News & Analysis wildfire

Published on August 31st, 2012 | by EJC


Wildfires: Digital Age Tools For The Reporter

Covering a wildfire will always be fraught with physical, ethical and logistical challenges but the digital age has given journalists a new media toolbox to overcome the inherent logistical hurdles of these assignments.

Wildfires increasingly make headlines as communities and infrastructure steadily move into high fire risk areas, often with catastrophic and tragic consequences. The media have always played a critical role in keeping people informed during these events and as wildfire newsworthiness grows, so does the demand for news. With incidences of catastrophic fires predicted to rise in the future media outlets may have to adopt new ways of covering them.

One of the greatest challenges for the media during disasters such as wildfires is dealing with and verifying the huge amount of data coming from the public, particularly on Facebook and Twitter. This issue was cited during a review of the media coverage of Australia’s 2009 ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires, which reported

… [A] serious challenge to verification arose from the sharp contradictions between information available from the authorities and the information pouring in from the public during the crucial hours of Black Saturday.

Crowdsourced platform PeopleBrowser, which monitors social media posts and summarises them by location, topic and ‘community’ – clusters based on user information or created through a hashtag – can help journalists make sense of and verify the flood of information. The platform also features a credibility score measuring users’ influence and outreach on social networks. From the PeopleBrowser website:

… Regardless of follower count, a person is influential if their community is actively listening and engaging with their content.

Global InSight is another platform that focuses on giving users verified information by finding “statistical consensus between the crowd’s contributions.” Used for mapping crisis-affected areas such as Somalia, Syria and following the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, the platform uses crowdsourced micro-tasking to analyse satellite imagery. Global InSight gives journalists reliable and up-to-date maps of a post-disaster area and could therefore have life saving application during wildfires.


US Wildfires – Real-time social media response map

Providing up to date information to the public is vital during a wildfire, as conditions change rapidly, unexpectedly and constantly. This poses a significant challenge for the media who rely on official sources for information, but which, as shown above, sometimes conflicts with reports from the public. In a 2007 study entitled “Backchannels on the Front Lines: Emergent uses of social media in the 2007 Southern California Wildfires” Sutton et al. reported that some respondents found mainstream media coverage of the event insufficient

…either because it lacked specificity to their area; was biased towards metropolitan areas; seemed focused on the sensational at the expense of those in rural or outlying areas; or was simply inaccurate.

New Media technology now allows those in the midst of a disaster to send real-time updates about what is happening around them. Networks such as are using social media and crowd-sourced information to produce consolidated, up-to-date reports on threat levels in users’ local area.
[minitwitter username="wildfirenews"]
Lastly, journalists need access to witnesses, survivors and the authorities as their experiences and opinions are critical to the public’s understanding of events. In some cases this poses an ethical dilemma for journalists as those directly affected may be in shock or unwilling to talk to the media. The authorities may also try to shield people, with good intentions, but this not only denies people the cathartic effects of talking about what they have been through, it also hurts journalists’ ability to report. With other modes of communication often cut off in a disaster, people are increasing using social media on their mobile phones to let to let loved ones know they are ok, find out what is happening or to help others. While social networks now provide journalists with direct access to those involved, they also represent part of a wider shift which is challenging the media’s traditional role during disasters.

Useful Links
Colorado wildfires: Real-time social media response map
International Association of Wildland Fire
Bushfire Connect
Mapping and Planning Support (MAPS)
Disaster News Network
U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet – Wildfires
Earth Journalism Network – Using Social Media
Earth Journalism Network – Reporting on Disasters
Articles on Social Media and Disaster Reporting
The Denver Post – Colorado fires sweep social media sites as readers look for info  (27 June 2012)
Yakima Herald – Social media plays big role in fire support (15 August 2012)
American Red Cross – More Americans Using Mobile Apps in Emergencies (31 August 2012)

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