Saturday, March 1, 2014

Words on Fire

Sorry for the recent blog silence. Sometimes life just gets in the way, and then there were the Olympics…but I digress.

Today we’re going to discuss word choices as related to one aspect of fire and firefighting. Writers work in the currency of words, and the terminology they use can affect how a reader interprets the message.

Take, for example, this headline on a local news station’s website:

“Royal Gorge Fire Cause Released”

Last year’s fire at the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park near Cañon City, Colorado, destroyed most of the attraction’s buildings. It started on June 11, the same day that the Black Forest fire, the most destructive in our state’s history, also ignited. Both fires came a year after the Waldo Canyon fire, which was the state’s most destructive wildfire to that date.

Now, I can tell you that people here are clamoring for information about how these fires began. All that’s known so far is that the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires were “human-caused.” Whether they were intentionally or accidentally set remains under investigation, as do the means of ignition, and no suspects have been arrested yet. But residents of these areas are hungry for answers, and justice if it’s deserved.

So when a media outlet says the cause of the Royal Gorge fire has been released, I’m sure many people, including me, grew hopeful that we’d learn more about what caused at least one of our local fires. Knowing how the fire started doesn’t change the outcome, but it helps people find a tiny bit of closure. And what did we get in this particular story?

The fire was human-caused.

Saying that a fire was human-caused (as opposed to being caused by an act of nature such as lightning) is not the same as stating what caused the fire. Cause means how the fire started, and “human-caused” could be any number of things: A carelessly discarded cigarette. A malfunctioning motor vehicle. An intentional ignition using a lighter or match.

This story provided none of that crucial information because it wasn’t released.

Was this headline a result of poor word choices, or did the reporter craft it to grab people’s attention and make them click through to the story (a trend that has seen a dramatic increase in our modern, information-cluttered digital world)? I’m guessing the latter, because other outlets used headlines like “Royal Gorge Fire Human Caused” and “Cañon City Police Department: Royal Gorge Fire man-made,” all of which more accurately portrayed the information released by investigators.

The point I want to make to all writers, no matter what field or genre you work in, is to choose your words carefully. If you’re not familiar with terminology related to whatever you are writing about, make the effort to research and learn. Being conscientious will help maintain your own credibility, and avoid giving your readers wrong impressions.

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