Sunday, September 13, 2015

Why would NPR say that the Butte and Valley fires are near San Francisco?

The past 36 hours have been horrible for California in terms of destruction (and likely death) from fast-moving, drought-fueled wildfires.  But things are bad enough without making it all relevant and interesting from a national news perspective by acting like this is somehow about San Francisco.  Here's the lede from National Public Radio:
California Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency as firefighters in the state's north battling expanding wildfires, intensified by a prolonged drought, that have spread to tens of thousands of acres north and east of San Francisco, Capital Public Radio in Sacramento reports.
A prior version of this story, now revised, described the fires as "near" San Francisco.

"[N]orth and east of San Francisco" is technically accurate, but the fires are hardly threatening the greater Bay Area because the Butte Fire is at least 100 miles from the metropolis and the Valley fire, in Lake and Napa counties, is at least 50 miles away.  What, then, makes it helpful or appropriate to describe the location of the fire in this way?  Will it somehow make people care more to think of this in relation to San Francisco than if they just think of this as a fire in the hinterlands of northern or central California--a rural phenomenon?  which, I might add, it by and large is.  

Or maybe we care more about the water supply for California's cities than for the rural residents who are losing their homes.  And it was the San Francisco water supply that attracted attention to the fire in Yosemite and near it, as in the community of Groveland, a few years ago.  Read commentary on Legal Ruralism here.

Here is another excerpt from that NPR story today, this one explicitly noting the "rural":
The Associated Press says: "One explosive blaze raced across several rural communities in northern California [Saturday], forcing thousands of people from their homes. Four firefighters suffered second-degree burns and are being treated in connection with a blaze that started about 100 miles north of San Francisco."
New York Times coverage of the Valley Fire includes this lede:
The fire moved fast, faster than even veteran firefighters had seen. As it ripped down a hill toward Middletown, two hours north of San Francisco, some residents hardly had time to dress before they fled.
(emphasis added).


Unknown said...

As someone who isn't from California, I may have an answer. People outside of California have no idea of distances involved. Sometimes, they barely even know that Sacramento (and even, occasionally, San Diego and San Jose) exist on the scale that they do. For most of the country, Los Angeles and San Francisco are the two metropolitan areas in California, corresponding to northern and southern California. On the east coast; an 8 hour drive can get you from Boston to Washington DC and cross 8 states. In California, that gets you from Sacramento to Orange County.

I think the issue (or maybe this is the eternal optimist in me) is not one of metropolitan bias, but geographic ignorance. Distances mean very different things to parts of the country, and the news outlets may simply be trying to give their readers an idea of where this is happening. On a larger scale though, the coverage raises the question of geographic education in the United States. As a former Geography state champion, and partially a product of the British education system, geography means very different things in the rest of the world. In the US, it simply is knowing where a place is, without an sociological or geologic understanding of context.

Unknown said...

I agree with Dan's proposed answer. People in general do not know the basic geography of an area. It is easier to spatially place a disaster when it's in the context of a major urban area.

Ignorance aside I think there is an additional answer. Media outlets need to sell their product. And generally in the age of the Internet that product is measured by links clicked, which generates ad money. In the case of the New York times, describing fires as, "racing," is to the benefit because it sounds exciting, dangerous, and potentially catastrophic. Readers need to click and read the story and see if the New York Times has anything else in that vein.

In that sensationalism the reality of things gets murky. Does the average reader care about the hundreds, if not thousands, who were forced to flee? We give the Syrian refugees far more press time, yet something happens in our own backyard and it gets a few minutes of time and then it's back to disasters in the Middle-east. What has happened with the rebuilding process? What help do the rural residents need? What about stray pets who fled the flames? It appears the answer is no one cares. Because it is now old news. San Francisco isn't in flames and hundreds didn't die. Life in the rural zone is certainly awful right now and it will be for a while, but 99% of the country has already moved on and forgotten.