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.

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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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Interview #2: Glenn Gaines

I talked for about 50 minutes with Glenn Gaines, FEMA’s Deputy U.S. Fire Administrator. He spoke about his experience covering fatal fires (he’s dealt with 30 or 40, he said) and the way that media covers them.

He didn’t seem to have too many complaints about the way the media covers fires, but he reminded me multiple times that he spent most of his time working in Fairfax County, Va., so he thought the media knew how to handle such topics because they dealt with everything in Washington, D.C.

Gaines paused a lot when speaking, but there were two types of pauses. One, he did the standard police officer/firefighter think-before-you-speak pause. But he also paused when it seemed that he was reflecting on events that really affected him. For instance, he still remembers the face of the four-year-old that was the first fire victim he failed to save. He remembers the addresses of the houses that had fatal fires, even 40+ years later. He said that they never really affected him too harshly, but you can tell they left a lasting impact.

It seemed like the idea of victim blaming was something he was definitely against but not something that should keep a reporter from using a fire to teach others to be more safe. This was perhaps my biggest takeaway: the importance of making a fire a teachable moment.

Audio from the interview is above and the whole transcript can be read here.

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Don’t be sexist if you want to be knowledgeable about Syria/be a good person

In the Buzzfeed article “Women Are Covering The Hell Out Of Syria — So Why Haven’t You Noticed?” Sheera Frenkel writes that although many women are covering the conflict in Syria (perhaps even more women than men) and covering it well, there seems to be a perception, even among feminist writers, that men are contributing more to Syria coverage. In part, this is because men are more likely to win awards because they gravitate toward the awards-friend frontline coverage and also because they’re more active self-promoters, in general. 

This is important for many reasons in terms of feminism, and I could write a whole post about how this sucks for women and how it’s kind of a vicious cycle because women don’t promote themselves because they don’t see other women winning the awards and it’s patriarchal and oppressive, but I think there’s also a lot being lost by journalism in general if what Frenkel writes is true.

Women typically are writing the more wide-scope stories that put incidents in Syria into meaningful context, the article says. This is incredibly important. To use a sports metaphor, men are covering the slam dunks but women are covering the score. The dunks are sexy and fun, but they’re only worth two points. You have to pay attention to the score to see what is really going on in the game. 

If coverage by women isn’t getting the commensurate number of eyes and, by transitive property, neither is the wide-scope, what-does-it-all-mean? kind of coverage, this is a huge loss for journalism and those who consume it. There’s probably a bias here in favor of sexy news, regardless of gender, but the gender part is important. If there’s going to be a noticeable divide between the way women and men cover conflict, it is crucial that both genders’ stuff is read.

I mean, duh, but, per usual, this sexism isn’t just hurting women; it’s having a negative impact on all of society. (Or at least people who read about Syria, I guess.)

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A picture’s worth a thousand nightmares

After reading a study from UC Irvine showing that “People who watched more than four hours a day of 9/11- and Iraq War-related television coverage (in the weeks after the attacks and at the start of the war) reported both acute and post-traumatic stress symptoms over time,” I began to think about the way that we cover traumatic events not from a sensitivity and awareness standpoint but from a media outlet standpoint. Though Roxane Cohen Silver says that the study means that people should be aware of the negative effects of continually consuming graphic visuals of trauma, not that the media should be censored, I question if that’s the right approach.

Obviously, anything that can be labeled as “censoring the media” in our First Amendment-loving nation is going to be almost automatically viewed as taboo. And no, I don’t think the government should make a law requiring the media to show less traumatic visuals. But I wonder if the media should take it upon themselves to do the censoring. Not just in terms of content but in medium.

The question of print versus broadcast typically just comes down to the M.O. of a publication. We’re a TV station, so we’ll cover 9/11 with broadcast; we’re a newspaper so we’ll write about 9/11. Duh. But rather than just being a different option to tackling a subject, it seems that, having read this article, visual forms actually have a concretely distinct impact. The use of video can have an actual psychological influence on the consumers. 

This makes me wonder if coverage of traumatic events should be more print-heavy. Yes, newspaper should still have the important discussions about which photos to use, but that issue aside, I wonder if it’s crucial for people to consume the majority of their trauma coverage in text form. Not only can text provide better context than an eidetic video clip, but it appears that it also lowers the risk of psychological damage. And while Silver says that the onus should be on consumers to know not to watch too much of the footage, it doesn’t seem like a sound strategy for media outlets just to hope their consumers don’t consume too much of their product. 

In our current journalistic ecosystem, this might be a moot point (for now, at least). CNN isn’t going to avoid covering another 9/11, god forbid one ever occur, no matter what UC Irvine says. But as the media landscape shifts into a more and more multi-platform system, the standard outlet might one day choose story-by-story whether to cover an issue with a print article or a video piece or an audio slideshow or what have you. Then, this theory would come into play. I think there should be serious consideration — as odd as it might first seem to viewers familiar with graphic visuals on cable TV — to covering a traumatic story in a print-first format for the sake of the readers’ well being.

I don’t know if that is a mindset that would ever be implemented, but the article suggests to me that it’s worth a thought.

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Angela Anderson and the importance of accuracy

When Angela Anderson spoke to our class on Tuesday, the most salient point for me was also the very first I ever learned as a journalist. Accuracy. 

It almost sounds cold to think that accuracy was the main thing I took out of the talk, but it seems that journalists affected Angela more with an inaccurate claim than with anything else they wrote.

So the takeaway should be short and sweet: don’t mess up, because if you do, you might further hurt an already grieving person. But I think the situation is a little stickier than that. Basically, journalists took a highway patrol worker’s statement as fact, and this is what hurt Angela, because it led to victim blaming, more or less.

So what should the journalists have done, in retrospect? Fact check with the highway patrol? They probably did that. I worry that journalists might not have understood the weight held by their claim that the dock lacked a ground fault circuit interrupter — I don’t know that I would have — which is why they probably never even thought to pursue fact-checking options past the state officials in the first place.

I guess this is the first improvement to make as journalists: understand the importance of details that could imply fault on behalf of the victims. And even if the victims truly were at fault, I think a discussion must be held about when and how to present that information. You have to balance the importance of informing readers so they avoid similar mistakes in the future and adding blame to the list of the victim’s troubles. 

But even if the journalists were sensitive to all this, what exactly should their course of action have been? I view this dilemma as coming down to this: Do I A) take the word of the highway patrol and realize that there is potential victim-blaming at stake or B) verify with the family whether or not the highway patrol is correct? Now, maybe there’s a third party that could have helped a journalist avoid this problem, but for the sake of this argument, let’s pretend their was no one but the family who could verify this claim. It’s a tricky scenario. It seemed like the media was having a hard time getting in touch with the immediate family, as other family members were doling out “no comments” without Angela and her husband’s knowledge. Furthermore, while the journalist would be fact-checking to avoid an unfair victim-blaming scenario, by asking the family that question in the first place, they risk upsetting the bereaved.

I think this is a tricky spot to be in, and I’m not surprised journalists just parroted the highway patrol report. Angela was upset by the misinformation in the articles regarding the GFCI, but how do journalists avoid that mistake without upsetting her or her family in the first place? It’s a tough question (which is why I chickened out of asking it in class), and I’m not sure what the answer is. I suppose the wrong information would be more harmful in the long run, but it doesn’t seem like an fun position for a journalist trying to fact check that claim while remaining sensitive to the victims.

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Wave

Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave is an extraordinary book for many a reason — not the least of which: its consuming transition from a book about death to a book about life. But initially, the most captivating characteristic of this memoir is its incredible detail. 

The further I got into the book, the more I began to wonder about Deraniyagala’s writing process. Was she writing this stuff down as she was experiencing it? (Not the tidal wave, obviously, but the subsequent events.) I started to think this was the only possible answer, unless she had an insanely good memory. Sure, her detailed recounting of the death of her family members was plucked from memory, but that’s also the indelible sort of event that one probably could not forget, even if he or she wanted to.

So I started reading the book under the assumption that she was writing as it went along, which I don’t think was too big of a leap. It got me thinking even more about her process. I’m sure getting it all on paper was some sort of catharsis for her. The acknowledgements suggest her therapist recommended she write it down. I wondered how this affected the way she experienced grief. Even if it initially helped to talk/write about it, was it painful to relive these dismal thoughts she was having? Was she ever acting in certain ways (“haunting” her old house, returning to Yala and looking for remnants) because she thought they would work well in the book? That sounds cynical, but I wonder if there was any sort of subliminal influence that stoked an intellectual curiosity. 

Above all, it seems that in writing Wave, Deraniyagala had no choice but to be incredibly honest with herself. I’m sure that helped in her recovery. I just feel lucky that her means of recovery allowed me to get a glimpse into the psyche of a person in this incredibly unenviable position. I often forgot that I was reading non-fiction, which made the story all the more powerful when the fact that Wave was rooted in truth set in. 

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Fatal Fire Interview No. 1: Valerie Schremp Hahn

For my first interview with a journalist who has experience covering fatal fires, I spoke with Valerie Schremp Hahn, the night police reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. We talked for a little more than 25 minutes. Some of what she said was enlightening, some was a bit disappointing, but all of it was fascinating, given what we’ve learned this semester.

First off, I found it disappointing (though not surprising) that the Post-Dispatch doesn’t have any sort of in-house counseling available for reporters. It’s good that they can get that sort of assistance with the health care the Post-Dispatch provides them, but reporters would be more likely to notice those problems and feel comfortable seeking help if there were something available in the workplace.

The most interesting thing I gleaned from our talk had to do with the frequency with which Valerie covered fatal fires. She said that fires aren’t usually deadly, and even when they are, the job of covering them gets split up among the different members of the police staff. Therefore, she only covers a fatal fire about once a year. Granted, she’s worked there for 17 years, and she covers other traumatic events that aren’t fire-related, but I began to wonder if the size of staffs was an important factor in deterring the negative effects that can come from covering traumatic incidents.

However, the infrequency with which she covered these fatal fires seemed to create an inconsistency when Valerie talked about follow-up stories. She compared the decision to follow up on those affected by fires to the way the Post-Dispatch covers crashes.

“You know, we can’t write about every crash where somebody is hurt, so we don’t, usually,” she said. “We usually only write about fatal crashes, because if you write about every crash, you’d be writing about crashes all the time.”

This didn’t seem to jive with her previous statement.

Also, Valerie mentioned that people are often in shock right after a fire when she interviews them. This is important, because some journalists believe that the interviewees are A-OK (and Valerie did echo this a bit in the way she kept expressing surprise at their graciousness) instead of realizing that they are just suffering from shock. It’s good that she is aware of that, but I wonder if her reporting process should advance past mere awareness.

Overall, however, I felt like the way the Post-Dipatch (or Valerie, at least) covers these events was satisfactory. Valerie said she made sure to take caution to not be a negative influence and she really seemed to understand the importance of humanity when reporting on these kinds of situations. I’m not sure, from what she told me, that the Post-Dispatch environment would be an entirely helpful place if a reporter was really suffering mental duress from covering trauma. But at the very least, it sounds like they have a big enough staff that the burden doesn’t fall entirely on one reporter.

Some highlights from the interview are above and you can read the entire transcription by clicking here.

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