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.
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).
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
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
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
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.