During the Beaver Creek Fire, as in any crisis, confusion, rumors and misinformation were an inherent part of the event. However, Wood River Valley residents and visitors were lucky in getting the accurate information they needed in order to be safe and secure.
As in the Castle Rock Fire of 2007, rumors were quickly corrected, or squelched by factual information provided by eyewitness reporting and official sources.
This time, social media joined this newspaper’s website in playing this critical and positive role. Journalists employed by the Idaho Mountain Express manned not only the newspaper’s website, but Facebook and Twitter as well. A KECH radio reporter did a good job on its Facebook page as well.
The people who do news day in and day out provided straight and accurate information about fire lines, links to official fire information sites, updated evacuation orders, and the always spectacular photos and videos of terrifying flames leaping along the ridgelines, along with photos of massive firefighting resources acting to protect our community.
The newspaper’s website and Facebook page, with their high traffic, became the places where information converged.
Social media by itself it doesn’t work this way. For example, at the monster Rim Fire burning in California, government officials recently had to ask people to refrain from using or following social media.
Rumors, such as a mistaken one about a major firehouse being reduced to flaming rubble, terrorized local residents. The sheriff of Tuolumne County noted that the speed and reach of social media, especially Facebook, compounded the alarm.
He said, “The problem is there’s no way of verifying that information. If people didn’t exaggerate things and actually gave out factual information it would be a very good tool,” he said.
There is a way to verify information. Professional news operations like the Mountain Express employ journalists who turned social media into a very good tool here in Blaine County. Reporters and editors checked and rechecked and then checked again so that the information they posted on social media and the newspaper’s main website was accurate, not rumor. The process is as strict for online text and video posts and links to other sources as it is for anything distributed in print.
Communities are made stronger when those in them have some degree of certainty that what they actually know matches what they think they know. Residents and visitors are best served when the information they share is based in fact and not rumor, gossip, myth or fabrication.
Facts do not flow organically, available without cost or effort, but facts are what allow a community like ours to come through a crisis with some degree of calm and grace. That’s the lesson learned by the small California communities that do not have strong newspapers and a community that does.