What starts the fires?

By far, the leading cause of residential fires is cooking mishaps. Check out this chart below, reflecting estimates made by the U.S. Fire Administration


As you can see, there are certainly other very significant factors that cause fires in the United States (even the lowest ones cause about 20,000 fires a year), but cooking fires are by and large the most common.

Reverting back to my aggregation of fatal fire headlines, let’s see if the media accurately reflected the causes of fire. Here are some key words, followed by the number of times they appeared in a fatal fire headline this semester.

Stove: 11. Kitchen: 7. Heater: 9. Furnace: 3. Electric/electrical: 12. Wire: 4. Cigarette: 21. Lighter: 4. Arson: 33. Set (as in: “the fire was set”): 28.

The data doesn’t exactly align. The biggest outlier seems to be the “intentional” category. The large numbers for “arson” and “set” might be due to the argument that non-accidents may merit more stories*, but they definitely allow for the possibility that media over-represents these types of fires, compared to how many fires are actually started this way.

*This could even be challenged. Even if a fire is started on accident, that does not mean it may not merit follow-up stories to relate it to a larger trend that could potentially be more dangerous than even intentional fires.

Another overachiever: “cigarette.” This seems to be a detail that news organizations love to include in the headline. Maybe it’s because it’s easy to create a detailed image with this one word. But, given my consistent findings that socioeconomics play a big role in fires, one has to at least play devil’s advocate and wonder if there isn’t some classism at work here as well. Smoking cigarettes is generally stereotyped as working-class behavior, and, though it would be near impossible to prove, one might wonder if that detail is included so the news organizations can pigeonhole the victims.

Of course, I run the risk of being a bit hypocritical here. I have said that news organizations should do a better job of contextualizing fires and reminding readers that they are more prevalent in lower socioeconomic scenarios. Perhaps the secret is walking the line between contextualizing and crudely stereotyping. To be honest, I don’t know exactly what the best way to do that is, but I think it’s something journalists should keep in mind.

Lastly, it seems like the “heating” category is somewhat underrepresented. Perhaps journalists need to be mindful of including those details in headlines as well. Not doing so could be harmful, because readers might not fully understand how much of a fire threat objects like space heaters can be.


Rich people don’t die in fires anymore

One of the things that really stuck out to me as I studied online coverage of fatal fires from the past few months is that an overwhelming majority of the stories seemed to be just-the-facts police stories. There was rarely any coverage about the victims’ lives before they died in fires. I didn’t feel like I ever got to hear their life stories, if you will.

So, being the critical journalist that I am, I asked myself, Is it possible that this is a result of classism, given the fact that members of a lower socioeconomic class are more likely to die in fires? I guessed that this was most likely not the case, but I thought I would look for a contrasting example: someone well-known who had died in a fire and who spurred numerous postmortem stories about his or her life. I figured this would just result in one or two sentences in my overarching analysis.

But I found something interesting. Famous people don’t really die in fires anymore. Sure, Zelda Fitzgerald died in a fire, and there are a few modern-day examples like Royce Applegate and Teresa Graves, but I honestly could not find anyone who died in a fire the last 60 years that I had heard of. (I had never heard of Applegate or Graves. Obviously, I’m not in charge of labeling People Who People Have Heard Of, but I think my personal experience was telling.) Wealthy people rarely die in fires anymore. In fact, Denis Onieal, superintendent of the National Fire Academy, had this to say in The Unthinkable: “I never fought a fire in a rich person’s home.”

But this realization did more than just reaffirm my belief that fatal fires are entrenched in class problems. It also made me believe that the coverage of fire victims is indeed affected by this fact. If there are no high-profile fire deaths to use as comparisons, it is far less likely that an editor will think, Hey, why didn’t we do as much coverage on this fire victim’s life as we did for that famous person who died in a fire? I doubt this is the lone factor in the strict newsiness of these articles, but I certainly believe it is related. I’m not suggesting that all we need is for a George Clooney to die in a fire so that fire reportage can improve. However, members of lower socioeconomic classes are more likely to be marginalized, and it’s evident in this example that journalists can further the problem if they don’t address this existent bias.


Follow-up stories

The follow-up story is an important staple of journalism, as it provides contextualization to a news story. In disaster-related stories, this would seem to be a no-brainer. Disasters leave ruin in their wake, and there must be lasting effects on those who suffer from the traumatic events. However, in fire coverage, these types of stories are sparse.

The most common type of follow-up story related to fire is the anniversary story. The Dart Center says that anniversary stories often mark the beginning of the Act Two stage of reporting; as defined by Frank Ochberg, this is the stage that focuses on the victims. I do not believe that those who cover fires do a very good job of bringing the Act Two mentality to their reporting. This article, “Fatal Fire: A Year Later,” in the Newnan Times-Herald seems to be fairly standard. It depicted what kind of memorials were going on and how the family was feeling a year after the death. It didn’t seem to do a good job of giving personality to the victims, and it is certainly nowhere near the Act Three purpose of finding some sort of meaning to take away. In all honesty, it’s hard to see what good this article even does for the community. Perhaps the family wants their memorial ceremonies to be publicized in honor of the victims, but that consideration hardly seems like it would outweigh the potential bringing up of bad memories that comes with doing the interviews.

That’s one of the risks of doing anniversary stories, the Dart Center says: “When does anniversary coverage promote healing — and when does it open old wounds?” These stories do not seem to do much in the way of healing. There is not much that gives the reader an idea of what the victims were like, nor is the larger issue of fire deaths put into any context. Perhaps using anniversaries isn’t the best way to spark Act Two coverage — though it is the most convenient way. For instance, when covering the Columbine killings a year later, the community members wanted the journalists to get their reporting done weeks in advance, so that the town could spend the anniversary in peace. I think that this is a good tactic to take, but I also think that it is crucial that news organizations remember to still do the Act II coverage, even if they’re not anniversary pieces.

Act II stories is largely done in reference to wildfires, when it comes to fire coverage. This makes sense. Anniversaries mean more in those scenarios, because wildfires are very seasonal. (Yes, residential fires are more likely to occur during the winter, but the actual climate is playing a part in wildfires, and they are even more season sensitive.) More analysis is done on these types of fires. For instance, take this article and video from azcentral.com. The video talks about how wildfire season is here again, and it doesn’t seem like many changes have been made, even though the causes of wildfires have been known for years. The article goes into more detail about the status of investigations following a big fire in 2013 and what changes could be coming.

I found this paragraph particularly newsworthy: “Many wildfire experts, meanwhile, balk at discussing what went wrong — or what should be changed — because of legal concerns, respect for the deceased and an emerging industry view that firefighting mistakes should not be identified publicly.” For one, this is a big problem and journalists need to look at this and see if they should be taking it upon themselves to discuss mistakes in fire safety and hold people accountable. Secondly, this is the kind of analysis that is severely lacking in coverage of residential fires.


Using fire to defame

In a previous post, I wrote about how fire is very much a socioeconomic disaster and how the media have all but ignored this. Unfortunately, it seems that the media are doing worse than ignoring this link. They’re exploiting it.

Earlier this year, a fire in the Twin Cities was covered nationally by publications like CNN. An article by the Twin Cities Daily Planet ponders why this event got so much large-scale play. “Neighborhood fires happen all the time; what is the national peg of a Twin Cities fire?” Lolla Mohammed Nur wrote. “I am not trying to take away from this tragedy, but, I’m sure there are many tragedies that have killed or injured more people or caused far more damage, but have not made it to national news.” The answer, it seemed, was that this fire occurred in Cedar Riverside, a neighborhood heavily populated by Somali Americans. Because Somalian militant group Al Shabaab headed the Nairobi mall attack in 2013, the neighborhood was under a spotlight.

“So every little move and happening in this neighborhood is now being paid a whole lot of attention to,” said Burhan Mohumed, a Somali American. Listed in the article were tweets by a media personality who instantly made connections between the fire and Al Shabaab, alleged perpetrator of the Nairobi mall attack — a connection deemed unfounded by the article.

This is extremely problematic. It’s bad enough that marginalized communities are more likely to suffer fires. But when a fire is used to further attack a marginalized community, that is hard to swallow.  


Covering wildfires

Finding analysis of fire reportage is a hard task. There is not much out there. It is much easier, however, when one focuses on wildfires. 

Wildfires are almost a different beast entirely than typical residential fires. The size and scope of the damage is much greater, as is the likelihood for media coverage. Forest fires regularly get air time on national news coverage. Also, the factors in forest fires are different from residential fires. While Smokey the Bear might have you thinking that it all comes down to how many cigarette butts are disposed of improperly, the weather plays a huge role in the frequency of wildfires. And while preventative efforts are certainly helpful in both types of fires, they seem to play a larger role in house fires. You can’t put a smoke detector on every redwood. 

Because wildfires tend to be treated as bigger stories, there is more analysis of the way in which they are covered. Throughout this analysis, there is a resounding theme: Climate change plays a huge role in the rate of forest fires, and it is regularly ignored as a factor by the media. In a study conducted by Media Matters for America, “only 3% of wildfire coverage mentioned long-term climate change or global warming.” This in spite of extensive evidence that wildfires are linked to the change in environment: “Wildfires are a naturally occurring phenomenon closely tied to climate conditions, and as the world warms in response to rising amounts of greenhouse gases in the air, many studies show that wildfire frequency and severity will likely shift as well,” according to Climate Central. Fair.org also found that U.S. media were reticent to make this connection.

This seems like an easy problem to fix, but it is actually disheartening. If this simple problem cannot be addressed, then it seems that struggles in reporting on residential fires are far from being fixed. In fact, the fact that residential fires lag so far behind wildfires, which are treated as big stories with readily available media analysis echoes this. Wildfires might occur on a larger scale, but clearly residential fire coverage is lacking in terms of the big picture stuff. Maybe once those types of stories become more commonplace, media criticism for residential fire coverage will appear and eventually, somewhere down the line, positive changes will be made.



The socioeconomics of fire

While I will be posting many more blog entries analyzing the coverage of fatal fires, this might be the most important one. At least, I think so.

When I analyzed my semester’s-worth of Google Alerts for fatal fires on a macro scale, I began to form a realization that I probably already had at a subconscious level. Fire is a class issue. Mobile homes are frequently mentioned as sites of fires, and in general I just began to get the feeling that people of lower socioeconomic class were affected more frequently by fires. Makes sense, I thought. I’m probably not making any revolutionary realizations. There must be plenty of articles about this. Not exactly. In fact, I wasn’t able to find any.

It seems there is a huge void of journalistic articles talking about the socioeconomic factors of fires. It was easy to find a study from a non-journalistic institution, however. FEMA put out a study in 1997 titled “Socioeconomic Factors and the Incidence of Fire.” In it, I found that my hunch was correct: “Virtually every study of socioeconomic characteristics has shown that lower levels of
income are either directly or indirectly tied to an increased risk of fire,” the report read.

Many of the studies on this idea were conducted in the 1970s. One (Schaenman, et al) found that three factors greatly affect variations in the rate of fires: parental presence, poverty and under-education. Further, seven other factors explained these variations but to a lesser degree: good education, race, home ownership, adequate income, housing crowdedness, housing vacancy and age of housing structures.

These findings are logical. It would make sense that lower socioeconomic groupings would be more susceptible to fatal fires. Yet, this is seemingly ignored by the media. One of the most important duties for a journalist covering a traumatic event, it seems, is to contextualize the event. The journalist should let the readers know that rape is more likely to be committed by an acquaintance than a stranger in the bushes, that it is rare for actual panic to occur in traumatic scenarios. Then they should also let the readers know not only that a lack of smoke detectors increases the likelihood of fire death but also that fires are statistically more likely to occur at lower socioeconomic levels. The media can do a good job (sometimes) of explaining what causes a fire, but the causes of the causes are left out of print and off the air.

This is extremely frustrating. For one, contextualization is inherently important. I thought that there would at least be articles talking about the larger issue of fires in communities of lower socioeconomic standing, even if individual fire articles did not include that context. But even the big picture articles do not seem to exist.

This doesn’t give the reader a quick fix — oh, I should just be less poor so as to avoid fires! — like fire safety suggestions might, but it is important nonetheless. Giving this context, besides simply painting a more truthful picture, reminds readers that the dangers faced by communities at lower socioeconomic levels are real and life-threatening. Being poor doesn’t just mean having a cheaper cell phone and not being able to afford as nice of cars. Socioeconomics are matters of life and death, and by ignoring the correlation with fire, journalists risk inadvertently smoothing over the incredible influence that class can have in this country.


On tact

Fatal fires are, by definition, a serious issue. Therefore, it is crucial for news organizations to use utmost professionalism when covering them. The plethora of terms associated with fire can create temptation to utilize puns. For instance, take this headline.

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Cute. And inappropriate. Now, for the record, I am a huge fan of puns. I was the editor for a local arts-and-entertainment magazine written with a sarcastic tone, and I shoehorned just about any pun you could imagine into those headlines. But we were covering restaurants and concerts. There is a time and place for that kind of wordplay, and any headline with the word “fatal” in it does not qualify. The decision made by the district attorney could have been very important to members of the community — at the very least, to the families and friends of those who died in the fire. It just doesn’t make sense to put a flip headline on a story with such a serious subject. Besides, it’s not even that great of a pun.

The use of tact is also important when presenting an article. For example, look at this story.

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“What’s My House Worth?” asks the advertisement placed directly above a story about a house catching on fire. This is just an accident, I believe. When I revisited the website, there was a different ad. But still, a coincidence like that needs to be avoided. What if a family member of a victim read the article and instinctively thought a joke was being made? News organizations need to avoid potentially damaging mistakes like this one.

Now, both of these instances were not ill-intentioned, but that’s not the point. In scenarios that involve death, you have to make sure you don’t cause any more harm to people have already experienced undue suffering. Journalists are supposed to serve a community and should be doing good, but at the very least they have one responsibility.

Do no harm.