San Diego Fires port-mortem: the media

| October 30, 2007

A few days ago, I asked for comments on what you thought the media did wrong or could have done better in covering the San Diego fires. Several of you have taken the time to respond, either via private e-mail or by posting comments. Sad to say, the comments tended to be largely uniform and largely negative. Since this posting is rather length, I’ve placed all the comments after the jump (click on ‘Read the article’ to see them). If you have comments of your own that you’d like to make, feel free to attach them to this post.

From one private e-mail:

The professional media? I didn’t hear the local radio/TV news, so I can’t comment on it, but in general, ALL of the media has forgotten how to report facts. They’re too interested in drama, tweaking people’s emotions instead. It seems what people felt was really helpful were the few blogs that focused on concrete information. For example, my sister lives in Del Mar, so I was trying to find information specific to the threat to Del Mar. While its fate was unclear, the best information available on specific conditions was from a guy named Bob who posted his observations from driving around and looking at things. The Google map from the local PBS station was also pretty helpful, but you didn’t know if you could rely on it, because it was so hard to come by specific information on where the fire actually was. I also heard people complaining about seeing the same stale information regurgitated again and again. If I had to gauge complaints from afar, I would guess that the media wasn’t nearly specific enough; they focused primarily on “gosh, look at this burning building; it’s terrible” instead of saying, there are three neighborhoods here under threat; 1, 2, and 3. here is what the firefighters on the ground are doing, and here’s what they think about whether it can be saved; houses on these three streets have been lost, and they’re making a stand here. Instead, they seem to be randomly driving around pointing at things. Standards are pretty low in all of the media; maybe it’s all those communications and business majors who seem to be in charge. [endless, rude pointless arguments SELL!] Whatever happened to hard journalism? Are any of these people trained to think of themselves as the Fourth Estate? Or just attention-seeking, ratings-seeking morons. [sorry, I’m ranting.] Where have all the brains gone?

From another reader, living in Rancho Santa Fe:

i would hesitate to use the word professional with the word media after what we had to endure this week. the problem in my view (as a professional journalist for almost 30 years) is that the news has become purely entertainment, and newscasters even consider themselves ‘celebrities’ — witness the caption running under one video image letting viewers know that larry himmel’s house had burned.

what was shown on tv — the only source we had access to until later in the week — were the sensational images of burning homes, repeated over and over again. there was little information about the fires, the direction they were headed, or other useful news that evacuated residents could make sense from. even the photojournalists in the field had nothing to offer — with the exception of loren nancarrow who actually would identify the direction he was looking or helped locate a familiar landmark for viewers to get their bearings.

at any rate, we gleaned more information (eventually) from websites like yours, and from relatives on the east coast scouring the internet, than anything offered up by any of the local news stations. the bottom line is that until these local entertainment bureaus (so programmed to look for something exciting to make their evening newscasts entertaining) actually get blasted for their lousy coverage, we will never get the sort of factual, useful reporting of news that sources such as your site provided so well.

This person is a bit more positive, but has some suggestions for improvement:

Regarding your questions about what the media can do better next time: They’ve definitely done a 180 from the Cedar Fires. That was an embarrassing feeding frenzy amongst them and I had to turn the TV off for some periods of time. (The internet is definitely the way to go this time!) The coverage on these fires was much more informative this time. But I do have a suggestion: HOLD A COMPASS WHEN YOU ARE BROADCASTING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! And/or KNOW WHERE YOU ARE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! To state that you’re looking at hills in San Diego, Otay, Jamul, RB, etc… and not know which way you’re facing is pathetic! (Obviously I’m a native). To not know the basic direction of major roads is disconcerting. To not know the difference between black smoke and white smoke is dangerous! They should take a crash course in FIRE 101. Seriously. But I’m sure the majorities of them are not natives or are fairly new to San Diego but it is useless to stand on the scene and be so general about your coverage; pick up a map!

A brief observation from another reader:

Late Monday night, CNN was not much better – endlessly re-running short video clips of flames with 6-hour old stories for the fifth time… and not a good map to be seen! As a former map graphics guy myself, I feel that a decent map conveys more of such desperately wanted information in a few seconds than an hour of yakking heads and constantly repeated, meaningless video clips.

A lengthy observation from someone who knows California wildfires:

I want to comment on your request for suggestions re what could be done better.

What I object to about the media is the habit of reducing every situation to a sound bite and labeling every event with a catchy banner. This started with the “Oakland Firestorm” of 1991. This misuse of the term “firestorm” rankles on those of us who were or are associated with the ranks of wildland firefighting. Here is what the term refers to in technical fire behavior language:

“Firestorm: Violent convection caused by a large, continuous area of intense fire. Often characterized by destructively violent surface in drafts, near and beyond the perimeter, and sometimes by tornado-like fire whirls.” (my italics)

This definition from Americanforests.org was taken from the national fire center site, www.nifc.gov/fireinfo/glossary.html It is a misuse of the term to call a whole fire a “firestorm” no matter how ugly it is. The news media created this misuse during the Oakland fire because some people were killed in actual firestorms, which are isolated and localized events in a raging fire where the “tornado-like fire whirls” literally suck all the oxygen up in the column and you can asphyxiate because the air is used up in the fire. Reporters took a term that some fire spokesperson used to describe an event in the fire and ran with it, calling the whole fire “The Oakland Firestorm of 1991” and creating a new term that sounds appropriately scary, but has lost it’s meaning.

The reason why people should be educated to understand what “firestorm” really means is that many are at still at risk and live in areas where they have unwittingly created the perfect conditions for this to occur. Mt. Tamalpias and those who live in the hills of Marin are particularly vulnerable. This area has many narrow, winding hilly streets comparable to the area of Oakland that burned, that can barely support two way traffic, much less fire engines and a mass evacuation. Certain kinds of plantings, such as laddering of shrubs into eucalyptus tree stands are particularly prone to create lethal fire hazards. Add high velocity, squirrelly winds and tinder dry brush on these slopes and canyons and you have the ingredients for the true “firestorm”. People died in Oakland because they couldn’t get out of the neighborhoods where this was happening.

This is a different set of dangerous conditions from the Southern Cal experience of seeing the Santa Ana driven fire crown the ridge you can see from your back door, grabbing your kids and your purse and running out the front door and getting in your car just as the fire reaches the back of your house. (That happened in many instances in the Bel Air fire, and probably many others–some didn’t even have time to start their cars, but ran down the middle of the street.)

Finally, here are some extracts from the comments attached to the original post:

What could have been done better by the (professional) media?

Cover the San Diego area better. Malibu burns every year & those folks know it & can afford to rebuild without state or federal intervention. I also believe the media could spend more time focusing on positive aspects, like timely evacuations, well-prepared disaster plans, well-staffed evacuation centers and human interest stories and MUCH LESS on photo opportunities for politicians and trying to stir up trouble over response times and resoucrce allocation to keep themselves on the air… I get frustrated with all the negativity and finger pointing.

The national news media is a complete mess and I don’t pay much attention to it. It is only capable of the broadest generalizations and goes for emotion over substance far too often. It’s not their fault. The local TV media is too fixated on raw pictures and not enough on synthesizing data. The local radio media is pretty effective through its call-in function, but it requires a pretty skillful host and producing team. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the KPBS radio staff was also responsible for the best (or most linked) interactive Google Map.

What could have been done better by the (professional) media? As stated before, I think most of us would prefer actual facts over the drama/emotion. And really, visiting dignitaries take more resources than what they add to the equation. The professional media could stand a lesson from your blog with the maps, data and such. As in any given event, they can call in an “expert” to provide data/maps.

Next post: what government (local, state, federal) could have done better. ..bruce w..

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Category: Main, SAN DIEGO EMERGENCIES, San Diego Fires

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

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