Fatal fires: a word cloud

The bad news is that I’ve done a horrible job of maintaining my blog this semester with regular posts. The good news is that I’ve received Google Alerts for the key term “fatal fire” all semester, so I have an extensive database to work with. I will be using these 100-plus collections of headlines to contribute to my furious blog-catching-up efforts.

To start with, I thought it might be a good idea to plug all of the headlines into a word cloud to see which terms were being used first. This took a while, as RSS-based word cloud generators don’t go very far back in the feed, apparently (also I’m surprised they even exist). So I copy-pasted about 1,200 headlines to make this lovely piece of art.


I removed the words “fatal” and “fire” to make the rest of words more visible. (Surprisingly, journalists like to use the words “fatal fire” when reporting on fatal fires.) There are some telling things in this image, but the salient results aren’t immediately obvious. This is because there are just so many words accounted for, so some less important ones took up some space.

However, there are certainly lessons to be learned. First, the biggest word: “investigate.” It appeared 157 times. This speaks to just what kind of a disaster fatal fires are. By nature, the evidence and the scene is usually destroyed, and the explanation is not immediately apparent. Also, this shows that, when dealing with fires of a fatal nature, these incidents are dealt with as criminal events. This aligns with what I learned from Chief Glenn Gaines. The investigation is a big part of the reporting — at least, in the way that fires get covered today. Further, “cause” appeared 104 times and “identify” appeared 70 times.

Another prominent word with a lot of weight is “victim” (134 appearances). I think this is the appropriate word to use when writing about people who have died from a traumatic event. But it is a charged word, and you have to be careful to making the right word choice — especially if it is going to appear in headlines with this much regularity. Another word with heavy connotations, “blame,” appeared 20 times.

Some smaller but equally telling word appearances: “mobile” (23) and “cigarette” (21). “Mobile” is almost always used in conjunction as “mobile home,” which shows just how frequently fires occur in that setting and also how often that detail makes the headline. Similarly, the prevalence of cigarette-sparked fires is noticeable, as is the regularity with which this detail is included in headlines as well.

Also telling are words that aren’t very big on the word cloud. For instance, “year” (15 appearances), “later” (7) and “anniversary” (8) are typically used in headlines about Stage II stories, stories that check back in on those affected by fatal fires. These stories are clearly in the minority.

“Detectors” appeared 12 times. These were mostly used in headlines noting a lack of smoke detectors at a fatal fire but occasionally in stories about the promotion of smoke detector use. I was a little surprised the number was as small as it was. Likewise, “safety” only appeared 13 times.

In terms of sheer frequency of the different types of fire, “arson,” “homicide” and “set” (as in “the fire was set”) appeared 33, 29 and 24 times, respectively, whereas “accident” and “unknown” appeared 29 and 17 times.

These are the biggest takeaways I have at the moment. However, I may use this as a resource as I continue to post my findings from on how media covers fatal fires.


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