Moving past the first stage

The majority of the fatal fire stories I have read via my Google Alerts have had one thing in common. Some have been about fires started by arsonists. Some have been about fires caused by space heaters. Some have been about fires in nursing homes. But almost every article has been focused on the cause. 

“How did the fire start?” seems to be the main question when reporters report on these incidents, with “How many people were killed or injured?” as the obvious follow up. And, duh, these questions are important. But it never seems to go beyond that, unless it’s a needless investigation into a “trend” or a list of tips to avoid starting a fire yourself.

One article looked into the history of the arsonist who had killed an elderly woman in a fire. It was harrowing, but it was also enthralling. Don’t know why, but this guy had a fascination with burning stuff down. There were some incredible details, like how he just stood on the porch and smoked a cigarette as the house burned, or how he forced his daughter to start a fire in a past incident and the judge said he’d never forget it because the “daughter blurted out, ‘Daddy made me do it.'” Those details made this article one of the most — if not the most — interesting of all that I had read. It told a story instead of just recounting raw facts. It was sad, but it was a much more engaging read. However, all the details and superior reporting were rooted in the past.

The articles never get past the incident. They are always stuck in Stage I. I understand that this gets a little tricky, because I’m reading about fatal fires. You can’t do a follow-up piece months later on how the fire is affecting a dead person. But these people have families. They’re members of communities. I want to read stories about the effect the fire had on brains, not just lungs. This is something I’m going to be doing when I interview someone affected by a fire later in the semester, and it’s exciting, because I’ll get to put my notebook where my mouth is. But it’s also a little scary, because I don’t have a whole lot of examples to imitate from what I’ve seen in the media.

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Are we helping or are we blaming?

Everyone wants to avoid fatal fires. I assume. And it would appear there are ways to do that.

From the Cullman Times‘ “Space heater likely cause of fatal fire in Winston County”: “State Fire Marshal Ed Paulk noted fires of this nature (related to space heaters) become more common as winter wears on and families look for new ways to stay warm.” The article notes that 19 Alabamians died from fire-related causes in the first 23 days of 2014, though it does not say how many of these are due to space heaters.

Regardless, fires are not hurricanes. When a hurricane happens, people are probably going to die and there is probably nothing we can do to eliminate casualties altogether. Fires, on the other hand, seem to be a bit more preventable — especially those of the space-heater variety.

This article ends with a list of “Fire Safety Tips” to help readers avoid similar fates. Some of them are good: “Always use the right kind of fuel, specified by the manufacturer, for fuel burning space heaters. Never use Natural gas in LP Gas appliances or vice versa.” (Good to know.) Some of them seem tough to enforce: “Have a three-foot ‘kid-free zone’ around open fires and space heaters.” (Any command starting with the verb “have” could use a bit more specificity.) And some of them are head-scratchers: “Never use your oven to heat your home.” (People do that? I didn’t even know you could do that…)

Long story short, many fires are caused by circumstances that could have been avoided.

This is where the ethics get a bit sticky. This seems like quality service journalism. If you can help your readers be more safe, then it would appear you are doing a good job, right? But when you append these tips at the end of an article about an actual person who died because they didn’t follow them, are you entering the realm of victim blaming? Aren’t you basically saying, “This person died, but they wouldn’t have if they had listened to us!”? 

It’s tricky, because it’s most likely true. This person might not have died if they had been more informed about fire safety. But by turning them into a cautionary tale — at the end of the very article that documents their death, no less — you risk being a bit cold. 

I don’t know what the answer is. I doubt the editorial staff of the Cullman Times had a giant debate about the ethics of including the tips. If we can help someone, then of course we should do that, they probably thought. But in the process, you risk blaming the person you didn’t get to help.

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The implications of phony trends

In reading through my daily Google alerts for “fatal fires,” I found a few things to take issue with, which I will write about in my following posts. But for the most part, I found the coverage to be serviceable. There was one article, however, that I found appalling.

It was from The Globe and Mail, a Canadian publication. The article was titled “A look at fatal fires involving retirement and nursing homes in Canada.” It started by referencing a fire that occurred that day, and used that to launch into, well, what the headline says. A fire that happened that day wasn’t even the point of the article, but merely a launching pad for an exploration of this “trend.” That in itself is pretty disgraceful, I think. Sure, context is important, but you at least have to give the fire — especially a fatal one — its own news story. Using it merely as material for the lede comes off as flip and a tad disrespectful. So yes, that was bad.

But it gets worse.

The trend. Oh dear lord, the trend. Let me just copy/paste all the years listed in this very important and scientific “look.”

Dec. 2, 1969. Feb. 10, 1948. July 14, 1980. Dec. 26, 1976. Jan. 19, 2009.

They’re not even in chronological order, for Christ’s sake.

Maybe Canadians are just smarter, and this publication assumes that you’ll be able to see that five incidences in 61 years does not exactly equate to a trend. Maybe. But I doubt it. Again, context is great, but by putting these dates in a bullet-pointed list, you imply that there is a trend, that this is an ongoing problem that people need to worry about. Heck, you do that just by writing this “A look at…” article in the first place.

If you’re going to mention that something like this has happened before, you need to contextualize your information. “Fatal fires have occurred in Canadian nursing homes before,” you could write, “but with little frequency.” Or something like that.

As we’ve learned, it’s just as harmful for people to worry about stuff that they don’t need to as it is for them not to be concerned with real problems. Why can’t we make sure that we’re not adding to the harm with our reporting? Eh?

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