Research about Mass Media and Disaster - FEMA Training

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Summary of Research about Mass Media and Disaster - FEMA Training

Research about the Mass Media and Disaster: Never (Well Hardly Ever) The Twain Shall Meet Joseph Scanlon Professor Emeritus and Director, Emergency Communications Research Unit, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada Abstract A review of two areas of scholarship into the role of the mass media in crisis and/or disaster reveals a dichotomy. There is substantial research by scholars in a number of disciplines and by scholars in Journalism and Mass Communications. The two appear unaware of what each other is doing. Cross-referencing is rare. The scholarship shows that the media can play a critical role before, during and after such incidents. The media are essential, for example, for warnings to be effective and may be the single most important source of public information in the wake of a disaster. The scholarship also shows that media reports that distort what happens in a disaster and lead to misunderstandings. Failure by officials to issue a warning, for example, may be a result of the myth that people panic, a myth perpetuated by the media. Media scholarship also shows however that in one area where the media are often criticized they are not guilty as charged: the limited research available suggests many victims and relatives of victims welcome the presence of the media and do not see journalists as intruders. Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet. -- Rudyard Kipling, “Ballad of East and West” Research about the role of Journalism in disaster has been done by disaster scholars from a number of areas of social science and by Mass Communications or Journalism scholars. The result is a dichotomy. The general social science literature on media and disaster rarely focuses on issues – such as ethical concerns -- that dominate the Mass Communications and Journalism literature. The Journalism/ Mass Com literature includes information that supports the findings from social science research but the authors do not make that connection. There is, in short, a great deal of information about the role the mass media play in crisis and disaster but it is found in two compartments. When Tom Drabek reviewed the literature in the disaster field, he discovered a number of publications about mass media and disaster, but he also discovered that only a handful were published in Mass Communication or Journalism scholarly journals (Anderson, 1969; Drabek, 1986; Kueneman and Wright, 1975; Scanlon, Luukko and Morton, 1978; Waxman, 1973) or in monograph or book form (Singer and Green, 1972; Scanlon, 1976; Scanlon, Dixon and McClellan, 1982; Okabe, 1979). Similarly, when the author reviewed the main scholarly journals in the Mass Com/ Journalism field -- Journalism and Mass Communications Quarterly, Journalism and Mass Communications Educator, Journalism Studies, Newspaper Research Journal, Quill, Mass Communications and Society, Public Relations Quarterly and Canadian Journal of Communication – he discovered there were few articles about crises or disasters. When an article did appear even if it overlapped the disaster literature, the authors did not indicate that. Until September 11, 2001, that would have been the end of the story. However, since 9/11 the media have been giving massive attention to terrorism and to ethical issues related to terrorism – and the Mass Communications and Journalism literature has echoed that shift. But, once again, this new scholarship has not acknowledged the existing and relevant research. This chapter reviews what is known about the media and crisis and/or disaster, whether this comes from the general social science literature or the Mass Communications and Journalism literature. It does not show – as the quote from Kipling implies – that the twain never meet. It does suggest a dichotomy. This is an important finding for, as E. L. Quarantelli has pointed out, practically everyone is willing to express views or opinions about what will happen in disasters yet the great majority of people in Western society have only limited experience with disasters. So where do people get their images of disastrous phenomena if they do not base them on personal experiences? Some of the pictures they have undoubtedly come from deeply rooted cultural beliefs…. But we think a strong case can be made that what average citizens and officials expect about disasters, what they come to know on ongoing disasters, and what they learned from disasters that have occurred, are primarily it not exclusively learned from mass media accounts (Quarantelli, 1991, p. 2). The social science literature has established that the media play a key role in many aspects of crisis and disasters. Mass media participation is critical, for example, for effective warning and the mass media may be the glue that binds societies in certain occasions. Yet the media are also responsible for many of the misconceptions that exist about disaster, misconceptions that may lead to errors of judgment when disaster strikes. A review of texts suggests Journalism scholars are unaware of this. Strangely, the one area where media scholars have shown the most concern – the way journalists deal with survivors and relatives of victims -- is the area where the limited available research suggests the media are not as guilty as painted. Media Response to Disasters It is now fairly well established what media do when disaster strikes. The media hear of the event, try to obtain more information, use their own files to add background to their stories, dispatch reporters and report anything they are told. Often they devote all their air time or much of the space available to that single story (Scanlon and Alldred, 1982). To gather material to fill this expanded news hole, the media draft anyone available. When two teenagers killed 15 students – including themselves -- and wounded 13 others at Columbine High School in Colorado, KCNC-TV in Denver used every staff member available for its 13 hours of non-stop coverage: Well over 150 newsroom regulars and extras pitched in to make the extensive coverage possible. Off-duty employees came into the station without being summoned and took up posts. Newsroom hierarchies were discarded. Everyone, intern and news director alike, answered phones and responded when a need arose (Dean, 1999, p. 24). On such occasions, the media will also use its technical resources and ingenuity to gather information. For example, when Mount St. Helen’s erupted, NBC took a helicopter into the crater and persuaded a geologist to view and comment on the resulting tape. At Three Mile Island, staff from the Philadelphia Inquirer copied the license plates of all vehicles in the parking lot, traced the owners and started phoning them. Many were belligerent but 50 agreed to interviews (Sandman and Paden, 1979, p. 48). All media monitor what their competitors are reporting and copy it if they think it is newsworthy. There are also many interconnections among the media. For example, almost all Canadian newspapers belong to the Canadian Press (CP) news agency. Everything is shared with CP which means any story produced by one paper is made available to every other paper. The electronic media have similar agreements. That’s why visuals shot by one media outlet soon appear on stations around the world. These interconnections also mean that a false report can generate headlines around the world. That, in fact, is exactly what happened in November, 1973, when Swedish radio broadcast a program about the nuclear power station at Barseback. The power station was still under construction but the program included dramatic fiction – set nine years in the future – about a radioactive release. That night and the next day all major Swedish media reported that the program led to widespread panic and that story was carried around the world by Reuters news agency. All those reports were based on an unsubstantiated report filed by one regional correspondent in Malmo: Panic was the main theme of his [report] panic in a whole country, perhaps two. [Malmo is just a short ferry ride from Denmark]. The telephone exchanges of the police stations, fire stations and mass media in two countries were reported to be jammed. People queuing before the civil shelters. Large crowds in the communities around Barseback taking to the roads. People in Malmo collecting their valuables and heading southward in their cars (Rosengren, Arvidson and Struesson, 1974, p. 12). The story led to widespread comment and editorials, even questions in Parliament about how future similar panics could be avoided. The report in short was accepted as true because of the widespread belief among journalists that people do panic in crisis situations. But the researchers who interviewed 1,089 respondents found that while persons had reacted to the broadcast, there was not a single incident of flight or panic. The “behavioural” reactions to the programme as a rule consisted in contacting family members, relatives or neighbours, over the telephone or face-to-face. Other reactions were to close the windows, think over what to bring along in case of a possible evacuation, etc. No case of telephoning to the mass media, to the police or other authorities were found…. Nor did we find anyone having fled in panic (Rosengren, Arvidson and Struesson, 1974, p. 6) The Barseback “panic” was a media invention that spread ‘round the world. One reason why such a distorted account can be so readily accepted is that when a major stories break, there is also widespread cooperation among reporters. That was true at Three Mile Island: From the moment the Harrisburg press corps heard about the accident [at Three Mile Island]…we all shared information. We got drawings and pierced together events…. We went out and got books on nuclear energy and compared them and discussed how a reactor works (Sandman and Paden, 1979, p. 16). It was the same in Dallas, the day President Kennedy was assassinated. Throughout the day, every reporter on the scene seemed to do his best to help everyone else. Information came only in bits and pieces. Every one who picked up a bit or piece passed it on. I know no one who held anything out. Nobody thought about an exclusive. It didn’t seem important (Wicker, 1996, p. 28.) Warnings and Rumor Control In his review of the behavior of mass communications systems in disasters, Quarantelli concluded that passing on warnings is “Without doubt, the clearest and most consistent role [of mass media] in a disaster… (Quarantelli, 1991, p. 23). Warnings are effective only if they are specific about the threat, specific about who is affected and specific about what to do and – because persons hearing a warning from one source are inclined to check with another – they are effective only if they come from all possible sources. At Mount St. Helens, Perry and Green found that 80 per cent of those who received a warning tried to confirm it with another source (Perry and Greene, 1983, p. 66). Since one source used to check is the media, an effective warning must come through the media as well as other channels. When Peel Regional Police ordered an evacuation of Mississauga, just west of Toronto, they announced that there had been a train derailment and some cars were leaking chlorine and that there had been propane explosions and there could be more. The threat was clear. To make certain everyone knew if he or she was affected by this warning, they went door to door and were very clear about what residents should do -- leave! Persons were told either to use their own vehicles or accept a ride on a Mississauga Transit bus. [Buses were coming along each street with police.] The warnings were reinforced by police cars using loud hailers alerting residents to the threat and the evacuation order. Most important, instead of telling the media when they had ordered an evacuation, Peel Police told the media when they were about to order one – and provided maps so television could show precisely what area was to be evacuated next. Many residents first received the evacuation message over radio or television. Some heard first via a phone call from someone who had heard or seen a news reports (Scanlon and Padgham, 1980). They were ready to leave when the police arrived at their door. The mass media can also play a vital role in keeping people informed after disaster strikes. When ice jams blocked the river and water poured over the dykes in Peace River, Alberta, officials ordered evacuations of several residential areas, schools and part of the downtown business section -- almost at the same time. Families were separated – some were still at home but some were already at work -- and some agencies had trouble locating their staff. [Their employees had been forced out of their homes and their offices had also been evacuated.] Everyone tuned in to local radio: 100 per cent of a sample reported that was how they kept informed. Many said the only time they were really worried was when the local station temporarily went off the air. It was one of the businesses evacuated and had to re-establish in a building above the flood plain (Scanlon, Osborne and McClellan, 1996). The media can also be critical in putting down rumours. When a severe windstorm hit Nova Scotia, there was a rumour that the ferry between North Sydney and Port aux Basques, Newfoundland, had sunk. The rumour stopped when the mayor sent a reporter from the one radio station still on the air to interview the ferry captain at the docks. The captain said that the voyage had been a rough one but his ship was fine (Scanlon, 1977). That killed the rumor. Convergence The media not only cover dramatic events, they cover them in a massive way. Within 24 hours, there were 325 media personnel in the isolated Newfoundland community of Gander after an air crash involving the 101st Airborne, several thousand media in Lockerbie, Scotland after the crash of Pam Am 103. There were media-created helicopter traffic jams over Coalinga, California after the earthquake and a media city with its own mayor and Saturday evening entertainment near the Branch Davidian compound during the stand-off at Waco. John Hansen, the assistant fire chief, handled media relations after the bombing at Oklahoma City: By the second day, we had nicknamed the media area “satellite city” as there was almost a two square block area of nothing but satellite trucks and live trucks lined up side by side. Several prestigious network television journalists told me they had never seen that many media trucks covering any single incident, including the O. J. Simpson trial…. As more and more reporters arrived from all across the country, I admit that I was in awe. On the other side of the microphones and tape recorders were the voices and faces we all know from “Nightline”, “20/20”, “Dateline,” “48 Hours” and other shows (Hansen, 1998, pp: 56-57). In 1957, Charles Fritz and J. H. Mathewson labeled this type of massive response to disaster as, “convergence”. They said that in the wake of a disaster there are three types of convergence: personal convergence – the actual physical movement of persons on foot, by automobile or in other vehicles; informational convergence – the movement or transmission of messages; and materiel convergence – the physical movement of supplies and equipment. (Fritz and Mathewson, 1957) They said all these forms of convergence cause problems – for example informational convergence jams telephones making emergency communications difficult. [In Lockerbie] massive congestion to the public telephone network…brought normal telecommunications almost to a standstill [because of] an insatiable demand for telephone lines for emergency and support services and for voluntary agencies and the media (McIntosh, 1989). Fritz and Mathewson said convergence is a direct result of media reports partly because early media reports are not specific enough to satisfy the needs and curiosity of those hearing them. One of the most effective ways of securing such lead time would be to delay public announcements of disaster until the organized units would have had an opportunity to arrive on the scene… The possibility of this type of coordination between the broadcast media and official disaster agencies should receive further consideration (Fritz and Mathewson, 1957, p. 75). This conclusion was largely accepted for nearly 40 years; but it is flawed. For one thing, in a disaster the initial response is not by emergency personnel but by survivors and in a real disaster with widespread damage and destruction, there is no scene. But the major weakness with this conclusion is that convergence is not triggered solely by the media. In a study of a tire fire – 14 million used rubber tires burned for 18 days – Scanlon identified hundreds of responders, all legitimate: for example, 12 police detachments and three police forces, 26 fire departments, 27 federal government agencies, 60 voluntary agencies. None of that was triggered by the media. In fact media reports were, in the initial stages, quite limited (Scanlon and Prawzick, 1991). Similarly, when a downtown office building filled with gas and exploded in North Bay, Ontario in 1975, there was no news coverage until 19 minutes after the explosion. In those 19 minutes, news spread by word of mouth so quickly that 80 per cent of those interviewed by students belonging to Carleton University’s Emergency Communications Research Unit (ECRU) reported they had first learned of the explosion by word of mouth. Only 20 per cent first learned through radio or television. Asked if they had seen the disaster site, roughly half the people in the sample said, “Yes”. A great many of them also said they got there very quickly. Eight point two per cent…said they had seen it within half an hour. Assuming that the sample was reasonably accurate, this means somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 persons were at the site within the first hour… Of those who went, about 45 per cent said they went from simple curiosity…. Only a small percentage – eight per cent – said they went because their jobs took them there (Scanlon and Taylor, 1975). Since most of those persons learned through interpersonal sources, convergence was not solely or even mainly a result of news reports. Incidentally, those high speed informal networks have their usages. For example, the passengers on the hijacked aircraft that crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11 learned what was happening through calls on their cell phones. And it was informal rather than formal networks that led to such a quick response from neighbouring communities after North America’s worst catastrophe, the 1917 Halifax, Nova Scotia explosion. [Approximately one fifth of the residents were killed or injured when a French ship carrying munitions caught fire, then exploded in the city’s harbour.] Within hours relief trains were en route from nearby centres. Convergence is not just a short term problem. At Halifax, it was a problem for weeks and, at one point, passengers on all incoming trains were screened to block all but authorized arrivals. After 9/11 emergency services became almost frantic trying to stop volunteers – many of them emergency professionals – from flocking to the scene. Though the media are not responsible for much convergence, they can add to the problem by making unwarranted assumptions. It is not uncommon for media to say that nurses and physicians are desperately needed or that blood donors are wanted even though no such requests have come from official sources. The result is further convergence. If the media are their first source of information, people turn to other sources. A study of how persons learned about two hurricanes showed that more than 60 per cent first saw both warnings on television, 17 and 25 per cent heard first on radio. Apparently the warning messages [the ones seen on television or heard on radio] triggered the formation of a kind of hurricane culture…. …residents turned from the media to more personal communications channels, while maintaining environmental surveillance through the media….. Residents acted in accordance with their own perceptions of the situation, and those perceptions drove, and were affected by, all that they saw and heard (Ledingham and Masel Walters, 1989, p. 43). Similarly, if other sources come first, people turn to the media (Kanihan and Gale, 2003, p.89). On 9/11 when persons were informed by word of mouth about the attacks, they turned immediately to the mass media, especially television. Technically any single communication channel can not meet the information demands…. Our data on citizen preference suggest two important conclusions. First, a mix of channels should be used to send messages. Second, the news media need to be systematically incorporated into this mix. (Perry and Lindell, 1989p. 62) Media, Victims and Relatives While the media perform a number of useful roles in crisis and disaster, there is one thing they do that arouses considerable criticism – and that is the way they treat victims and their relatives. When Pam Am 103 went missing over Lockerbie, Scotland, journalists waiting for information about the flight were cordoned off near the first class lounge at New York’s Kennedy Airport. Seeing them, a woman asked what the fuss was about. An official said a Pam Am plane had crashed. She asked the flight number. He replied, “1-0-3”. She collapsed on the floor, screaming, “Not my baby. Not my baby.” While her husband tried to shield her, photographers and television crews recorded her grief. All I remember is losing control… I remember lights all over. I felt like I was being raped by the media. I am usually a woman who is very much in control. I’ll have to say that was one of the few moments in my life where I was out of control. And I felt the media chose that moment. I felt violated. I felt exploited. And there was no one there to protect me (Deppa, 1994, p. 29). When she finally left Kennedy airport, she noticed something on her taxi’s front seat: I saw a newspaper -- I can’t remember what the headlines were but it had to do with Pam Am – so I asked the driver, “Can I see that newspaper?” It was the Daily News. And there on the front page was a picture of myself on the floor of the airport, and I was actually appalled. I just couldn’t believe it (Deppa, 1994, p. 33). Incidents like that made Everett Parker of the United Church of Christ openly critical of the mass media during meetings of the Committee on Disasters and the Mass Media: Day in and day out, we see reporters bullying statements out of stricken people; they take pride in their ability to do so…. It is dehumanizing to stick a camera and a microphone in the face of an injured or bereaved person and demand a statement. It is unconscionable for reporters and editors to use the human elements in disaster to feed the morbid curiosity of viewers, listeners and readers (Parker, 1980, p. 238). Yet the media are not as guilty Parker charges. Although there is a widespread perception that in the wake of incidents the media act as ghouls, harassing victims and the relatives of victims, showing no sensitivity, this perception is misleading. Both anecdotal and research data suggests some victims and relatives welcome a chance to talk to reporters. After the 1985 Gander air crash – a crash that took the lives of US soldiers – an officer was assigned to media relations at the soldiers’ home base, Fort Campbell, Kentucky. He told the media that the military intended to protect the privacy of the soldiers’ families. They would have access to families only if the families requested it. To his surprise, a number of families did ask to speak to the media. This same approach was used by Oklahoma State University after basketball players and athletics staff was killed in a plane crash: While the media were given new information whenever it became available, they were also asked to respect the privacy of families involved in the tragedy. During the university’s memorial service on Jan. 31, 2001, PIO staff members ensured that the media were restricted to a specific designated area. Media were asked not to harass family members; however, family members who felt comfortable talking to the media were not discouraged (Wigley, 2003). Although they are pressured by editors to do such interviews, reporters find approaching such persons distasteful.* Kim Brunhuber recalled shooting visuals of relatives of the victims of the Swissair crash off Nova Scotia. Brunhuber was outside the Lord Nelson Hotel, where the relatives were staying: She catches sight of our camera 20 feet away, lowers her head, pulls back part of her black dress to hide her face. When we put our report together we stay with the shot until the moment she shields her face. Saving us the public acknowledgment of our grim voyeurism. Days later, what I suspect becomes clear. I can edit the shot, but I can’t edit my guilt (Brunhuber, 1998). Though many may share Brunhuber’s guilt, reporters often discover they are made welcome when they approach relatives of those who died. These relatives are anxious to talk to someone and the reporter is anxious to listen. The result can be a relationship satisfying to both parties. When the Broadcast Standards Committee of the United Kingdom interviewed 210 victims of violence and disaster, including 54 who had been interviewed by reporters, three-quarters said they were not offended. That was especially true of those involved in a disaster. Most who complained were upset with newspapers, especially tabloid reporters, not with broadcast journalists. Survivors said they were prepared to be interviewed if the stories had a purpose, for example, “exposed the human frailties and negligences that had contributed to major disasters and so help to minimize the danger of such disasters happening again” (Shearer, 1991). * After 16 children and a teacher were killed at a school in Dunblane, Scotland, some reporters who had been ordered to interview victims’ families made sure their approaches were noticed by police officers who ordered them to leave. This allowed them to explain their failure to their editors. Intrusion Resented There have, however, been cases where the intrusion was obvious and journalists and Journalism organizations are becoming wary of this. After the Pam Am l03 crash, for example, there was a vigil in the Hendricks chapel at Syracuse University because a group of Syracuse students was among the victims: As the chapel filled, the media were asked to stay away from the area in front of the raised platform, where chaplains and representatives of the various faiths would lead that service. Photographers were asked not to use flash. But the emotion generated by the event, especially in the moments of meditation between scriptures and sacred music created compelling pictures, and the whir or the automatic levers advancing film echoed from both sides of the sanctuary. Soon flashes began going off. Upstairs, at the back of the balcony, a local television reporter “went live” over protests of students in the area (Deppa, 1994, p. 51). It is because of incidents like that two widely shared codes of ethics now caution against insensitive approaches. Professional electronic journalists should treat all subjects of news coverage with respect and dignity, showing particular compassion to victims of crime or tragedy [and that] Professional electronic journalists should refrain from contacting participants in violent situations while the situation is in progress (Radio Television News Directors Association Code, 2000). Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects. Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief (Society of Professional Journalists). However, reporting texts have described approaching survivors and their relatives as difficult but necessary: