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Where There's Smoke 

An old joke in journalism goes this way: A cub reporter comes back from a city council meeting and tells her editor there was no story. “What happened?” the editor asks. “It was canceled,” the reporter says. “City Hall burned down.”

How big a newspaper plays a story should depend on how important a story it is and whether it has a local angle. When a story breaks you play it big. Each day after you play it smaller unless something big and new develops. After the third day you brief continuing developments until something big or final happens. On the other hand, you string out a story when people are in danger.

But pick up the Times-Standard and the Eureka Reporter and the rule is flipped. Both papers play crime stories big each day -- from arrest to jury conviction -- while they underplay a state of emergency.

In July, the Times-Standard alone published 12 stories on the murder trial of Thomas Dowdy, Jr. The Reporter covered it as thoroughly. If, after a dozen stories, you ask who Dowdy is, that’s proof that murder trials aren’t relevant to many readers. They covered equally big the trial of former Blue Lake Police Chief Dave Gundersen: The Eureka Reporter ran at least nine stories in July on the trial, not counting stories on what’s happening in Blue Lake. While Gundersen is a big story, the papers published so many stories on it this past year that they could confine new daily developments to short updates unless something crazy or final happens. When the jury comes in with a verdict, let me know.

Meanwhile, we get only drips and drabs of what is going on in nearby parts of this region that are engulfed in smoke and flames. Last year, when fires raged across Southern California, a group of my students on the Lumberjack newspaper cut classes, piled into a car and drove 15 hours because they felt they just had to cover the story first hand. The funny thing is that some of those students who took off for the fires down south are now over at the Eureka Reporter. We have a big fire story going on right now in our own backyard, only they aren’t covering it with the same passion and intensity. And neither is the Times-Standard.

I can’t help but wonder if it’s a coincidence that the courthouse is a few blocks from both the Times-Standard and Eureka Reporter offices, and the fires are a good hour or more away.

That’s not to say that the papers have ignored the fires. A host of reporters have written stories on them and some of them have been gone out to talk to people first hand. But these stories just scraped the surface. You can tell that most were done over the phone and rely too much on public spokespeople. The problem is that no one reporter has been assigned to cover the fires, in the same way that one reporter is assigned to cover a trial. Each time a reporter covers the fires for the first time the story will come out superficial; the reporter must bone up on the different fires raging, the numbers of people involved, the acreage that’s contained, etc. It frustrates me as a reader because some of the stories start to address deeper issues but then drop them, as the reporter moves on to the next installment of Gundersen or Palco or a government meeting or community festival.

Consider that on July 9, Thadeus Greenson of the T-S reported that the North Coast Air Quality Management District advised old and young people to try to stay indoors and use an air conditioner on the “recalculate setting,” and people who have trouble breathing or have symptoms of lung or heart disease should contact their health care providers. But many people who live way out in the rural areas don’t have a health care provider or air conditioner. We aren’t talking about a few days of indoors. We’re talking about weeks and weeks. This is the summer when children should be outside swimming, running and playing. School’s out. What’s it like for these kids to be cooped up so long? How many kids and old people are out there? Is anyone looking out for our grandmas and grandkids?

On July 23, the T-S’s John Driscoll reported that the Trinity County Sheriff's Department issued mandatory evacuation notices for the Hidden Valley area off State Route 36 in Southern Trinity County near Mad River. Who were the people evacuated, how many went or stayed put, and where the heck did these people go?

On July 29, John Osborn of the Eureka Reporter went out to Hoopa and tried to address some of the health issues. He noted that the community had been “under siege” from smoke for five weeks and that the smoke at times had reached a “hazardous” level. Hundreds of people had sought medical treatment for smoke related problems. He raised the concern that the smoke would continue through the fire season, which lasts through October. So what are the long-term health effects on children and old people and why are these people being left out there?

We saw during Hurricane Katrina how even with unwavering press attention the national and state governments could abandon people in need. What do you think the government will do when the press treats a problem as less of an emergency?

Meanwhile, how much will these fires ultimately cost, and come the rains, will the federal, state and national governments all start passing the buck and leave the people in Humboldt and Trinity counties to deal with the long term damage themselves? These are the questions I wish someone would focus on.

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About The Author

Marcy Burstiner

Bio:
Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. If there's something about the media that confuses you, e-mail her at mib3@humboldt.edu.

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