The materials provided in this section of the website are one means of connecting students with the management of public lands and helping them develop skills in issue analysis and problem solving. These materials are designed to supplement your existing curriculum and lesson plans. You are encouraged to regionalize your materials to help students understand that fire is an issue in their own backyards.
Lessons: Reporting the Blazes
Students will learn about sources of public information and how opinions are formed. Discuss reporting styles and identify words that may influence the readers'/viewers' opinions about forest fires. Students rewrite descriptions of a fire so the reports are less negative about the effects of fire.
Students will refine interviewing and researching skills.
Who: Groups of two students.
Estimated Time: One hour.
Subjects: Language Arts, Science
The fires that burned in Yellowstone National Park and throughout the western United States in 1988 brought fire policies of public land managing agencies under close scrutiny. The fires were widely publicized in all forms of media. Consequently, media reports played an important role in forming public opinion about the fires and about how agencies responded to the fires.
In a highly tense situation such as the burning of Yellowstone National Park, a national icon, public concern and emotion increase. Reporters, working in the dramatic setting of an ongoing blaze, collect information from fire-weary officials. Many of the statements made and stories reported reflect the emotion and drama of the moment. Emotion combined with the intensity of the flames and smoke insures a very sensational story.
While the public does have a right to know about emotional, newsworthy events such as fires, the media has the responsibility to report the event accurately. Too often, news reports fail to include the real story of wildland fire, the fire history or recovery rates for different ecological communities (the amount of time required for a plant or animal community to reestablish following a fire).
Much of the omission of ecological science components from media reports is not intentional. The nature of the burning landscape appears very sensational, affecting our emotions. Thus, we focus less on the scientific aspects of the fire and more on the emotion.
Usually ecologists and natural resource managers cannot begin to address the impact of a fire until after the blaze is extinguished. Natural resource managers evaluate if they and the media over- sensationalized the fire and if either provided incorrect or too little scientific data about fire ecology to the public. Communicating to the public what is happening, why it is happening and what potential long-range consequences exist is the manager’s goal.
In reviewing the Yellowstone fires of 1988 it is clear that although the fire was spectacular and did damage structures, some of the information provided and some of the information reported was incorrect and/or sensationalized. Conrad Smith explains the reporting of the 1988 Yellowstone fires in the article included in this section.
Reporting the Blazes
Review the background information and Conrad Smith’s article with the class. Have the students read the descriptions of a wildland fire in the boxes below. How do the descriptions make the reader feel about fire? Are there words that paint a negative or destructive picture of wildland fire? Are all the effects of a fire mentioned or just the negative effects?
Divide the class into teams of two students. Ask the students to rewrite the descriptions listed on page 5 using words that describe wildland fire as an ecological force instead of a force of devastation.
Discuss particular words that may help make the story seem like a catastrophe. Have your students replace those words with ones that are more factual and descriptive instead of sensationalized. Include a list of words that are more dramatic and another list of more factual words that may be substituted for them. Feel free to alter or expand the list to fit with your expectations and your students' skills.
Discuss the differences between the students' fire descriptions and the ones given. Which ones were more exciting? Explain how audience ratings are important to news programs and to print media such as newspapers and magazines. Discuss why television networks and print media publishers may decide to use sensationalized reporting techniques to attract more viewers or readers. Discuss how using more sensational words and omitting certain characteristics of wildland fire can lead people to view fire only as a life threatening force.
Explain why it is important for each person to review all sides of an issue or story before forming an opinion about the situation. Question 3 on the quiz requires the teacher to set a scenario for the students and review terms.
Words that Sensationalize
- Blackened Moonscape
- Burned vegetation
- Removed vegetation
- Burned forest allows a different type of vegetation, such as grasses, to grow
Some Negative Aspects of Fire
- Kills some wildlife
- Destroys certain plants
- Changes views or vistas
- May destroy property, such as fences, homes or other structures
Some Positive Aspects of Fire
- Lessens fuel loads
- Opens up new habitat for wildlife
- Opens up new areas for different types of plants
- Can rid areas of harmful insects
Media Coverage of the 1988 Yellowstone Fires
The Yellowstone wildfires became a 1988 media event, especially in early September as flames approached the Old Faithful geyser and two tourist towns northeast of the park. On 29 different nights, network news viewers saw television stories about monster wildfires, destroyed forests, beleaguered tourists, suffering merchants, brave firefighters, inept public officials, flawed fire policy and occasionally about the fiery rebirth of nature. Newspaper stories had more details and usually less hype, but were written in the same spirit.
There were some surprising errors. An August 30 ABC television story contained an interview with a man identified as “Stanley Mott, Director, National Park Service.” He appears to be a tourist*. A September 22 New York Times story stated categorically it is Park Service policy never to suppress natural fires, and that all fires are suppressed in national forests**. Among 112 newspaper and news magazine stories about the fires for which I contacted named sources, nine percent of those sources said they were misidentified. Ten percent said their names were misspelled. Sources quoted by the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and USA Today said comments attributed to them were fabricated. According to one source, a September 8 Chicago Tribune story contained more errors than facts.
Other studies of reporting accuracy have found similar kinds of errors occurring with similar frequency. Journalists correctly argue that mistakes will happen under deadline pressure, especially in the chaos that surrounds any kind of natural catastrophe. The 1988 wildfires were largely inaccessible to reporters, and it was difficult even for experts to obtain accurate figures about the fires' effects. Reporters had difficulty keeping track of whether specific fires were caused by lightning or people, and had difficulty keeping track of whether individual fires had started inside or outside of Park Service jurisdiction. Some even had trouble understanding that the Park Service and Forest Service are separate agencies.
Reporters accustomed to urban structure fires that are extinguished in hours may have had difficulty understanding the inability of authorities to suppress wildfires with equal speed. Local residents who believed all fires could easily have been extinguished if only there had been more bulldozed firebreaks often succeeded in catching reporter’s attention. Never mind that wind-borne embers sometimes started spot fires a thousand bulldozer-widths away.
Many Americans were left with the cumulative impression that Yellowstone Park burned down in 1988, and that National Park Service wildfire policy was the reason. This perception persists in spite of the fact that the largest fire was fought from inception, and in spite of the fact that several of the fires started outside the park’s jurisdiction where park fire policy did not apply. It persists despite the fact that the fires often burned only the forest floor, leaving many trees untouched. How did this misperception occur?
The literature on science reporting, environmental reporting and disaster reporting indicates that news stories in these contexts usually focus on discrete events rather than interpretation of those events. Stories about delays in construction of the Tellico Dam in Tennessee, for example, focused on the endangered snail darter fish rather than on the related environmental issues. Most reporters are generalists, and natural catastrophe stories are covered in standard ways. There is an event (wildfires), victims (local residents) and cause (government policy). It didn't help that our culture interprets fire as the menacing kind of phenomenon that destroys urban dwellings and chases Bambi from the forest. And it didn't help that the behavior of the 1988 fires confounded experts with decades of experience predicting wildfire behavior. The belief early in August that the fires were under control made their unexpected September runs even more newsworthy.
Just about everyone who ordinarily interprets these kinds of events was caught off guard. Weather predictions based on a century of records were incorrect. Scientifically based predictions about what would burn were incorrect. The public belief that wildfires can be suppressed was incorrect. The normal context for reasoned interpretation simply evaporated under the collapse of so many culturally accepted values. The fires may not have been as ominous and menacing as press accounts implied, but they were impressive. They damaged few structures, but caught the public imagination because of Yellowstone’s symbolic value as a national icon.
For more Americans, the media have already interpreted the 1988 Yellowstone wildfires. If journalism is fiction, the fires were a great story. The challenge facing park interpreters is to put the story into an environmental context, and to help the public understand that Yellowstone did not burn down in 1988. It may be possible, one visitor at a time, to undo the inaccurate impressions about what happened in 1988.
—Conrad Smith, Assistant Professor of Journalism,
The Ohio State University
*The man interviewed was William Mott.
**NPS/USFS permits fires to burn under prescribed situations.
Ask your students to watch any television news story and write down
- words that they would use if they were the newscaster and
- sensationalized words that they would not use.
Ask your students to make up a newspaper or magazine article about a wildland fire. Student-drawn pictures could accompany the articles. Have students share their articles and pictures with the class and discuss the accuracy/sensationalism of each report.
Ask students to help you create a bulletin board illustrating the positive and negative effects of fire.
Show video tapes of television network news reports about wildland fires. Examine the different reporting styles and the topics examined in the reports. Discuss with the class any similarities and/or differences they see among the different presentations of fire stories.
Fire History: The chronological record of the occurrence of fire in an ecosystem.
Sensationalized: The process used in oral or written communication to heighten the listeners or readers excitement about the message being given; the term connotes overstatement.