bushfires

Devine intervention

Miranda Devine sparked controversy by pre-emptively blaming green policy for the fires in the SMH last week. There was an outcry. I even wrote about it. I started following a fake Miranda Devine on Twitter (there’s also a fake Andrew Bolt) – but I can’t link to them because Twitter is down again.

The same venerated publication has another scribe – who leans more to the left – Elizabeth Farrelly. She fired this verbiage seemingly in the direction of her colleague in her take on events.

“Cut the trees! Burn the undergrowth! Hunt the sharks! Lynch the greens! Reprise, repay, repel. But in truth, to swim fish-filled, murky waters at twilight is to tattoo a big ‘BAIT’ sign on your behind. And to inhabit the bush, especially as climate change takes hold, is to make yourself fuel.

Certainly, we should feel compassion. And certainly, there should be regulations. Quite probably there should be more assiduous back-burning. But to blame green policies – to cull already endangered shark species, to reduce tree cover – is to blame nature for human folly.”

Now all the Herald’s big guns (except Annabel Crabb and Peter Hartcher who both write exclusively about politics) have had their say on the matter.

Black mark on green movement

While the green movement are trying not to jump up and down screaming “I told you so” when it comes to climate change and the fires/floods covering parts of Australia at the moment, and the loony “Christian” fringe is out blaming abortion laws, the right wing of the Australian media is lining up its ducks and preemptively declaring it open season on the green argument.

Arch conservative Herald columnist Miranda Devine – the paper’s attempt at providing “balanced” coverage – has weighed into the debate early. Blaming the green movement for the fires. I’m unsympathetic to anyone trying to advance their ideologies on the basis of tragedy. And giving air to this just “fans that flame” so to speak. Perhaps a poor choice of words…

The Herald ran this story alongside a piece on a resident who became an environmental vandal hero – after illegally clearing trees on his property to create a firebreak.  Perhaps the Fairfax group has decided inflicting “earth hour” upon the whole world wasn’t enough to give their environmental credentials any credibility next to News Ltd’s “One degree” committment. Maybe they’ve decided to throw out the centre left contingency and pitch to the Telegraph’s established right wing core… but here’s some of what Miss Devine had to say (readers from Townsville should note that she’s the columnist who said people who live in the tropics shouldn’t get cyclone aid because of their choice to live in a cyclone zone)… She’s shaping up as the Germaine Greer of the right (funnily enough she’d consider Greer as a nemesis in the true sense of the word).

“It was the power of green ideology over government to oppose attempts to reduce fuel hazards before a megafire erupts, and which prevents landholders from clearing vegetation to protect themselves.

So many people need not have died so horribly. The warnings have been there for a decade. If politicians are intent on whipping up a lynch mob to divert attention from their own culpability, it is not arsonists who should be hanging from lamp-posts but greenies.

Governments appeasing the green beast have ignored numerous state and federal bushfire inquiries over the past decade, almost all of which have recommended increasing the practice of “prescribed burning”. Also known as “hazard reduction”, it is a methodical regime of burning off flammable ground cover in cooler months, in a controlled fashion, so it does not fuel the inevitable summer bushfires.”

Scarily, Devine actually makes a bit of sense regarding what is a stupid green policy. It’s just not the right time to be launching ideologically motivated political attacks.

Disaster reporting

Stuss has a great post today about news coverage of disasters. With particular reference to the current fires and the saturation of “special news editions” on commercial television.

“This week I am again appalled at the news coverage. As far as I’m concerned, it is just not appropriate to show extended footage of any disaster. Regular updates, fine, good even, but not regular as in replace everything you would normally be showing.”

As a journalism graduate working in PR I’ve got some thoughts on the issue. I reckon these are probably worth posting here – even though they’re pretty much verbatim what I posted as a comment on Stuss’s post.

As a “journalist” I’m in two minds on this. Disasters like this are real news – and there are people who want to know every bit of the story – particularly if they have friends or families in affected areas and haven’t been able to make contact. But, sometimes not a lot is happening and there’s a whole lot of repetition – and then there’s the talking to about 10 secondary sources.

Experts in their fields. So you have the eye witnesses, the firefighters, the fire commissioner, the politician, the police and other involved parties having their say… then you have the behavioural psychologists, the weathermen, the university professor, the opinion columnist, etc, all throwing their opinions into the mix.

If you consider the September 11 story – the news coverage started off reporting just the facts. From and objective point – two planes crashed into the World Trade Centre buildings. There were plenty of “objective” updates. The buildings collapsed. The rescue effort. All of these were newsworthy elements and there were lots of primary sources to be talked to.

Then, in the days following the actual moment of impact there was a heap of other stuff thrown into the coverage. Speculation on why the buildings collapsed, interviews with engineers about the tower’s structure, interviews with people who knew about the effect of heat on steel. That sort of thing. Then there was the “why” element – terrorism experts, politicians. Everyone had two cents worth to throw in. Reporting a disaster is like peeling an onion – you can split a story into layers and layers of complexity.

There’s an inverted relationship between time and newsworthy content – unless new things are happening all the time.

Because of ratings pressure and the desire not to be “one upped” if something significant does happen all the networks are simultaneously peeling the onion. They need to keep doing that to keep the coverage rolling.

There should be a dedicated “disaster channel” and each network should donate resources to a pool of talent – and they could all draw stuff out of that pool for nightly bulletins.

As a viewer, I tend to get sick of the special coverage pretty quickly if nothing new is happening. The fact that I keep watching comes from my inner news addict than from any form of compelling content.

Having dedicated event coverage is also good for continuity of viewing. The nature of big stories is that there are lots of new bits happening all the time. I would be very frustrated if my regular programming was constantly interrupted by updates. At that point I think keeping the “special news bulletin” thing running is less disruptive than otherwise.

Extended coverage of disasters can have a demonstrably large effect on children. I did an assignment on that at uni once.

The other problem with the reporting aspect comes when circumstances are blown up to pad out bulletins. Take the current flooding in North Queensland as a case study.

Ingham is underwater. That’s bad for Ingham. But news bulletins around the country have been featuring journalists based in Townsville in their weather updates. Townsville has had some water. Yesterday’s king tide didn’t help things.

But to use images from the small percentage of streets in Townsville with flooding and tar everywhere with the same watery brush is unconscionable reporting and does significant damage to the city’s reputation and its economy. Tourism bookings to Townsville are being canceled all over the place. We’re in contact with Tourism Queensland’s international offices daily because people think Townsville is underwater.

Overstating the case in a disaster is a spur of the moment decision by news producers with pretty big consequences for those on the ground. This is particularly problematic when secondary source experts with no bona fides are thrown in front of a camera to spread their particular brand of hysteria.

Try being the person who has to fix the idea that Townsville will be closed for the next two months due to flooding.

Death by firing squad

More than 100 people are now known to be dead due to these fires in southern Australia. They weren’t all deliberately lit, but some were.

I don’t understand the inner workings of the mind of an arsonist. That’s probably a good thing. I confess, I enjoy fire as much as the next pyromaniac. Scores of plastic soldiers can attest to that. But I do not understand how someone hears an extreme fire danger warning and decides to light a bunch of fires.

Here’s a study of the inner workings of an arsonists mind – and a “profile” of your average arsonist based on FBI cases…
Profile of an Arsonist
1. Have a below average IQ – somewhere between 70 and 90 points, one in four arsonists will fall below 70 points – the level at which people are considered mentally retarded.
2. They will often be “angry”.
3. Half of all arsons are committed by those younger than age 18; the other half is typically in their late 20s.
4.In arson cases involving older people, the motivation is usually for profit.
5. About 90% of arsonists are male.
6. Arsonists are are usually white (in the US).
7. If the arsonist is not angry there’s a fair chance they’re sexually aroused by fires.

Potential “red flags” to identify juvenile arsonists:

  • Children who start playing with matches or fire as early as age 3
  • Children who frequently engage in “daredevil” behavior, especially near fire
  • Children who mix chemicals or engage in “secret” fire settings in which they try different mixtures
  • Those who are noticeably excited while watching fires

Perhaps the media needs to reconsider broadcasting such warnings. There’s pretty much a blanket ban on reporting suicides in Australian news because of the fear of inspiring copycats. I wonder if the psyche of a clearly mentally unfit arsonist requires a similar level of protection. Perhaps a greater level given the harm they’re capable of causing.

There’s anecdotal evidence that arsonists are often members of the volunteer fire brigade – they use their training and knowledge to set the best possible fire, and then get to play around trying to put it out. That’s the mark of a sick mind.

The good news is that the perpetrators will face murder charges if caught.

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