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After Wildfire Tragedy, Talk of Global Warming's Contribution Is a Delicate Matter

Experts say it isn't whether media outlets should link extreme weather tragedies like the Yarnell blaze to global warming, but when.

Jul 18, 2013
Yarnell Hill wildfire

Scientists agree that climate change was very likely one of the underlying triggers for the Yarnell Hill wildfire in Arizona that killed 19 firefighters on June 30. But while some of the nation's media have acknowledged global warming's link to the tragedy, others have ignored it entirely. 

The discrepancy highlights an ethical question that is expected to increasingly confront publications and TV networks as climate-related calamities are set to rise: Amid loss of life in weather disasters, when is it appropriate to speak of climate change? 

"This is a question journalists need to answer sooner rather than later," said Hunter Cutting, a climate communications expert for the non-profit group Climate Nexus. "Extreme weather is only going to get worse." 

But the answer, according to experts, isn't straightforward. 

The dilemma, they say, is not unlike the one journalists face after school shootings, when they must decide when—or whether—to link the incident to gun control. Both issues are political lightning rods for many Americans. And in the wake of both types of tragedies, journalists struggle to find a balance between delving into controversial debate and being sensitive to the affected communities. 

Jane Webber, author of the American Counseling Association Foundation's guide to dealing with terrorism, trauma and tragedies, said local news outlets serving affected populations should pause before naming causes and culprits in natural disasters. 

"You have to give people time to mourn and recover from the shock of the loss" before mentioning climate change, said Webber, who is a counseling expert at New Jersey City University. "The sorrow is so enormous when a town has lost a generation of people like they have in Yarnell. Chances are those affected communities won't be open to hearing that information immediately."

But Webber said journalists have a "duty and responsibility" to link the growing number of weather disasters to man-made climate change when the science is clear, because such stories raise awareness of the need for policy action that could help prevent future tragedies. That role usually falls first to the national media—whose audiences usually aren't concentrated near the tragedy or as stricken with shock and grief—while the local media can follow a few days later, she and others said. 

That is partially what happened in the wake of the Yarnell disaster. 

Just one day after the firefighters lost their lives, The New York Times published a story linking the 8,000-acre fire to climate change. That same day, the CBS Evening News dedicated nearly three minutes of a 20-minute show to discuss how global warming has worsened wildfires in the American West in recent years. The Associated Press, PBS, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times followed a few days later with similar reports. 

Drex Heikes, the environment editor at the Los Angeles Times, said within days of the tragedy, he asked Julie Cart—winner of a 2009 Pulitzer Prize for a series that explored the increase and costs of wildfires—to write the story

"If space and [Cart's] time weren't an issue, we would have published immediately," said Heikes. "The story provided context ... We want to tell readers the causes of these increasingly disastrous fires in the West." 

However, most state and local newspapers and broadcast stations in Arizona still have not addressed the link, nearly three weeks after the tragedy. 

The Arizona Republic, the state's largest daily newspaper based 70 miles south of Yarnell in Phoenix and owned by Gannet Co., the nation's largest newspaper publisher, has made one brief mention of the influence of climate change on wildfires since the firefighters lost their lives. It was buried in an opinion piece by the newspaper's editorial board on how Congress needs to appoint more funds for firefighting and to maintain forests. 

While the paper wrote several articles last year on the link between wildfires and global warming, it hasn't mentioned climate change in any of its non-editorial fire coverage this year, despite tens of thousands of acres burning across the state.   

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