Fire, Community, and Media

On Saturday night eleven fires were set in my old neighborhood of Northampton, Massachusetts. Eight homes were burned and three cars destroyed. Two people died. I am away for the holidays and have been following these terrible events from afar, touching base with friends when possible.

As the story unfolds I find myself triangulating my grief and empathy for those affected in street names that are so familiar, streets that I walked a thousand times. Many of the houses that burned were daily landmarks where I watched the seasons play out in people’s gardens.

Not being in the area, I’ve been getting all my news about the fires online. Like many of my friends I found out about all of this through Facebook and Twitter, not through any established local news source.

Within hours of the fires there was a Facebook group started, “Friends of Northampton Arson Victims” – just two days later it boasts over 2,000 people and an active discussion going. On Facebook friends, victims, strangers, and neighbors past and present connected and began organizing community meetings, donations, a benefit event, and were sharing information on how to keep your house safe.

Not long after the Facebook group emerged a Twitter account was created. The Twitter account, @01060Support described itself as “People of Northampton, MA offering support and information to each other.”

On it’s face, none of this is entirely remarkable. Twitter and Facebook excel in these sorts of situations. However, what I was surprised to find was how much I came to rely on social media in the days after the fires, and how little I relied on legacy media outlets. One of the first “in-depth” stories to emerge on the local news was a piece looking at the community’s response to the fires. It noted how the community was “on-edge” and how “scared” local residents were.

As soon as the report was posted to the TV station’s website one of the local residents quoted in the piece took to the Facebook group to clarify his remarks:

“I was interviewed by 22news today and believe that my real feelings were not expressed. By no means do I feel scared or think anyone in my neighborhood is scared. Personally I feel this experience has raised the consciousness of my community to a new level, and I’m proud to be a part of that. Please don’t let the media tell you that Noho is scared when we are REALLY just united.”

As other local and national media reported on the fire, more and more people joined the conversation on Facebook. Before long, in addition to the advice, support and organizing happening online, there was a healthy dose of media criticism. Local people critiqued the sensationalism with which the mainstream media was covering the fires, pointed out inaccuracies in the news coverage, and voiced their frustration about the lack of details or new information in the reports.

While the mainstream media spun its wheels, focusing more time on stringing together sensational slide shows of images from the burning houses than on doing the kind of investigative reporting the community was looking for, people on Facebook continued to:

  • Share information – posting articles on how to talk to children about traumatic events, how to spot arson, signs of post-traumatic stress, and more
  • Support each other – people who couldn’t sleep talked about their concerns, offers of cloths, cell phones, money and more poured in, victims connected with family and neighbors, former residents from out of state found old friends
  • Discuss – people debated the press conference, how the town was responding, the $5,000 reward
  • Organize – in addition to community meetings and benefit events, people began discussing what it would take to institute a community alert system via text message.

Another person started a Google map documenting the locations of each of the fires. Others weighed in, adding past acts of arson to the map, creating a geographical narrative of arson that has plagued the city for quite some time. The map included links to past news stories and audio of first responders calling in the fires. This was started long before any of the major media outlets had their maps posted. There was a fairly good history of these fires in the local paper yesterday (the longstanding local paper has done a better job than most other mainstream outlets in covering the fires).

As all of this info was compiled social media began presenting the news and updates as well as context and history of these fires in much fuller detail than any local news outlet. At first I was checking local news outlets as much as social media, but I have almost stopped looking at the TV station websites and local newspapers. I checked in with Facebook and Twitter regularly and joined the conversation there, connecting and helping in whatever way I could.

This is another way social media excels in these sorts of situations. These are deeply human, personal and emotional events. On Facebook and Twitter people bring deep knowledge and understanding of the local community, and show incredible empathy and support. Facts and emotions are woven together in an honest and genuine way that helps us understand the events, each other, and ourselves better.

In comparison, the news reports, with their overwrought professionalism, too often feel like cold stenography. Instead of inspiring trust, this tone actually just makes the news reports seems distant and disconnected. A few local bloggers especially those affiliated with the alt-weekly in the area, have been striking a good balance, offering their reflections and helping consolidate info in one place.

To be clear, social media and mainstream news media have different roles to play, and I am not suggesting that news organizations should try to mimic the social media. As one friend of mine noted, “To me, the news should be following the crime investigation, exposing information, doing deep reporting.” Communities are desperate for critical news and information as well as empathy and support. These things can work hand in hand. However, in this case, the vibrant response on social media has been a stark contrast to much of the lazy, inaccurate and sensational reporting happening in the press – especially on TV news.

I have been so moved by the community response to this event, and how local community has used new and social media to connect and support each other.

*Thanks to JL and EC for their thoughts on this piece.

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2 thoughts on “Fire, Community, and Media

  1. Update: There is also some good stuff going on over at http://www.northamptonmedia.com – check it out.

    Also – sounds like MassLive (owned by the Springfield Republican) will be streaming tonight’s Ward 3 meeting live, which is great news.

    Finally – be sure to check out SP Sullivan’s thoughts on social media in the community response to the Noho fires – http://spsullivanmedia.com/web/citizen-journalism-and-the-northampton-fires – he is perhaps more generous to the mainstream media than I was, but he also notes that the journalists working for local papers have been better than TV news.

  2. Thanks for the link out, and great analysis. But as you said, my point of view differs slightly in how the mainstream media did – at least at the local level. What I saw as I watched the citizen reaction online was a symbiotic relationship between the two.

    Of course TV news did what TV news always does, and you saw a sort of sliding scale of accuracy and sensationalism in the papers when you looked at it geographically. The further you got away from Northampton, the less reliable the information became. But the Facebook thread had some wild speculation and one actual threatening remark which was taken down and reported to the police – all of which was peppered into one of the best displays of collective community action I’ve ever seen. But both sources of information are imperfect, and likely always will be.

    What this tragedy shows, I think, is that the two work best together. The Facebook group started as a place for people to share links, many of them to mainstream media outlets, to keep each other up to speed on what was happening. It eventually grew to be the go-to place for information. The only downside to a Facebook thread is that none of the posts are sticky, so something valuable posted at noon was buried by 1:30 p.m. It also allows anyone to contribute, which is at once the best thing and the worst thing about the Internet.

    Full disclosure, I’m a freelancer for MassLive, but I really think they did the best job out of any of the so-called MSM organizations. They started out just regurgitating what was happening on Facebook for their audience (which certainly overlaps with the Facebook group members, but also extends beyond that.) By the end of the day, they had curated and distilled some of the best information, posted original video interviews with the citizen journalists / activists and announced that they’d be streaming live video from the community meeting.

    As you made clear, social media and ‘professional’ media are and should be two different animals. But I think – and this could very well be a bias rooted in my affiliations – that the two worked “hand and hand” at the local level pretty well. The live stream especially was well-attended online and allowed more people to experience the Ward Three meeting firsthand.

    Anyway, thanks for posting this, and let’s hope that the mainstream media does come around and acknowledge the role the community played in this the way you have.

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