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Friday, August 28, 2009

What is needed in California wildfire news coverage...more information!

Watching tonight's coverage of the Palos Verde fire and coverage of the Station and Morris fires over the last several days and I am having my usual thoughts about televison fire coverage. We get a little info from the reporters on location, weather, some street info, etc, but as a viewer I want, and in some cases NEED, a lot more information. The silly thing is, this information could be easily gathered and replace the almost information worthless shots (though quite dramatic) of flames reaching into the sky.

What do I want? Here are some pieces of info I would love to see overlaid, or in replacement of, the typical helicopter and ground shots:
  1. Google-style maps showing as much info as possible on perimeters of the fire as well as locations of spot fires
  2. Maps of evacuation routes and centers, real-time traffic on surrounding roads and streets
  3. In every live shot, an overlay map showing location of camera and a cone indicating the field of view of the camera. (video without some sense of direction and view is worthless) As an example, think of the little indicator in Google Street View.
  4. High-angle helicopter shots with overlay maps indicating major streets and landmarks
  5. A dedicated "Fire Channel" (think a very specialized Weather Channel) that doesn't have to cut away for Jimmy Kimbel or The Tonight Show even as the fires continue to burn out of control.The need for fire information doesn't suddenly stop at 11:35pm.
I think this type of information would also help to dispel some the repetitve and increasingly useless chatter of the anchors trying to fill time hour after hour.

How to do it
  • It seems that there are a host of technology tools that could be used to provide some of this info. If reporters carried GPS enabled smart phones, something as relatively simple as Google Latitude could be used to monitor their location in near-realtime. Staff back at the station wouldn't have to ask their location, they could quickly confirm it and then update their maps.
  • Locations of helicopter could also be gathered automatically and then used to orient overlay maps on live video shots.
  • The use of alternative video gathering equipment can make reporters more mobile and more able to cover the story closely. Large microwave vans are difficult to manuveur and often have to seek out locations far from the fire in order to establish a connection back to their station, Microwave is line-of-sight communication and suffers greatly in mountainous terrain. Cell phone coverage can be spotty as well, but in locations live Palos Verdes, converage is probably better than the microwave opportunities.
  • Encourage reporters to "text/twitter/live stream, etc" info back to the station for a live crawl showing the most up-to-date information.
We are still covering fires much like we did in the 70's even though the world, and technology, has changed dramatically over the intervening decades. Instead of showing shot after shot of dramatic flames, let's focus on delivering the information that people need to make better decisions about their homes and their lives.

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At 11:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. The only personal thought I have to offer is placing the appointment (traditional) media alongside and clearly benefitting from such efforts and NOT as the "hub" that holds it all together.

Our friends in the news media are a business and not a public service, and I can't personally see a reason to divest them from their chosen sustainability when the public entities (strongly cooperating with those they are sworn to serve) could offer so much more as the nexus of such plans.

Keep up the great work!

Speaking my personal thoughts,

Brian Humphrey

At 11:34 AM, Blogger Douglas E Welch said...

I agree. I think new media has to be a big part of any new coverage. That said, the mainstream media IS a public service, hence the monitoring of the FCC, etc, regardless of what they might think. They are a business, yes, but they are also a conduit for important public information and they need to remember that. Of course, their lack of focus on that issue is one reason for the tremendous growth in New Media, so maybe I shouldn't complain too loudly. (SMILE)

At 12:24 PM, Blogger Al Pavangkanan said...

If you have an OTA antenna, check out (I think) channel 4.2 Its called News Raw and broadcasts all day.
I think its also online somewhere on knbc.com

At 12:26 PM, Blogger Douglas E Welch said...

I used to watch the News Raw stream on the web site, although I couldn't find it when I went looking a while ago. I think it had great promise, but at the time I was watching it was basically a constantly repeating series of re-packaged stories with occasional live feeds.

At 12:44 PM, Blogger Douglas E Welch said...

Another thought that occurred to me today is that fire coverage should be much more like tornado coverage in the midwest. There are a few very important pieces of information that need to be communicated.

Where is the fire burning? (perimeters, spot fires, etc)
Which direction is it moving?

Accurate information for these two parameters can help people to known where and when to move out, if needed, much like when people facing a tornado know when to seek shelter.

At 11:23 PM, Anonymous sylvia said...

Good ideas - I agree, there's so much more that could be communicated. And I really think it's just "we've always done it this way" mentality than it being expensive.

At 4:31 PM, Blogger Marcotte said...

Great post. I've found the local news broadcasts almost completely worthless. Some of their websites have been slightly better. The best up to date info (for the Station Fire) I've found is at http://inciweb.org/incident/1856/ . Consequently, I've turned to Twitter and been pointed to a variety of web sources (both old and new media) with pertinent and timely information.

Regarding the broadcast news as a business and not a public service, I will echo Douglas Welch. They ARE a public service. They were originally (and still are, through the renewals) given the right to broadcast at those frequencies by the government in part for the agreement to broadcast news and participate in the Emergency Broadcast System, among other things.


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