The Southern California fires damaged at least 500,000 acres of land and 2,000 homes, and forced hundreds of thousands of people to find emergency shelter.
For the week that the blazes were raging, fueled by the dry land and fast winds, computer screens glowed with orange. The New York Times website posted a blog that was updated multiple times a day, while the BBC website offered a news article and a photo montage of the fires. And while it was difficult to watch, it was at this time that news outlets shone by delivering information quickly.
Now the fires are almost out and Southern California is starting to rebuild. And this is where journalism takes on a new role in addition to reporting; reshaping.
News is selective. Some events, such as the fires, cannot be ignored because they are events that shape our lives. But the aftermath of major news is subjective. There are hundreds of stories circling around the reconstruction of the fire, and news sources must choose which ones to report on. And frankly, the major news media outlets have delivered disappointingly.
A week ago, visitors to The New York Times’ website were greeted by a minute-by-minute blog on the progress of the fires. Last Monday, Southern California disappeared from the front page of The Times. This is understandable; after all, New York is 3,000 miles away. A quick search reveals two articles, one by Reuters, “California Fire Victims Find Long Path To Recovery,” and one by the Associated Press, “Californians Mull Over Next Step After Fire.” Both articles spotlighted individuals and the difficulties they faced in reconstruction, ending on a note of desolation.
Move closer. News of the fires showed up immediately on The LA Times’ website, even a week later. There was a montage, “A Week Of Tragedy,” accompanied by an article, “We’ve Turned the Corner, But Hold The Optimism.” Even the news that the fires were under control was mired in despair.
Then visit The San Diego Union Tribune website. San Diego is arguably the city most affected by the fires, with almost half of the county shut down and over 500,000 individuals evacuated. Over a thousand homes have been lost. But a peek at The San Diego Union Tribune’s website reveals an atmosphere quite different from the major news outlets. The website has an entire panel dedicated to fire-related headlines; in fact, most of the page is only reporting fire news. The first few headlines follow in the vein of The LA Times in reporting all of the extensive damage done.
Halfway down the page, however, something interesting begins to happen. The headlines change. “Politicians Talk Clean-Up,” one reads. Another article spoke of how the fire might help San Diego’s economy, while a third suggested that San Diego’s avid outdoors scene will remain unfettered by the scorched terrain. It’s good news, relatively speaking, on the front page, something that we did not see with any other outlets.
It is not CHP’s aim to undermine the sadness of the Southern California fires. We offer our condolences to those who have lost their homes and businesses, and would like to honor the memory of those who unfortunately passed on. And we congratulate the news in reporting the fires quickly and for giving us a picture of how difficult rebuilding will be, at least for some time. It is the job of the news to reflect what it sees, to criticize and inform.
But news outlets also help shape events, not simply reflect them, and by focusing on the misery left in the wake of the fire a disservice is done. For there are two sides to every story. Tragedy, for example, often brings out the good in people—take the volunteers who flocked to San Diego to help. Leaving such information out or shoving it into the Human Interest section discredits constructive efforts as fluffy, not newsworthy. But since when is news defined only as events that weigh heavily on our hearts? Positive events hold just as much weight as any disparaging news story. Furthermore, it gives readers a bit of hope to work from.
Often our news outlets tend to lean heavily on fear and despair; the fact that the whole world was fixed on the SoCal fires is a perfect example of this. And while good news may not be as riveting, it is important to report. So congratulations to The San Diego Union Tribune, for showing both the good and the bad, and for doing its part to help rebuild.