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.