Tweeting a Wildfire

Social media in an emergency, and what it means for the press

Around ten in the morning this past Labor Day, the sky above Boulder, Colorado turned a dusty orange. A fire had sprung up in nearby Fourmile Canyon, and was spreading. Fast. Black smoke billowed up, visible for miles. Since it was a holiday, many Boulder residents were out of town. Likewise, government offices and news outlets were either closed or incredibly short-staffed, causing an understandable but dangerous lapse in communication and emergency response.

At first, the websites of local news outlets like the Boulder Daily Camera, The Denver Post, and Denver’s didn’t have any information. As a result, the town saw the smoke and blaze out their windows before they knew exactly what it was, where it was, or how quickly it was spreading. So many people there did what they’d been conditioned to do when they need answers fast; call friends, blast something on Facebook, or click around on Twitter until they make a connection.

As the fire spread throughout the following week, residents turned increasingly to these social media outlets for information, photos and maps. Local newsrooms struggled to keep up with the flow of unconfirmed reports and rumors, and delayed reporting those that they could not verify; some readers weren’t satisfied with their performance. After the smoke cleared, those who covered the fire, both the professional journalists and those trading information on social media sites from home, have asked who better served the community’s needs during this fast-changing emergency, and what they can both learn for next time. While social media cheerleaders see Twitter and other tools as essential for keeping up with the news cycle, more traditional news outlets maintain that they did the right thing. Editors at the Daily Camera and the Post both said that even if they had had more staff on this story, they would not necessarily have dedicated the extra manpower to watching or reacting to Twitter reports.

Probably the most prolific social media user in the first few days of the fire was Sandra Fish, an instructor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Colorado. When she saw smoke, she tuned in to the Boulder County police scanner, which is broadcast online to the public. Fish was used to listening to scanners from her time as a full-time journalist—she wrote for the Daily Camera and the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News, among other papers—and she also teaches her students to use Twitter to take notes during a breaking news story. She instinctively started tweeting what she overheard on the scanner about the fire: information about its location and size, and evacuation instructions from the authorities.

Some tweets had specific information, some were educated guesses based on what she could make out. Some were just quotes without context. Here are three samples of the hundreds she put out that day, one every few minutes:

scanner: hearing explosions. “unless we get some eyes in the sky, we’re really throwing dirt at this thing.” #Boulderfire
Mon Sep 6 17:40:36 2010

scanner: “we’ve definitely got an hour or so before it gets really bad.” sounds like someone near Sunshine? #Boulderfire
6:00 PM Sep 6th

scanner: fire running parallel to Gold Hill and Sunshine Road. “Everybody west of Gold Hill should be evacuated.” #Boulderfire
6:38 PM Sep 6th

Fish also re-tweeted a lot of information from the authorities, who were themselves using Twitter and Facebook to get information out to residents. (The more traditional “Reverse 911” system that autodials home phones with emergency alerts failed, in many instances.)

Meanwhile, more and more people joined in and traded tips: everything from offering a place to stay or a free meal to those who had been evacuated, to passing along information about how people could help—things like ‘please don’t come bring cookies to the firefighters because they are busy’. A lot of people also took advantage of Twitpic to post photos of the blaze from where they stood.

After a few false starts, “#boulderfire” was the tag soon adopted by everyone trading information about the fire online. A whole ecosystem of information developed, quickly and organically. In one especially impressive feat of crowdsourcing, by 1 p.m. that day, graduate student Amanda Pingel had put together a collaborative Google map of the areas affected by the fire, embedded with geo-specific alerts and residents’ photos.

There is no way to know for sure exactly how many people evacuated from their homes as a result of seeing an alert on Twitter or Facebook, as opposed to another mode of communication. But social media certainly had a wide reach. By social media analyst Tery Spataro’s account, the Twitter tag “#boulderfire” was seen by 985,000 people and was used by 688 Twitter users within the first five days of the fire.

Bruce Barcott, a freelance journalist who was following the story as it broke (and who has written for CJR), was one of the readers who grew frustrated and gave up on traditional media as a source of breaking news. “The speed with which the fire was moving, was such that people really needed minute-by-minute updates,” said Barcott. “And I essentially stopped looking at The Denver Post.” He added that this was the first news event he found himself following almost exclusively on Twitter and Facebook.

Fish sees the Fourmile Fire as a case in point for why traditional media in the area need to adjust their attitudes toward social media. She doesn’t think that shrinking newsrooms are an adequate excuse for their lack of speed and thoroughness in covering a story like this one, either.

“It’s partly a matter of being understaffed, but it’s also that the traditional [media] culture sees social media as something separate,” Fish said when she spoke to CJR after the fire had been contained, about a week after it began. “There are a lot of people who really get it. But then there are a lot of people who think, ‘This is just more work for me.’”

Tom Yulsman, co-director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, was another active contributor to the #boulderfire Twitter stream. He agreed with his colleague that the wildfire should serve as a lesson to traditional media about the value of tools like Twitter, especially in an emergency situation. If news sites don’t pay attention, he argued, it will have a negative impact on both the safety of their readers and on its online traffic.

“Emergencies are fast-moving; information needs to get out as quickly as possible because lives are on the line,” Yulsman said. “The real societal need is speed… I think if they don’t take this seriously and have a plan for how they will be involved when an event like this happens, then everybody’s going to bypass them,” Yulsman said. “And that’s not good for the community, because they have resources, and they have things that they can bring to bear that can be useful.”

For instance, he added, a news site like the Daily Camera or The Denver Post could have someone in the newsroom assigned to participate in the Twitter conversation, post the information on the paper’s website, and in some way facilitate the conversation. If she had been running a newsroom in Boulder or Denver, Fish said, she would have put someone—even an intern—next to the scanner and had them do what she was doing at home. She said she also would have had someone live-tweeting the county’s emergency news conferences, rather than just writing articles of them after the fact.

To be fair, the Daily Camera did embed Pingel’s Google map in its site within a day or two, but it didn’t create an interactive feature of its own. And The Denver Post did have someone monitoring the #boulderfire Twitter stream in its newsroom—that job went to social media editor Daniel Petty—but he posted and re-posted much more sparingly than Fish, Yulsman and others.

But if Fish and Yulsman speak to a fundamental difference in attitude toward social media between themselves and their Daily Camera and Denver Post counterparts, they’re absolutely right.

When asked what she thought about tweeting scanner traffic and whether her newsroom should participate, Dana Coffield, city editor at the Post, was adamant. “No. We would never do that,” she said. “Scanner traffic is notoriously inaccurate. We were just really cautious about that.”

In the Post newsroom, as in many newsrooms, reporters do listen to the scanners, Coffield said, but they only use it as the starting point for a story that needs to be reported by someone on the ground. In an emergency situation like a wildfire, it’s even more important for them “to be the filter and the vetter,” she said, precisely because there were so many rumors and contradictory reports circulating. For instance, Coffield said, she saw a lot of confusion in online conversations about whether or not the University of Colorado should evacuate, but she knew from the authorities that the fire was not actually in danger of reaching the campus at all.

“There was a lot of panic, it was a really scary situation,” Coffield said. “Our job at the newspaper is to help people have enough information that they can be less scared, and make informed decisions that keep them from being in danger.”

Daniel Petty, who became the Post’s first social media editor in April, agreed with Coffield’s policy. He said that he saw Twitter as an incredibly valuable source of information, but only as a starting point for reporting. He added that no newspaper could possibly be as fast in putting out information as Twitter users are, but that that that isn’t a newspaper’s role. “Twitter is a raw stream of information,” he said. “Our job is then to be tapped into these networks, to use the power of the community and crowdsource that information, and then go check it out…. Our job is to put things in context.”

So Petty doesn’t, as a general rule, re-tweet anything unless it’s been confirmed, and he doesn’t recommend that Post reporters incorporate unconfirmed tweets into their articles, either in print or online. “We have so many followers and our audience is so wide, to put something out that’s potentially not accurate, would be really irresponsible,” he said.

Petty and Coffield both said, when pressed, that they might worry about potentially losing online audience if their reporting was not fast enough, but that the alternative was not worth the risk. They do want the Post to be the place where people go first for information, but they want it to be right.

“All we have is our credibility,” Coffield said. “If we put out inaccurate information, how do we un-ring the bell? There’s no correction file for a Twitter feed.”

Petty added that if they lost some audience because their reporting wasn’t as fast as Twitter, they may have gained some others, as he tweeted links to Post stories online throughout the week. (For further reading: Petty wrote an article for the Post about the use of social media during the fire, which can be found here, and he and Sandra Fish also debated this topic on Twitter – read their back-and-forth here.)

The Daily Camera, for its part, was even more short-staffed than the Post during the fire, and did not have anyone specifically reading every tweet, said editor Kevin Kaufman. But in a kind of compromise, the Camera did host a Twitter deck on its home page, an aggregator displaying a feed from the #boulderfire tag.

Kaufman, like Petty, said he thought that his paper’s limited participation in the Twitter conversation drove audience to his site. “I think Twitter users understand that they’re just getting little bursts of information, and if they want more, they’re going to have to go elsewhere,” Kaufman said. “So I think it increased our traffic if anything.” He added in a follow-up email that most of the tweets from residents in the #boulderfire stream that week during the fire were “headlines from and links to the work of journalists in the mainstream media, the Camera being among the most referenced.”

Yulsman also acknowledged the lingering sway of traditional sources of information. Not everyone in Colorado is on Twitter, after all. Case in point: Yulsman wrote a post on his personal blog and linked to some satellite photos of the area affected by the fire. He said when he tweeted the link and put it on Facebook, the hits on that page went up from a daily average of about 250 to more than 2,000. Then someone at the local news television station, 9 News, saw it and linked to it from; over the next three days, Yulsman’s blog post had 20,000 page views.* So social media promotion certainly gave his blog a boost, but in the end, what really drove traffic was still mainstream media.

It’s interesting that the Fourmile Fire—a case study of sorts in the changing ways media reports on fast-breaking news—has been playing out at the same time as the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Colorado at Boulder undergoes a kind of existential crisis. Reports have come out in the past few weeks that the school is considering closing its journalism program in order to facilitate a massive restructuring and modernization.

The politics of academia have no doubt inspired a healthy debate between the old guard and the new, highlighting a fundamental difference in philosophy between the ink-stained and the digitized. Far from bringing those two sides to a consensus, though, the occasion of the Fourmile Canyon Fire seems to have reinforced the divide. The most vocal social media proponents see their crowdsourcing efforts as a wake-up call for traditional media. But those mainstream media outlets are holding their ground: not because their reporters are already overworked, but because of their dedication to accuracy and context. They maintain that the risks to their credibility and to their readers’ well-being far outweigh the risk of diminishing their traffic, and their relevance, online.

*[Update: this paragraph previously misstated the number of page views Yulsman’s blog post got after he promoted it via social media. It has since been corrected.]

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner