When is ‘breaking news’ not breaking news? When it’s six months old. Graphic: Mike Licht.

The Editor’s Desk: Breaking news (not)

There was no breaking Elephant Hill wildfire news, but some media outlets didn't do their homework.

I was somewhat taken aback, just after 3:30 p.m. on Monday, January 29, to read a media release from Southeast District RCMP, which went as follows: “The RCMP Southeast District General Investigation Section are continuing their investigation into the Elephant Hill wildfire, with a determination being made that the fire was human caused. A dedicated tip line has been activated.

“RCMP investigators from the Southeast District General Investigation Section are continuing with their investigation of the July 6, 2017, Ashcroft area wildfire, known as Elephant Hill fire. RCMP and BC Wildfire Service investigators have made the determination that the fire was human caused.

“RCMP investigators are seeking public assistance with this investigation and urge anyone with information about the Elephant Hill wildfire to contact our tip line at 855-685-8788.”

Estefania Duran at CKNW980 Vancouver tweeted this out 10 minutes later: “#BREAKING: RCMP have determined the 2017 Elephant Hill wildfire was human caused. The RCMP Southeast District General Investigation Section is continuing their investigation into the Jul 6. Ashcroft area wildfire – a dedicated tip line has been activated #BCwildfire.”

This took me even more aback. “Breaking news”? Hardly. In the August 3, 2017 issue of The Journal I reported that a tip line had been set up, and in the August 10 issue I wrote “The BC Wildfire Service has confirmed that the fire was human caused, and it is now the subject of an RCMP investigation.”

By 4:45 p.m. Monday, the CBC had the story on its website with a “Breaking News” graphic. Without the “breaking news” handle—but still being reported on as if this was a new twist—came reports on Radio NL, Global News, and the Canadian Press. The Globe and Mail headlined their take on the news “Police set up tip line to find source of human caused 2017 wildfire in B.C.”

I contacted a trusted source to confirm that this was merely a reiteration of previously released information, and that I had not missed some major new announcement. I was reassured that no, I hadn’t missed anything. This wasn’t just yesterday’s news; this was last year’s news. “Excuse me; August 2017 just called, and it wants its news story back.”

On the one hand, I can see why news outlets seized hold of this. The Elephant Hill wildfire was one of the top stories nationwide last year: a big, dramatic event that got national and international attention. There has not been any big news about it for some time, and major news outlets all have eye-catching photos and videos of the fire, which aren’t generating any website clicks as long as they’re just sitting on a computer somewhere. When a story like this one comes along, it’s a question of writing up the details, embedding some pictures and videos, and waiting for the eyeballs.

On the other hand, it would have been nice if other media outlets hadn’t been so breathless about the story, as if the tip line and the fact the fire was human caused were both new developments. Some research and context to acknowledge that they weren’t would have been appreciated.

But while we’re on the subject, I have some more breaking news for outside media: the Elephant Hill wildfire is 100 per cent contained. You’re welcome.

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