California wildfires continue to rage


Wine country in California has been engulfed in flames since Sunday night, leaving at least 17 people dead, hundreds more taken to the hospital with injuries and more than 2,000 buildings affected by the blaze.

The fires were spread in part by strong 50 m.p.h. winds that were present when the fire started. While they have since dissipated, they will likely resume as the week goes on, and the fire remains uncontained, according to officials. Based on the nature of the fire and the lack of control that firefighters have been able to establish, those numbers are sure to rise.

In analyzing the news coverage of the fires as the story develops, I notice two prominent characteristics that are worth discussing. The first is the personalization of the stories that are being written. The fires are the week’s biggest developing story at the moment, but readers are usually unsatisfied with the simple hard read of the facts. In using a softer lede by recounting a personal tale of tragedy, before getting into the colder facts about the fire, readers are naturally drawn into the story.

The New York Times, for example, started its story by introducing the reader to Matt Lenzi, who “hiked through smoke-choked vineyards and waded the Napa River to reach the home his father lived in for 53 years.”

This is a deeply personal story, which brings personal connection and life to an otherwise cold read about fire statistics that are likely to be updated in half an hour. Readers can connect to his experience and are motivated to keep reading. If they do, they’ll meet Maureen Grinnell, Pamela Taylor, James Harder and many more victims, who are able to offer an emotional perspective that makes reading the story a worthwhile endeavor.

The second element of the stories that I noticed is the use of new technologies to supplement the article and take advantage of the full capabilities of media today. The New York Times included drone footage of the fires, to give online readers a sense of the scale and devastation that the fires have caused.

CNN has included video from multiple sources, to allow readers a complex look at the fire from multiple points of view. Combined, these two techniques compel readers to continue reading and give them a complete experience of the events that are unfolding.