A fire is more than just a flame

By Phill Brooks
    The tragic fire at Notre Dame has reminded me of conversations with a couple of my colleagues over the years about the difference in covering a fire versus covering a flame. Our discussions provide an interesting perspective to coverage of the "Ride the Ducks" tragedy.


    So much of journalism focuses on the details of we call "breaking news" -- a fire, hurricane, crime or sinking of a boat. But in public-policy journalism, we look for underlying policy issues and special interest motivations.
    "A fire is more than just a flame," is how a dear friend, Wes Pippert, recently described the perspective that we public-policy reporters bring to our coverage.
    He had been a White House correspondent for the United Press International wire service covering a statehouse, Congress, the White House and later the Middle East before becoming a colleague on the MU Journalism School as director of the Washington Reporting Program.
    As we discussed, so often the flame of a "breaking news" event in government and politics actually is an orchestrated event to distract news attention from the real story. More importantly, sometimes a real fire raises deeper issues than just the immediate facts of a political scandal or event.
    That was the topic of a discussion I had in Moscow 15 years ago with another MU Journalism School friend, the late Stuart Loory. He joined our faculty after a distinguished career in journalism as a leading newspaper reporter, CNN's Washington managing editor and then a top CNN news executive.
    Stuart was working with journalism students in Moscow where he had been a reporter and bureau chief. Although he did not use the phrase "a fire is more than just a flame," it reflected the focus in an assignment he gave to his Moscow students.
    At the time, an historic building outside the Kremlin walls burned down. Stuart had his students dig into why the Russian government failed to shave fire protection for such an important site.
    A major issue involved private interests who could gain from destruction of the site to make it available for private, profit-making development. Stuart reflected on the inadequate fire protection of the Bolshoi Theater where his wife had been a ballerina. Shortly later, a six-year renovation of the historic building was undertaken that included fire protection.
    If he were alive, I'm sure Stuart would be asking why the French government allowed Notre Dame to be without adequate fire protection for so many decades. That brings me to last summer's tragedy of "Ride the Ducks" boat that cost so many lives.
    There was immediate coverage to uncover the facts that led to the deaths. What were the weather warnings? Were the passengers wearing life vests? But I wondered about water-safety questions that arose after of absorption the Water Patrol into the Highway Patrol.
    I also pondered that if the legislature can debate safety requirements for private boats like sitting on the railings, what about regulating public use of altered military water craft? The growing emphasis instant news was at the core of my discussions with Wes and Stuart.
    Part of the reason involves the financial pressures on news organizations to reduce staff. Another factor involves the increasing pressure on reporters to blog and tweet throughout the day in an effort to attract a digital audience. That leaves less time and mental attention to pursue the fire behind the single flame.
    As a decades-long broadcast reporter, I confess falling into that trap of adrenaline excitement from a breaking story like the Eric Greitens' scandal without focusing on the more important policy issues. On the positive side, I've seen in recent years growing reporting efforts to dig into the underlying factors of major statehouse issues.
    For example, there have been detailed stories on the influence of special-interest money in the state. The Associated Press has launched an effort to put statehouse issues into a national context.
    I realize the public may be less interested in these longer stories that lack drama. But so often understanding the full context of a fire is more important than the specific details of a single flame.
    EDITOR’S NOTE: Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.

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