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Lessons Learned From 2003 Helped Media Coverage

Last week, as local media outlets began to critique themselves on how they covered the worst wildfires in the state’s history, it was apparent that the 2003 fires were a primer for those that broke out the week of Oct. 21, and that the recent fires offered up more lessons that could, unfortunately, prove valuable in the future.

The way John Decker, program director at KPBS-FM, described it, reporting on the 2003 Cedar Fire, then the state’s worst, turned out to be on-the-job training for events to come.

Decker candidly said that the local nonprofit NPR affiliate was undermanned and inexperienced when it launched coverage of the 2003 fires.

“The biggest thing we knew was that we had to have more staff available,” he said, referring to the 2007 fires. “What we learned (from the 2003 fires) was that we didn’t have the bodies where we needed them, and those we had were inexperienced.”

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During the week of Oct. 21, KPBS had a crew of 42 , nearly double the number assigned to the 2003 fires. Looking ahead, he said he sees that “the editorial decision-making process” needs improvement.

“Our editorial decision-making was OK, but in the future it needs to be smarter in terms of how we assign people,” he said.

KOGO AM-600 News Director Cliff Albert said he was attending a Sunday morning church service when the station paged him with an alert about the Harris Fire.

“So immediately I knew, having lived through the 2003 fires, how quickly they can spread and I went right to the station and we went wall-to-wall at 1 o’clock,” Albert said.


More Training Required

He said the station hadn’t completed a full analysis of its fire coverage, but that reporters and crews need additional training in finding their way to the county’s more remote areas , the inlets, valleys and mountains, where the fires broke out.

Both Albert and Decker said their stations relied heavily on phone calls from listeners that provided tips on where fires were breaking and spreading than during the earlier fire disaster. That enabled them to get to the action more quickly than depending primarily on communiqu & #233;s from local and state fire departments, as they had in 2003.

Fred D’Ambrosi, news director for the local CBS affiliate, KFMB Channel 8, said he realized following the 2003 fires that field reporters needed the same type of protective outerwear, including jackets, goggles and helmets, that firefighters wear. In addition to providing disaster coverage, one of the biggest challenges the station faced, he said, was “managing people and keeping them safe.”

On the matter of sacrificing regular programming and commercials for wall-to-wall news coverage, Greg Dawson, news director of KNSD, NBC 7/39, echoed the sentiment of other news executives when he said the NBC affiliate considered its main task to be that of providing breaking news in an emergency situation.

“We know when we make the decision that there’s going to be a financial impact, but that is not a consideration at the moment,” he said.


Net Income

Media outlets’ Web pages played a far more important role during the October fires, than in 2003, and they didn’t lose any advertising revenue.

Drew Schlosberg, a spokesman for The San Diego Union-Tribune, said that while the publication increased its main news hole (the amount of space for stories and photos) in the range of 20 percent to 35 percent from Oct. 23-29, it added nine servers to its Internet site, SignOnSanDiego.com.

“We got a zillion calls, as you can imagine, had 10 times the amount of e-mails and hits and page views during this fire than we did in 2003,” he said. “And on one of the days we had 10 million page views, where normally it’s 1 million.” The calls came in response to news reports on SignOn Radio, its Web site radio station.

Many callers were from out of state and were concerned about the safety of their relatives and friends, he said, pointing out that national broadcasts first focused on the Malibu fires to the exclusion of those erupting in San Diego County.


A New Approach

Peter York, publisher of the North County Times, which is circulated in the North County, and The Californian, which is circulated in southwest Riverside County, said two to three reporters were assigned to answer people’s phone calls round the clock for a period during the first week of the firestorm, a new practice.

“We were told that our coverage, especially in the Temecula and Fallbrook area, was really good because nobody else paid much attention to the fires in that area,” he said.

None of the media outlets wanted to discuss the revenues lost as a result of covering the firestorm, and some said they were still tallying figures, but estimates range in the millions of dollars, according to published reports.

As of the morning of Nov. 1, eight of the nine fires that raged in San Diego County were 100 percent contained. The Poomacha Fire, which burned 50,156 acres, was 85 percent contained, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Altogether, the fires ravaged more than 370,000 acres.

In an estimate released Oct. 30, the San Diego Institute for Policy Research LLC, a private, nonprofit research agency, said that 1,382 homes were lost and that the cost of the October wildfires in the county will exceed $2 billion.

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