A year on from the destructive 2019-2020 bushfire season, Australia’s newsrooms are once again preparing to send their journalists into high-pressure environments to deliver breaking news to their audiences. These journalists are tasked with the responsibility of keeping locals aware of imminent fire danger in their communities and are put through intensive training beforehand to do so.
Telum Media spoke to the ABC's Anthony Gerace (Regional Editor (SA / NT / Broken Hill / Emergency Broadcasting), Nine Entertainment Co.'s Kate Limon (Network Regional News Director), and North East Media's Jeff Zeuschner (Group Editor), about covering last year’s fires, and what their newsrooms have done to prepare for the current bushfire season.
A year on from the 2019 - 2020 bushfire season
12 months ago, Australia was facing one of the worst bushfire seasons it had ever faced. Over 17 million hectares were burnt, thousands of homes were destroyed, and experts were projecting a loss of more than one billion mammals.
For Kate Limon, this was an unprecedented environmental event, the likes of which no one in her newsrooms, which span NSW, Queensland, the ACT, Victoria and the Northern Territory, had seen before.
“We've all seen fire seasons in the past, and the one that happened (at the) end of last year, (and ran into the) beginning of this year, was something we've never ever seen before,” Kate said. She has oversight over NSW, Queensland, the ACT, Victoria and the Northern Territory; areas, which are also subject to cyclones and floods.
Kate said things have been tough for locals, especially in Victoria, where they have essentially transitioned from “that horrific bush fire season into COVID-19”.
“There hasn't really been a chance for us to sit down, and discuss what went wrong, what went right, and how we can do it better,” she said.
Jeff Zeuschner is Group Editor of North East Media, a local publisher based in north-east Victoria. When the fires broke out in his region last year, he had to help his journalists cover the story while his town was converted to a refuge point for evacuees.
“Like any organisation, we're not looking to put our people in harm's way,“ Jeff said. “But we've obviously got a duty in regard to the public and our communities to keep them as well-informed as we possibly can, especially if there are emergencies present.
“I happened to be working that weekend, and that was an around the clock posting.”
Responding to the threat
When last year’s bushfire season ramped up to catastrophic heights, the ABC’s Emergency Broadcasting Unit kicked into action. Independent research by the ABC
found the broadcaster was the most trusted information source in the last bushfire season, with several lives saved as a result of its coverage.
Anthony Gerace described emergency broadcasting as a company-wide responsibility at the ABC.
“Emergency broadcasting is part of what our content makers essentially do in their everyday work,” he said. “It is very much a part of the daily workload, along with making radio, TV and news content.”
The intensity of last year’s fires also led the broadcaster to review its work, health and safety policies. It recently launched a new Emergency website
, which aggregates information from national and state emergency services.
“Our aim is to make sure we’ve giving people information they can use in the lead up to an emergency,” Anthony said. “The information will be about how to prepare, respond, and recover from an emergency as well.”
Preparations for the current season
Anthony, Kate and Jeff all named emergency services training as an essential part of preparation for the bushfire season, with media required to have this accreditation in order to attend fire sites.
“It brings them up to speed with all the safety precautions, but also (provides) an awareness of fire behaviour, and all the protocols that come with that,” Jeff said.
Anthony emphasised that, outside of the bushfire season, the ABC regularly runs content encouraging viewers to prepare for the next one.
“It's fair to say that emergencies can strike at any time, whether they be bushfires, floods or cyclones,” he said. “There’s no real lulls anymore.”
All three media organisations work closely with the local fire services to provide updated and accurate information about fires.
According to Kate, being “guided by the authorities” on appropriate fire season preparation is essential.
“Our job is to be the one who reports on these things and informs the viewers. We'll do as much as we can, and we'll go as far as we can, but it will always be guided by the authorities in terms of where we're allowed to go, and what we're allowed to do," she said.
Kate also pointed to the fast-changing nature and unpredictability of fires as a key reason why many decisions around coverage and resourcing can only be made on the day.
“You can really only be prepared so much,” she said. “We can't really plan that far in advance, because we are really just thinking about the bulletin tonight, and what's going into the bulletin tonight.”
For Jeff, all a newsroom can do is, “make sure our guys are trained, that they've got everything, and then we see what eventuates.”
How a fire will be covered by the media
In September, the Bureau of Meteorology declared that Australia had officially entered El Niña
, a period of wet weather that brings with it an increased risk of flooding and cyclones.
While this means the current bushfire season is not predicted to be as severe as the last, there is still a risk of grass fires due to recent growth.
Jeff will follow the Country Fire Authority’s website closely to monitor any indications of new fires. Once a fire becomes a serious threat to a community, the North East Media team will make contact to confirm the danger level, the affected areas and the major risks to the nearest communities.
“We make a decision on whether it’s a fire we have to attend, if it’s something we’re not going to worry about approaching, or if we provide some kind of minimal coverage,” Jeff said.
The ABC’s Emergency Broadcasting Unit will follow the different levels of advice for a fire; Advice, Watch and Act, and Emergency Warning, and allocate resourcing depending on how big a fire becomes.
“Advice from the emergency services really does assist with understanding how widespread a message needs to go,” Anthony said. “If the emergency broadcast grows, so do the staffing numbers (to cover it).”
For the ABC, if a fire develops to the Emergency Warning level, on-air messaging will increase to every 15-minutes, and journalists will contact emergency services and put them on-air to provide the latest information and advice.
“We will go straight to the horse's mouth,” Anthony said. “We will get the emergency services to tell those people, who are impacted in the area, what they need to know about that fire, what its behaviour is, and all the rest. If it requires more than that, we’ll call in a programme team and start doing more coverage.”
Evacuation orders are given top priority on Nine’s regional bulletins. If they occur during the day, Nine will run 60-second updates and break into scheduled programming to provide the information.
“Our crews are almost always on standby,” Kate said. “As long as the reporters and the camera operators have their laptops with them, they can upload all their vision to the cloud. You could see those pictures on-air in minutes.”
In terms of severity, if a fire poses a risk to life and property, it would be given the most resourcing and air time by the network.
“If it's not threatening homes or properties, maybe it wouldn't get as much coverage,” Kate said. “But it's really a case-by-case thing.”
A new type of threat
As last year’s bushfire season drew to a close, the nation was hit with the devastating COVID-19 pandemic. While most states have been living COVID-normal lifestyles for a few months, in Victoria, relative freedom from restrictions has only been a reality for a matter of weeks.
“There hasn't been time to think about the potential disaster season ahead, which is a scary thought, particularly in what we saw last year,” Anthony said. “In Victoria, our guys were just completely wrapped-up in all things COVID-19.”
He explained that the Emergency Broadcasting Unit provided information on how Australians could protect themselves from COVID-19 earlier this year.
“There are certain levels to an emergency that trigger our involvement,” he said.
Kate said Nine essentially follows the same processes every year, but there hasn't been much of a chance to discuss what the news network could do better due to the lack of a break between last season and the pandemic.
PRs and disaster messaging
Journalists and PRs work closely together, but Kate said there is a time and place when PRs should contact the newsroom.
“Honestly, a natural disaster is when we wouldn't really want to hear from a lot of PR companies because the focus of our day would be reporting on exactly what's happening that day,” she said.
PRs who are directly involved with a disaster, and who can provide information around evacuations, property destruction, or recovery initiatives, are those Kate would most likely give coverage to.
Jeff and Anthony are both open to hearing from PRs, with Jeff believing most PR companies proactively engage with journalists to share what their company has done for bushfire preparedness.
“We would certainly engage with them if, from our community’s point of view, there was material that we thought was of community interest,” Jeff said.
Anthony will work with PRs who can provide real-time advice to locals, and lists power companies that are open about power outages in the area as an example.
“It's really that information which can make a great deal of difference to those who are impacted,” he said.
What to expect
Australia’s environment is well accustomed to experiencing bushfires, which are often an unavoidable occurrence during warmer months. Native vegetation has even evolved to survive, and occasionally thrive, after a bushfire strikes.
Similarly, newsrooms around the country have refined the ways they approach emergency coverage after decades of experience.
Jeff said bushfire reporting should always be stripped back to basics. “You don’t want to give people convoluted or outdated information, particularly if the community is making decisions around that,” he said. “We try to live within our limitations to make sure they can rely on whatever we’re providing.”
“A lot of our content makers have been around for a long time and know what to do,” Anthony said. “It’s more about the logistics of getting things to wear, and keeping on top of the events, that’s what the Emergency Broadcasting Unit does.”
Towards the end of the year, journalists can also usually expect a quieter news cycle. With 2020 bookended by a catastrophic bushfire season and an epidemic, Kate understands there probably won’t be the usual wind-down.
“It's already been an extraordinary year,” Kate said. “I think everyone is probably getting a little bit nervous as to what could come. We just have to wait and see.”