October 29, 2007

“California Burning” is the Second-biggest Story of 2007

PEJ News Coverage Index October 21 - 26, 2007

Of all the coverage of last week’s California wildfires, one of the more memorable moments occurred when San Diego TV reporter Larry Himmel—wearing goggles and grasping a microphone—reported on the destruction of his own home.

Pointing to a fiery pile of rubble, Himmel told viewers, “This was what is left of my home,” of a quarter century. “This was our garage; the living room was over there, there was a porch right there, the bedrooms…”

“This was a living hell,” he added. “This is what I came home to today.”

By week’s end, the California wildfires took a heavy toll. Estimates include seven dead, more than 2,700 structures destroyed, up to 500,000 acres burned, and hundreds of thousands forced to evacuate.

There were also many elements of a media mega-story. Heroic, exhausted firefighters. Human interest stories of loss and survival. Spectacular, frightening video of the advancing flames. The weather as a key player in determining the course and ferocity of the fires. Reports that arson was responsible for some of the blazes. The mystery as the fires advanced of how far they would go.

But undergirding all that was another angle that drove a good deal of the coverage—the K-word. Was the California disaster an example of government preparedness and skill in facing a major crisis? Or was it another Hurricane Katrina, a costly failure to effectively protect American lives and property? That theme permeated the coverage and helped make the California wildfires that were actually smaller in scale and mortality than those in 2003 a huge story.

A CBS News report on Oct. 23 from San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, which was housing about 15,000 fire evacuees, made the inevitable comparisons between that facility and the New Orleans Superdome during Katrina. But the temporary shelter at Qualcomm seemed infinitely more hospitable than life inside the Superdome.

“During Katrina, New Orleans’ attempt to shelter people in a sports stadium went terribly wrong,” anchor Katie Couric reported. Qualcomm she added “is getting high marks.” Still, that didn’t keep the media from hammering away at the Katrina analogy.

All those angles and the scope of the disaster made “California burning” the second- biggest story of 2007, according to PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index from Oct. 21-26. Last week, coverage of the wildfires filled 38% of the newshole, as measured in our Index. (Only the April 16 Virginia Tech massacre that left 33 dead accounted for more coverage, 51%, in a single week).

What’s more, the fires were the top story in every media sector—newspapers (19%), online (33%), and radio (35%). But coverage was especially heavy, at more than 50% of the airtime, on network TV (53%) and cable TV (51%).

No others subject in last week’s top-10 list came close, or even reached double digits. The presidential campaign registered as the second-biggest story at 9%, followed by events inside Iraq (7%), tensions with Iran (3%) and the Iraq war policy debate at 3%.

The coverage devoted to the California fires also far exceeded any previous 2007 coverage of natural disasters and deadly weather. According to the Index, no similar event ever accounted for more than 8% of the newshole in a given week. Two other disasters involving made-made technology, gained more attention, but still nothing like the wildfires. The Utah mine cave-in in August accounted for 13% of the coverage in one week and the Aug. 1 collapse of the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis was a top story at 25%.

PEJ’s News Coverage Index examines the news agenda of 48 different outlets from five sectors of the media. (See a List of Outlets.) It is designed to provide news consumers, journalists and researchers with hard data about what stories and topics the media are covering, the trajectories of major stories and differences among news platforms. (See Our Methodology.)

Some of last week’s coverage, of course, was devoted to the stories of the firefighters. On CBS’s “Early Show” on Oct. 24, anchor Harry Smith trailed along with Scott McLean, a fire captain in Spring Valley California. An exhausted-looking McLean talked of efforts to contain new blazes that kept breaking out and grimly predicted it would be another full week before the fires were fully contained. Nothing the laconic firefighter said on camera was particularly memorable. But the fatigue in his voice mixed with his determination to battle on was one reason the segment was headlined: “Courage under Fire.”

The human interest angle in the coverage took a number of different forms. In an Oct. 25 “Today” piece on pets put at risk by the fire, NBC’s Lester Holt opened his report by petting a dog at a facility for “therapy animals who deal with special needs kids.” The animals were saved from the flames when their owner put an ad on Craigslist asking, successfully, for volunteers to take them out of harm’s way. One Malibu goat breeder, not so fortunate, lost most of his herd.

On the Fox News Channel’s “Hannity & Colmes,” two newlyweds talked of the last minutes in their new home. They “had about 15 minutes to grab what we could,” recalled Amy Bieri. “[We] left behind a lot of our wedding pictures.”

“I’m just hoping I can find my wedding ring,” added husband Drew, who in his haste to evacuate, said he left the ring on a nightstand that no longer exists.

What separated the story, or gave a public policy rationale that journalists seized on, was the question of government preparedness and the specter of another public sector failure comparable to what happened after Katrina rolled through New Orleans. Much of the coverage emphasized the administration’s determination to avoid just such a comparison.

An October 24 National Public Radio piece on President Bush’s planned trip to California noted that he had already declared seven counties federal disaster areas and dispatched FEMA director David Paulison and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to the scene.

“Mr. Bush was criticized for his administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005,” correspondent David Greene noted with what might be considered understatement. “White House aides say communication between the federal and state and local officials during disasters have improved since then.”

A front-page story in the Oct. 24 Wall Street Journal, which cited critics’ complaints that “local government officials…still haven’t adequately staffed or funded fire departments,” pointed out that the “Bush administration [was] determined to apply lessons learned from its missteps in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.”

And in a story that gave high marks to the federal government, Fox News correspondent Jim Angle knocked down some claims that the war in Iraq had siphoned off needed resources in California.

Angle’s report on Brit Hume’s newscast cited everything from President Bush’s aggressive response to happy evacuees at Qualcomm Stadium to Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein’s declaration that “I don’t think that there’s any blame to be cast on anyone,” as evidence that past mistakes had been corrected.

“The contrast with post-Katrina New Orleans could hardly be more stark,” Angle noted.

That seemed to be the consensus elsewhere as well.

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Note: Due to technical errors, this week's sample does not include some programming from CNN and MSNBC that aired on Wednesday, October 24, and Thursday, October 25. In addition, CNN aired two special programs the evening of Tuesday, October 23, and those shows were not included either.