So it can't be all that common.

I really think it's a combination of laziness and sneering contempt for low-tech information from the media. The laziness is in spending uncounted hours "making the flamey graphic jump exactly like a campfire" while ignoring the entire business of creating a graphic which actually imparts important information. The contempt for the low tech is in the refusal to just take a closeup video of the map on the easel, which is likely a topographic map with hand-drawn current boundaries of the fire. How retro! How previous century! But the point is, hand-drawn or not, that map gives critical information to the public, which the news media then snubs.

You might think that outside of the affected area, this information isn't all that critical. But even local television news usually skips showing their viewers an accurate map (this criticism has to be tempered by the subjective phrase: "of the ones that I've personally seen," of course -- some stations probably do a bang-up job of this). And what of the friends and relatives (all across America) of people who live near the fire zone? If a fire story is big enough to rate running on the national evening news, then it should be important enough to show everyone exactly where it is burning.

Back to the present, however. Once again, I am virtually positive that I've unleashed that rant before, so sorry to uncork that bottle once again instead of just linking to a past column. This month, a wildfire started in central California and very quickly grew incredibly large. It moved east and jumped into the boundaries of Yosemite National Park, one of the flagship sites of the National Park Service. Plus, it was moving along both sides of a road (at least at first), which meant the media were able to get some seriously spectacular video of the fire and the firefighters in action battling the blaze. This was all catnip to the national media, of course. They vied to outdo each other in their descriptions of how big the conflagration had grown ("bigger than San Francisco" or "the size of Chicago"). And the fire's impact is going to be felt not only in the Sierra foothills and in Yosemite, but also in San Francisco (which dammed up a valley in Yosemite decades ago to provide drinking water and electricity to the city).

But somewhere along the way of reporting this juicy, juicy fire story, the media actually decided to report the "where" this time around. Almost from the start of when the story went national, the graphics actually contained real maps showing the extent of the fire. OK, sure, the little flamey bits were there as well, but -- incredibly -- even the flamey bits were providing information. On most stations' coverage, the flames were put along what firefighters call the "leading edge" of the fire -- the place where it burns the hottest and expands its reach into unburnt areas. So not only did the maps show the extent of the burned-out areas, it also showed where the fire was likely to burn next. The flamey graphics actually added information to the graphic -- incredible!

I honestly have no idea why the media got this one so right. Perhaps the California firefighting department is now providing digital maps to the media (making it so much easier for them to pass this information along), rather than just a windblown topo map tacked onto an easel with red lines drawn by highlighter? Again, I have no clue, that's just a random guess on my part.

The important point is that they did get it right. And since I spend one whale of a lot of time in these columns excoriating the mainstream media for its many many failings, I have to give credit where credit is occasionally earned. And this time the media -- almost across the board, not just one or two outlets -- got it impressively right. They reported the news. They even used their cute flamey graphics to give even-more-accurate information about the story. I salute the media's coverage of the Rim Fire because for once (and astonishingly) I cannot fault them even one tiny little bit. As regular readers of this column well know, that's a pretty rare occurrence -- which allowed me to get away with that generic headline, in fact.

So, credit where credit is due: the media actually got this one right. Well done, guys, and let's keep up the good work the next time you report a fire story, OK? Hopefully, the Rim Fire will set a new standard for fire coverage. It certainly deserves it.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


2 Comments on “Media Actually Gets One Right”

  1. [1] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:


    I guess this is why I don't say many nice things about the media...




  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:


    You know my feelings on the media. Sometimes they DO get it right...

    But the exceptions only seem to make the rule stand out...

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