Had I been living in Poway, as I was in October of 2003, the recent wildfires would have been déjà vu all over again. In 2003 I evacuated the neighborhood where I lived and watched hour after hour of television coverage, frustrated beyond words by the lack of specific information in the occasional references to “Poway” that newscasters added to their running commentary about flames racing through Scripps Ranch.
I felt the same way that Escondido evacuee Dale Delmege felt about electronic coverage of the recent fire disaster. As Mr. Delmege observed in his community forum piece last week, what viewers need to know, “again and again is exactly where the fire is now and exactly what direction it is moving.” Also of importance to folks separated from their homes is as precise a description of affected areas as possible.
Obviously TV journalists can’t provide comprehensive lists of burned residences, like those published in this newspaper a day or two later. But one would think that in a spreading disaster, emphasis would be given (as in real estate decisions) to location, location, and location.
Instead, television coverage emphasized, as usual, pictures, pictures, and pictures. The video pièce de résistance of this “Gee whiz journalism” was the burned out home—live flames adding a dramatic touch to the breathless description of “incredible” sights provided by twenty-something girls in goggles.
Over the course of two hours this disaster template became as tiresome as it was unenlightening. Youngsters in yellow gushed effusively--visions of Emmys dancing in their heads. Meanwhile, the important questions languished: Where exactly is the fire? Where is it headed?
Throughout the coverage, tape-loops ran repeatedly as “live” coverage was juxtaposed with fire footage from who-knows-where and who-knows-when. Meanwhile, anchors approached the event as yet another exercise in competitive compassion—apparently ignorant of the fact that disasters don’t need dramatic embellishment. What they need is perspective and precision.
Folks can only absorb so many “oohs and aahs” and so many “burn to the ocean” scenarios before they shut down like a bug-eyed epicure who’s offered a chocolate éclair after having consumed a quart of rocky road.
The usually over-the-top KUSI weatherman, John Coleman, was one of the few broadcasters providing some directional perspective—pointing out that fires move where the wind takes them and that on-shore breezes pose a severe problem for “burn to the ocean” news-hype.
After a while anchors began to employ Thomas Brothers maps to shed a bit of geographical light on things, but by and large TV news did what it does best: emote and dramatize. Indeed, they dramatized so well that some folks outside the state thought all Southern California was ablaze.
Those who get most of their news from a business that mixes eye-candy and life-and-death information should ponder the implications of that volatile cocktail. If TV journalism can’t provide vital information about a disaster happening in its backyard, is it likely to provide a reasonable portrait of political and social complexities throughout the world?