Fire Reports and the Daily Press
There is an unfortunate tendency among the reporters for the daily press to exaggerate the accounts of fires especially where these are of large extent. Naturally the average reporter wishes to make as striking a story as possible from his report, and the temptation is great to magnify the extent of the blaze and the results which follow. The public is looking for excitement and it is the place of the daily newspaper to furnish it. However, this is no excuse for the grossly exaggerated accounts of fires which have appeared in many of the recent issues of the daily press. These accounts, besides giving an entirely wrong impression, are unfair to the fire-fighters who devote their lives to the protection of the citizens.
A particularly flagrant case of this exaggeration occurred in the accounts in practically all of the papers of the two large fires in Jersey City which followed so closely on one another a fortnight ago. In referring to these fires Fire Chief Roger Boyle, of Jersey City, called the attention of a representative of FIRE AND WATER ENGINEERING to the many discrepancies occurring in these accounts. In the first place, it was asserted that the fire department suffered from lack of water pressure, and that in some instances streams from the hydrants did not reach the first story. As a matter of fact, according to Chief Boyle, there was no trouble with the water pressure and no direct hydrant streams were employed, all of those used in fighting the fire being engine streams. Another statement was that dynamite was used in fighting the fire. This report, no doubt, originated from the fact that there were numerous explosions from the saltpetre works during the early part of the blaze. No dynamite or other explosives were used.
The third, and perhaps the most serious exaggeration, was in connection with the losses in these fires which nearly all of the papers gave as ranging from one to two million dollars. The actual losses, according to Chief Boyle were, in the first fire about $500,000, and in the second around $300,000.
One of the large New York papers, in describing the Jersey City fire told how Chief Boyle, “with tears rolling down his cheeks” pushed his way through the burning debris to where the New York fireboats were at work to thank Deputy Chief Worth for his help in stopping the fire. Can anyone who knows Chief Boyle picture him bothering about tears when there’s work to be done?
As an example of exaggeration in smaller fires the recent case of that in a building situated at Nos. 21 and 23 Ann Street, New York City, may be cited. This fire was played up by the reporters in a very sensational manner. Referring to it, Chief Kenlon wrote to FIRE AND WATER ENGINEERING: “The press reports of this fire were grossly exaggerated. There was nothing unusual about the fire, except the unfortunate loss of life of a woman and two children, who were burned to death.”
Newspapers will go into a lot of hysterical shouting because of the hasty, untrained judgment of a young reporter who too often is apt to size up the extent of a fire by the volume of smoke he sees. In his haste to get a beat for his paper he will swallow hook and sinker the bewildered and muddled version of an excited bystander with the resultant story that usually shocks the sensibilities of those who know anything about the game of fire-fighting.
To make possible an intelligent presentation of fire news, it would be a good plan for the chief to get all local newspaper reporters together from time to time and not only set them straight on discrepancies in the news, but give them a clear understanding of how and why things are done at a fire.
That the newspapers are only too glad to cooperate in measures that make for accuracy was evidenced in New York not long ago when this idea was tried out.
At a gathering arranged by Honorary Deputy Chief Robt. H. Mainzer, a loyal friend of the fire department, more than sixty newspaper men, representing all of the papers, were on hand to get pointers and enlightenment from Chief Kenlon on how to get their fire news straight.