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date: 29 February 2024

Old Media, New Media, and the Complex Story of Disastersfree

Old Media, New Media, and the Complex Story of Disastersfree

  • Josh GreenbergJosh GreenbergSchool of Journalism and Communication, Carleton University
  •  and T. Joseph ScanlonT. Joseph ScanlonSchool of Journalism and Communication, Carleton University


Media have always played an important role in times of emergency and disaster. Undersea cables, international news agencies, the press, radio and television, and, most recently, digital and mobile technologies—all have played myriad and complex roles in supporting emergency response and notification, and in helping constitute a shared experience that can be important to social mobilization and community formation. The geographical location of disasters and the identities of victims, the increasingly visual nature of disaster events, and the ubiquitous nature of media in our lives, all shape and influence which kinds of emergencies attract global media and public attention, and how we come to understand them.

Globalization has compressed time and space such that a whole range of disasters—from natural events (cyclones, earthquakes, and hurricanes) to industrial accidents and terrorist attacks—appear on our television and mobile screens with almost daily frequency. There is nothing inherent about these events that give them meaning—they occur in a real, material world; but for many of us, our experience of these events is shaped and determined in large part by our interactions with media industries, institutions, and technologies. Understanding the media’s construction of these events as disasters provides important insight into the nature of disaster mitigation, response and recovery.


  • Case Studies
  • Risk Communication and Warnings
  • Response


When Mount Tambora, in what is now Indonesia, erupted on April 10, 1815, several months passed before news of the disaster became widely known. The eruption, which produced a column of ash reaching 45 kilometers into the stratosphere, remains the largest ever recorded volcanic disaster in human history. It contributed to a major disruption in global temperatures and to the deaths of nearly 100,000 people. On August 31, 1883, Mount Krakatoa, also in Indonesia, erupted violently as well, setting off a tsunami that killed nearly 40,000 people who inhabited the islands of the Sunda Strait region between Java and Sumatra. Strong waves were reported as far away as France, barometers peaked in Bogota and Washington, and bodies washed ashore in Zanzibar (Winchester, 2005). Beyond the objective severity of both disasters, measured by the losses of life and transformative environmental impacts, what distinguishes them is how quickly word spread of the Krakatoa eruption. Owing to innovations in media technologies and institutions, namely advances in telegraphy, the laying of undersea cables, and flourishing global news agencies, citizens in the world’s more advanced nations learned about the disaster within moments of its happening. Response and recovery efforts could be undertaken and adjustments to international trade routes adjusted. The eruption of Krakatoa was effectively the first global geological media event in history.

On November 10, 1979, a train derailed in the City of Mississauga, located just west of Toronto, and an evacuation order was initiated after one car BLEVEed (Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion), threatening to release styrene, toluene, caustic soda, propane, chlorine, and other highly toxic chemicals into the local environment. The Peel Regional Police Force was the agency responsible for directing the disaster response and public evacuation, and the officer in charge of operations, a duty inspector, came to the scene as soon as he had been notified about the accident. His first concern was establishing an adequate command post from which to coordinate emergency responders, direct the distribution of contamination and hazard control, facilitate an evacuation of the area, and prepare for eventual investigation and recovery. Yet, keenly aware of the importance of the mass media to both public notification and crisis management, his second priority was to establish a media center at the accident scene to ensure the disaster would be controlled and handled effectively. Thus, even before a full threat assessment could be completed, a media relations plan had already been identified as a key element of the crisis response strategy (Scanlon & Hiscott, 1985).

In October 2007, a series of wildfires beginning in Malibu, California blazed a trail of devastation across much of Orange County toward San Diego and the Mexico border. The fires destroyed nearly 1,500 homes and burned over half a million acres of land, causing enormous economic losses and mass evacuations. One of the biggest challenges for residents in disaster areas is the lack of access to reliable, up-to-date, official information necessary for ensuring their safety and protection. Traditional media coverage often responds to the needs of people to know what’s happening and can generate national, and sometimes international, attention to local events. This can be important for raising money to support post-disaster recovery and for placing the spotlight onto failures in governance or decision making that can precipitate the occurrence of these events. But news coverage itself is an insufficient source of information for most people who are directly affected by disasters. It can be slow, sensationalized, and deferential to the views of authorities rather to than the needs of the population. In the case of the Malibu wildfires, residents relied much more on local online community boards and other “back channel” information portals than traditional news sites. These portals provided more timely, locally relevant information that supported emergency response needs at a time when it was most urgent (Sutton, Palen, & Shklovski, 2008).

These examples, drawn from different places and moments in time, help illustrate the varied and important roles that media play in disaster and emergency situations. From global communication infrastructures to legacy news organizations, community forums, mobile platforms, and social networking sites, media are an essential part of effective warning and alert systems and a key piece of the broader disaster information landscape. They provide a window to dramatic events that happen either a continent or a mile away, and they afford a space in which various actors (governments, humanitarian organizations, civic groups, and corporations) struggle to shape and determine the meaning and impact of these events on our lives. When disaster strikes, the ability to provide accurate, reliable, and credible information to reduce risks to populations, to mobilize response efforts and, ultimately, to save lives, is vital. Effective communication during a disaster is also important to ensuring credibility and trust—that the population will trust the authorities to protect the public as its first priority at a time when lives may hang in the balance. Media are also important to the construction of an “imagined community” of fate (Anderson, 1990) through which people are bonded by a shared experience, however traumatic these may be. Whether it’s radio, television, Facebook, or short message services (SMS), media help keep people in affected areas and around the world informed about the state of an emergency as it unfolds, supports response and resource mobilization, provides a way for authorities to listen to the needs of affected populations, and foster a shared sense of identification.

This article focuses on these and other issues in the study of media and disasters. Specifically, it explores the role of disaster journalism and the impact of globalization on transnational media flows and disaster representations. It addresses the notion that a particular “media logic” shapes, in deep and profound ways, our understanding of disaster events. Finally, it considers the impact of new and emergent technologies such as online news, mobile phones, social networking, and open data platforms, and how these innovations have facilitated the creation of new disaster information ecosystems and social mobilization processes.

Disaster Journalism and the Public Imaginary

In his now famous study of media and public opinion, Walter Lippmann wrote, “the real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance. We are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety, so much variety, so many permutations and combinations. And although we have to act in that environment, we have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage it” (Lippmann, 1922, p. 8). Lippmann was writing about how media shape our perceptions of social and political affairs, and of the importance for political elites to understand this process if they wish to govern effectively—but he may well have been writing about the pictures we form in our heads about disasters, especially those that occur in far-flung places beyond our direct, lived experience. Some of these pictures “come from deeply rooted cultural beliefs,” yet for the vast majority of people—public officials, journalists, and ordinary citizens—our understanding of disasters, and our views about how they’re caused, the reactions they produce, and the effects they create, “are primarily if not exclusively learned from mass media accounts” (Quarantelli, 1991, p. 2).

What is the nature of these accounts? How do media frame the meaning and significance of disasters? How are these events transformed from what are often local, space-bound happenings with many different dimensions into coherent stories that can be easily understood and retold? What does the framing and narrative construction of these events—as stories of corruption, failures of governance, accounts of “mother nature,” tales about the random and tragic nature of modernity, etc.—tell us about how media constitute and shape what and how we should think about disasters? When a disaster occurs, newsrooms move into action: reporters rush to the scene, where they work their sources, scour the Internet for clues and tips, and do anything and everything they can to determine what happened, who was affected, and who may be responsible. Occasionally, media will explore issues relating to pre-disaster readiness (could this have been anticipated?) and post-disaster recovery (where do we go from here?). Very often, they will chronicle and tell a story about the chaos and devastation of the event, with constant updates about damage to infrastructure, tallies of bodies injured and lives lost, and forecasts about dire economic consequences (e.g., Houston, Pfefferbaum, & Rosenholtz, 2012). Frequently, these accounts will reflect the relative power and influence of different stakeholders—victims may be prominent, but their definitional influence will be secondary to those of the authorities. The complex story of disasters are often specifically time-bound and immediate, which should not be surprising given the event-centered nature of so much news coverage. But it also rubs uncomfortably against the normative desire for a more complete picture of the social, structural, political, or economic factors that are often at play in any given disaster, regardless of whether the event was caused by climactic forces, failures in governance, weak regulations, or the personal failings of political or corporate leaders.

Disaster reportage tends to follow distinct narrative patterns, and our understanding of these patterns affords insight into processes of disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. In their research on media coverage of airline crashes, Vincent, Crow, and Davis (1989) argue that the narrative arc of disaster stories has three phases: disruption of normalcy; investigation of mystery; and restoration of normalcy. For Miller and Riechert (2000), journalists need different kinds of information during each phase, and they rely on different sources to help complete the story (to construct the “pictures in our heads”) depending on whichever phase of disaster they are in. In the immediate aftermath (i.e., disruption of normalcy), preferred sources are eyewitnesses who can provide a detailed account of the devastation: What happened? What did it “feel like” when that happened? What did you see? Official sources also help to establish the facts of the event (here’s what we know now), but their role is generally secondary to those of eyewitnesses, who, through the reporter, help bring the audience to the scene. This role positioning changes as the narrative evolves. In the investigation phase, experts, government sources, or official company spokespeople are relied upon more heavily, to help put the facts of what happened into context and to lay out a framework for what will occur next. Family members may also be used during this second phase of a disaster to give the coverage added emotional texture, reminding readers of the human toll of the tragedy. Finally, in the post-event, disaster-restoration phase, official sources typically maintain their definitional influence by providing explanations for what went wrong, assurances that mistakes, if they occurred, won’t be repeated, and promises to provide some measure of resolution and/or amelioration to those affected. On occasion, conflict may also ensue among stakeholders if the source of the crisis is a severe lapse in duty to protect the public, or an unwillingness to accept responsibility for wrongdoing.

Disaster journalism often falls short of providing the kind of reporting we should expect or require for understanding how or why these events occur, the different impacts they have, and how to prevent them from happening in the future. Analyzing a decade of U.S. news coverage, Houston et al. (2012) show that hurricanes, floods, wildfires or winter storms generate far less critical scrutiny than oil spills, industrial accidents, or terrorist attacks. Whereas natural disasters are often framed as random occurrences with no obvious causal agent, man-made crises are more easily narrated, presumably because of the ready availability of identifiable villains and victims. Their research also showed that while media coverage of pre-disaster events provide helpful warnings and information on how to be prepared, coverage of recovery and reconstruction is comparatively weaker, with far less attention given to what precipitated the disaster and the impact it will have on communities trying to recover and rebuild: “What happens and is needed in the first few days of a disaster may not be what happens or is needed several months later,” (Houston et al., 2012, p. 609). Other scholars have pointed to similar limitations. Quarantelli (1981) attributes problematic media coverage to what he called the “command post” perspective—relying more heavily on emergency response personnel than survivors for an account of what happened. In addition to reinforcing the views of official, authoritative sources, this approach ignores non-official activities such as search and rescue efforts led by volunteers and ordinary citizens.

The modern mediascape is characterized by a blurring of the boundaries between print, broadcast, and digital media, and increasingly between and among legacy news organizations, social media platforms that aggregate both professional and citizen reporting, blogs, and other non-traditional media outlets. These changes alter the terrain in which sources shape coverage, the possibilities for how journalists tell stories, and how the public learns about what happened. While media have arguably never been as fractured and fragmented as they are today, they have also never been more ever-present. The ubiquity of media in our lives has helped constitute a public disaster imaginary: 24/7 news channels and social media platforms enable greater and freer circulation of images and accounts of humanitarian crises or disasters from distant locations at an instant as geospatial satellites document and render disasters more “observable” and “knowable” (Cottle, 2009; Rai & Cottle, 2010). In 2011, Japan’s national broadcaster, NHK, was able to get images of the destruction caused by the tsunami into the hands of news organizations within a few short hours. In 2013, during Typhoon Haiyan, Google released a crisis map and SMS-enabled “people finder” to help track the storm and allow families and friends to search for loved ones. Calhoun (2008) argues that media saturation has led to a shift towards interpretations of crises or emergencies as more “sudden, unpredictable events that require immediate action,” rather than as issues and problems that develop over longer periods of time, “and are not merely predictable but are watched for weeks or months or years before they break into public consciousness or onto the agendas of policy makers” (p. 83). The public fixation on emergency events is facilitated by the focus on a disaster’s most acute phase, thus rendering its structural dimensions less visible.

Disasters are intertwined with the course of human affairs in ways that were unimaginable decades ago. The rapid global movement of capital and standardization of information, the increasingly networked systems of global communication, the connection between disasters and geo-political interests, and the internationalization of poverty and marginalization all have a bearing on our interpretation of these events (Alexander, 2005; Cottle, 2014). The effects of disasters are farther reaching, and our perceptions of them as more regular, intense, and immediate are more profound than they have ever been (Beck, 2006). Media audiences are also more globalized, with populations spreading the world over through patterns of international migration and refugee settlement.

Media Globalization and Disasters

Mainstream media institutions (i.e., the press and corporate and state broadcasters) play a key role in disasters, with respect to early signaling, problem framing, and definition (Haddow & Haddow, 2009). In regard to their reporting roles, media are important in three ways: first, to act as information brokers and conduits in the affected region during the response and recovery phase; second, to inform or signal to others the consequences of the disaster and the impacts on affected populations; and third, to act as an arena in which various actors play out their roles and seek to shape and influence the framing of disaster events. All roles are immensely important—as information broker, media ensure that people living in an area affected by a crisis or disaster situation will understand whether they are at risk and what they can do to protect themselves and those around them; as a signaling institution, media can mobilize relief efforts and advocate for aid and assistance; and as landscape of source struggle, media enable key actors in the disaster response arena to play out and perform their roles in ways that shape or problematize their actions and perspectives. Disasters are thus communicated and constituted within these communication flows, and often in paradoxical ways. As Scanlon (2007) characterized it, the mass media can be either an ‘unwelcome irritant’ or a ‘useful ally’ in times of emergency and disaster: media not only perform valuable functions during these events, they may also distort what is happening and can undermine relief and recovery efforts in the longer term. The following discussion of the competing roles of mainstream media as knowledge broker, signaling institution, and arena of source struggle highlights the “changing ontology of disasters in a globalizing world” (Cottle, 2014) and the complex interdependence between government, media, and humanitarian organizations.

How Media Inform Global Publics about a Disaster

Our awareness of emergencies and disasters is defined in large part by news media. When disaster strikes in distant places, both established and start-up news outlets become the primary sources of information about events as they unfold on the ground (Franks, 2013). Even with the rise in social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, or of startup news outlets like Vice or Buzzfeed, mainstream news media continue to provide a “pivotal role of validating and providing a coherent, reliable gatekeeper to the information about such crises” (Franks, p. 6). However, most of the world’s disasters rarely receive airtime or attention at all, even with the almost pervasive reach of global news organizations (Reiff, 2002). Despite the fact that large-scale disasters are more likely to occur in the developing world, they are more likely to receive sustained coverage and attention if they occur in the west. For example, on the very day that flood waters were rising in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, more than 1,500 people were killed or injured in Baghdad when nearly one million Iraqis walking to a Shi’ite shrine stampeded on rumours that a suicide bomber was in their midst (Moeller, 2006). The world’s media systems operate mainly in English, and their nerve centers are located in New York and London—such inequitable information flows color and shape how the world is perceived. It’s one reason why the sinking of the Titanic has been so deeply mythologized; yet the sinking of Empress of Ireland, in which far more lives were lost, is not. Where Titanic’s passengers included several prominent British and American citizens, the Empress of Ireland carried mainly Canadians. Moreover, Titanic survivors arrived in New York, where, almost immediately, they were interviewed and photographed by the press; by contrast, survivors of the Empress of Ireland landed in Rimouski, Quebec, where no equivalent media cavalry awaited.

Media representations of disasters are also shaped by interactions between humanitarian agencies and NGOs, which are required to raise awareness and public funds for their work, and state or supranational agencies, which oversee and administer the disaster and emergency field. A persuasive way of conceptualizing this interaction is through what Wolfsfeld (1997) called the political contest model, which envisions the news media as an arena or landscape within which sources struggle and compete to shape the tenor and tone of the coverage. One of the key insights of Wolfsfeld’s model is its recognition that, while authorities tend to enjoy tremendous advantages over NGOs and other “challenger groups,” in both the volume and quality of media coverage they receive, challengers can overcome these obstacles and use the media as a tool for political influence. Following Cyclone Nargis, which in 2008 caused the worst natural disaster in the recorded history of Myanmar, UN agencies became locked in a struggle with government officials who were constantly threatening to restrict their activities. For both aid groups and the reporters covering disaster, this presented a series of practical and moral challenges. Not wishing to lose access to affected areas, NGOs significantly adjusted their advocacy work to downplay their criticism of government programs. At the same time, they also partnered with journalists who were covering the crisis to provide embedded access to their relief junkets. For aid groups, media coverage presents an opportunity to incrementally move the political and international discussion forward in a way that advances their interests and conflicts with government; for journalists, it provides opportunities of access, but not without the cost of ethical dilemmas regarding the cost of their independence (see Green, 2016).

The extent to which news media are dependent on sources and vulnerable to source influence is also structurally determined by the availability of newsgathering resources. The massive cuts in foreign news reporting in recent years have made it increasingly difficult for aid groups to communicate directly with reporters from the theatre of disasters, and for stories about international crises to make it into international news if there is little interest (Kalcsics, 2011). As Moeller argues,

Most mainstream—especially television—media are locked into the business model they have; establishing dozens of country bureaus or even many regional bureaus is not seen as financially feasible . . . As a result, most of the mainstream media are increasingly second-level sources. Even for the elite media, the pressure of reporting for “the 24-hour media machine means that when covering crises, parachuting reporters need others to give them context and help them find ways to give history and background”.

(2006, p. 185)

As a result of these shifts, humanitarian groups have developed sophisticated public relations capabilities to feed under-resourced media agencies with firsthand accounts from the field (Cooper, 2011). According to Green (2016), such collaboration can be mutually beneficial: “as travel budgets decline, the work of far-flung freelancers is increasingly in demand, but often without the initial financial outlay from the outlets that eventually run our content. That leaves the freelancer with the near-impossible task of figuring out how to cover the cost of transportation, fixers, translators, equipment, and accommodation while still being able to eat. That calculation changes when a UN agency or an NGO springs for the cost of a flight or offers a place to stay.” Indeed, not just freelancers, but news organizations themselves with budget limitations rely increasingly on “information subsidies” from NGOs, while NGOs depend crucially on the media for publicity to keep fundraising appeals active and in the public consciousness (DeChaine, 2002). The changing economic status of many media outlets also means that international stories are, increasingly, competing with one another and with stories from western countries for reader attention. This creates a scenario where “Western self-interest is the pre-condition for significant coverage of a humanitarian crisis, and national political and economic interests are a better guide to press interest than human suffering” (Franks, 2006).

The interdependence between media and aid groups can also produce misrepresentations of disasters that, by effect or design, induce public compassion to raise funds for humanitarian groups and help secure ratings for news organizations. At times this co-dependence is mutually beneficial, as was the case during the outset of the famine in the Horn of Africa. The BBC dispatched news host Ben Brown to Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya in July 2011, resulting in a report—“Horn of Africa: ‘A Vision of Hell’”—that showed vivid images of emaciated children and desperate, suffering adults (Brown, 2011). The BBC report was immediately followed by news that the U.K. Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) had launched an emergency appeal to help the more than ten million people affected by the crisis. In other cases, media provide in-depth criticism about the activities of humanitarian NGOs, as was the case with a 45-minute BBC radio documentary produced in 2011 by journalist Edward Stourton. In his report, “Haiti and the Truth about NGOs,” Stourton criticized humanitarian NGO work in Haiti, arguing that the billions of dollars of donations did very little to improve the living conditions of survivors (Kalcsics, 2011). However, too often media stories about disasters are tragically depoliticized, evacuated of any sustained critical attention to the political contexts that condition their very emergence. This lack of critical reportage is often attributed to a combination of insufficient newsgathering resources, poor local knowledge, and heavy reliance on official (i.e., government) sources for information (Scanlon, 2007).

Media Representations of Disaster

It has long been understood that media representations of disaster constitute and reproduce a view of the developing world as continually crisis-prone. At the same time, narratives of loss, suffering, and destruction can also help constitute a shared sense of identification with people with whom we otherwise have no common identity or purpose. These two forces are always in tension: the “othering” of marginalized populations in distant countries further reinforces and hardens a view of suffering that threatens “empathic identification” (Dean, 2005); yet, the collective construction of suffering is seen as vital for a global community to experience a shared sense of mourning, concern, and outrage (Ibrahim, 2010).

The Ethiopian famine of the 1980s offers a case in point, in which images of vulnerable, starving children filled the pages of global newspapers and featured prominently in television news broadcasts. While the extensive coverage aroused a global reaction that likely would not have occurred without the presence of such arresting images, the coverage of the famine was also wildly inaccurate and hugely oversimplified. As Franks (2013) argues, the result of the “largely unconscious manipulation” of the famine was broader interest in the developing world that had never been seen before. Public opinion generated pressure to provide aid to foreign governments, which had long known about the unfolding crisis. The global response to the famine that was created through the 24/7 news cycle also ushered in a new age of charity fundraising and catalyzed the growth of Northern aid agencies. At the same time, the consequences of the simplified and sensationalized accounts of the crisis were extreme. The media and aid agencies arguably colluded in portraying a one-dimensional disaster with highly simplified solutions rather than a complex problem requiring long-term systemic changes involving political and economic restructuring. Consequently, the interventions were largely ineffective as they attempted “to address instead a media framed problem rather than the reality” (Franks, 2013, p. 171). Food aid was sent, but the political processes that created the famine in the first place were never resolved, leading to recurring famines years later. By that point, media and global attention and interest had shifted or waned.

As this and other cases vividly illustrate, media representations “constitute” disasters by enabling a global community to “bear witness” to the event (Chouliaraki, 2006), a process that both invites the public to participate in acts of global communion and concern while potentially numbing them to the suffering of others. Media portrayals of disaster have long been associated with notions of solidarity and the impetus to help strangers and ameliorate their suffering. During natural disasters and other complex emergencies, the motivation of humanitarian relief agencies on the ground and those watching safely from home is often to witness humanity in action, and provide some type of support, be it a financial donation, a signature on a petition, or other acts of fundraising and social awareness building. This act of bearing witness to humanitarian events is part of what Beck (2006) describes as the cosmopolitan ideal: “in a world of global crises and dangers produced by civilization, the old differentiations between internal and external, national and international, us and them, lose their validity, and a new cosmopolitan realism becomes essential to survival” (p.14). Such increasingly diffused ideals of cosmopolitanism and shared responsibility send alarming calls for humanitarian action and intervention internationally (Tsatsou & Armstrong, 2014), facilitated by the media’s ability to engage global audiences as witnesses to the horror and human suffering. Cottle (2009) argues that Western news media visualize catastrophes using “dramatic and symbolic scenes” of disasters around the world, and that this coverage is highly performative in nature: media enact certain issues as “global crises” through “the modality of constructed global spectacle”(p. 507). The spectacular forms of news presentation often do more than simply report about environmental change and devastation and its impacts on vulnerable communities around the world—they actively shape our knowledge of and emotional connection to those events.

Many scholars argue that spectacular media images play a powerful role in the social construction and communication of disaster. In their analysis of the Darfur crisis, Hutchinson, Bleiker, and Campbell (2014) explain that images are essential for influencing our moral and political obligation to feel for and respond to distant suffering. They go on to argue that such images are only arresting if they tap into already existing frameworks of meanings and representations. For this reason, the process of bearing witness through images of horror and devastation is an affective, if polarizing force: in one sense, mobilizing care, compassion, and humanitarian relief; yet, at the same time, invoking problematic solutions and, oftentimes, colonial stereotypes through simplifying mechanisms, shock, and the reproduction of cultural stereotypes (Hutchinson et al., 2014). Indeed, one of the major downsides of media depictions of disaster is their capacity to mislead us. Since we already live in a highly visual world, photographs, in particular, can trigger a desire to feel connected to the suffering of another human being—but they can also “strip the context from long stories, reduce complicated issues to iconic moments, and manipulate our emotions using charismatic faces” (Zeeberg, 2016). As Sontag (2003) argued, images of suffering do not necessarily strengthen our conscience or ability to feel compassion. In turning people into objects that can be “symbolically possessed,” media accounts can also dampen our ability to truly feel for others and influence change.

False Assumptions and Disaster Myths

Media portrayals of emergencies are often distorted by false assumptions about how people respond in times of crisis. Journalists may assume that victims will be dazed, confused, shocked, and unable to cope. They believe, further, that panic and the decline of social order will inevitably ensue. These assumptions are longstanding and problematic (Clarke, 2002). Panic (the loss of rational thought) is so rare it is hard to even study, an observation first made by Quarantelli (1954, 1960) and by numerous others since (Barton, 1970; Dynes, 1970; Quarantelli & Dynes, 1972; Scanlon, 2007; Tierney et al., 2006). Even in the most frightening situations, people are less likely to completely lose their capacity for reason than they are to assist others who are in need. During the crowd crush at Hillsborough soccer stadium, those who died did so while helping others climb over the fence that stopped spectators from accessing the field (Conn, 2016); and at the Kentucky Beverly Hills Supper Club fire, many victims lost their lives because they placed themselves in harm’s way to help others (Scanlon, 2009). More recently, the 2015 Gorkha earthquake in Nepal killed approximately 9,000 people and injured 23,000 more. The impact on infrastructure was devastating, and so far reaching that it caused avalanches on Mount Everest and in the Langtang Valley, where scores of others were killed, injured, or buried, never to be seen again. Yet, surveillance footage showed how, in the minutes following the immediate onset of the quake, many people were seen running away from the destruction, itself a highly rational act, yet when the tremors had stopped, they immediately began a process of search and rescue to provide help and support to victims.

Tierney, Bev, and Kuligowski (2006) discuss the role of “disaster myths” as central to media narratives of emergencies. Whether the coverage is about floods, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, or other large-scale disasters, news reports often amplify and distort risk information. Researchers have long pointed out that disaster myths are harmful “because of their potential for influencing organizational, governmental, and public responses” (Tierney et al., 2006, p. 60). It has been noted, for example, that inaccurate assumptions about the likelihood of social disorder can lead to misallocations of public resources that would be put to better use in providing direct assistance to those most in need, and it often leads to policy solutions that intensify police surveillance of already marginalized communities. The panic myth that is so predominant in media coverage of these events undermines the known capacity of survivors to support themselves and others by portraying the event and those affected as completely helpless and out of control.

So why do media do this? Why, in the face of so much research showing how rare it is for people to panic in a crisis, do media stories of disasters hinge on this narrative construct? In many cases, it is because the myths have simply been retold so many times that they are now accepted as “common sense”—part of the lore of disasters. The enterprising reporter covering a plane crash, earthquake, mass shooting, or other emergency event can often add color to a story, using quotes from survivors telling of their escapes, tales of courage or cowardice, descriptions of carnage and panic (Metz, 1991, p. 297). Another difficulty is the emotional nature of the incident: disasters marked by tragedy, destruction, and death are emotion-packed news events. In the midst of fear, anxiousness, and loss, it is not uncommon for sources to become confused or antagonistic toward reporters (Stone, 1992, p. 144). Reporters not only believe these myths themselves—their reports convince others that they are true as well. Finally, media organizations simply have limited attention spans, particularly for complex incidents without a clear beginning, middle, or end. As the investigative journalist Patrick Cockburn (2011) writes, “Once the initial drama of a disaster is over, coverage frequently dribbles away because nothing new is happening.” Moeller supports this view when she argues, “Newsrooms have difficulties making long-running humanitarian crises remain fresh . . . If I tried to sell you the story of Congo, you might say it could wait until tomorrow, or the next day, or the next decade” (Moeller, 2006, p. 180).

Although disaster myths are widely believed, people tend to act according to a different script. Many believe that people will panic, but often they don’t. They think victims will be irrational, but they often respond calmly. They may also think that other people will loot, but they won’t loot themselves. That is less true of organizations. Unlike individuals, organizations (governments, non-profit groups, corporations) sometimes act as if these disaster myths were entirely accurate. There is a tendency to hold back warnings that will help people for fear that they’ll be incapable of coping. For example, at the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, in 1979, news outlets advised people to get off the streets because they believed they would panic, and decision makers wanted to ease the level of public concern and mitigate the potential for chaos (Sandman & Paden, 1979, p. 58). Finally, it’s not only media organizations that are responsible for producing disaster myths. Even humanitarian organizations like the Red Cross, which are in most circumstances highly reliable sources of disaster preparedness information, are capable of amplifying these distortions. In 2005, the Red Cross launched a media campaign whose theme was “I can’t stop a [tornado, flood, fire, hurricane, terrorist attack, etc.], but I can stop panic” (cited in Tierney et al., 2006, pp. 59–60). In addition to falsely suggesting that people can’t stop disasters from occurring, the campaign also suggested that panic avoidance should be a top priority when disasters actually occur.

The Role of Media in Disaster Mitigation, Response, and Recovery

Despite the constraints and shortcomings described above, news media also play an important and constructive role in times of emergency. When people hear warnings from any source, one of the first things they do is seek some confirmation of what happened, and the first source they turn to is a media outlet. In 1992, a warm front brought record high temperatures to Peace River, Alberta, immediately after a major snowfall, and as temperatures rose to 20 degrees above normal, the snow pack quickly melted into rivers and streams. When ice jams blocked the river and water poured over the dykes, a state of emergency was declared, and officials ordered evacuations of several residential areas, schools, and part of the downtown business section—much of it simultaneously. Families were separated and some response agencies had trouble locating staff because many of them had been forced from their homes and offices. In the absence of website updates, SMS, and continually refreshing Twitter feeds—all now accepted good practices of emergency communication—everyone relied on local radio to stay informed (Scanlon, Osborne, & McClellan, 1996).

Today, our reliance on the media for disaster information often depends on the nature of the crisis and where in the world it has occurred. Early warning systems are a complex combination of tools and processes embedded in institutional structures, often enhanced by new technologies such as remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS) applications and crisis mapping. Crowdsourcing was used extensively in the 2010 Haiti earthquake, allowing local people, mapping experts, and other stakeholders to communicate what they saw and heard on the ground, and to produce information that could be used by humanitarian workers. Ushahidi, an open-source platform that uses crowd-sourced information to support crisis management, linked health care providers requiring supplies to those who had them (Merchant, Elmer, & Lurie, 2011). Ushahidi and other crisis mapping platforms will mobilize satellite imagery, participatory maps, and statistical models to enable more informed and effective early warning. While these technologies have proven useful in disaster preparedness and ongoing response efforts, questions remain as to how best to evaluate their capabilities or effectiveness.

Despite the hope and hype that new technologies and social media platforms will improve the speed and quality of emergency response, traditional media still perform a critical role in disasters. Patrick Meier (2012), a leading expert on the use of new technologies for early warning and humanitarian response, notes that traditional media are sometimes at the forefront of providing vital life-saving information and shouldn’t be forgotten by first responders. For example, in the case of the 2013 earthquake in Pakistan, Meier wrote that social media and digital technologies were important, but “it was the Pakistani mainstream media that provided the immediate situational awareness necessary for a preliminary damage and needs assessment.” Similarly, in describing the use of social media during Hurricane Sandy, Pete Hunt (2012) argued how the storm highlighted that, while social media are important, their limitations are also significant (e.g., Twitter is useless when your phone battery is dead and the power is out). Hunt showed that radio and other traditional news outlets still have vital, life-saving roles to play in emergency broadcasting, however the reach they have is arguably amplified when they are embedded within the social media environment.

Radio is an integral part of communicating warning messages to the public about an impending disaster such as an ice storm or flood, or about a crisis that is ongoing, such as outbreaks of infectious diseases. While radio continues to be relevant today, it was especially important in the past (Scanlon & Hiscott, 1985). A 1971 Senate Committee on Mass Media study in Canada reported that more than three quarters of Canadians would turn to radio for information in an emergency, compared to only 38% who would use television. As Dynes argued, “radio has a particular advantage in disaster situations because it is more flexible than television and more instantaneous than newspapers” (1970, p. 76). Although other media have eclipsed the important role of radio in providing immediate and timely information in a disaster, radio remains vital during emergencies, especially in parts of the world where television and newer digital media are less prominent. For example, during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, the World Health Organization used local radio more than any other media to support communities in the response and mitigation efforts. Zainab Akiwumi, who heads the WHO’s social mobilization team in Sierra Leone, described radio as a key resource for providing emotional support to affected populations and mobilizing community participation in the response. “On radio, I tell the listeners, you who are listening to me now, take this message and go outside to tell those who did not hear me what I said, as a way to spread it on” (World Health Organization, 2015). But radio use in emergency and disaster situations is also prevalent in the West. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, “community radio practitioners . . . set up transmitters and began broadcasting. FM radios were distributed to evacuees, and emergency announcements as well as simple logistics information needed to reconnect families were broadcast” (AMARC, 2007, p. 42).

Electronic media also play a key role in disaster coverage. The images and stories of disaster portrayed on television often mobilize people to take action, such as evacuate a disaster zone. Online news sites have become important sources of information in a disaster situation as well, and in many countries have overtaken radio, newspapers, and television as a first source of emergency information. The role of mainstream media is changing at a rapid pace with the upsurge in digital technologies, mobile phones, and social media. A study of mobile phone usage after the Haiti earthquake found that geo-tracking of handheld devices helped to identify population movements to support better targeting of aid delivery, and to identify sites of cholera outbreaks (Bengtsson, Lu, Garfield, Thorson, & von Schreeb, 2010). Mainstream media receive real-time information from first responders, who are almost always ordinary citizens capturing images and videos with smart phones. For example, most of the first images and accounts of the 2004 Tsunami in Southeast Asia were provided by tourists who were there when the tsunami struck and survived to provide real-time accounts of the destruction (Haddow & Haddow, 2009). Yet, this also demonstrates that the pictures we had of the devastation were almost entirely framed through the lens of western privilege. Indeed, part of what made this incident so compelling was its telegenic qualities for media audiences in Europe and North America. As Moeller argued, “digital technology allowed news organizations to zap those dramatic videos, nearly all shot by people caught up in the disaster, around the world at the speed of light” (2006, pp. 177–178).

The Impact of New ICTs in Disaster Reporting and Response

The proliferation of new information and communication technologies (ICTs) has had a significant impact on disaster journalism, crisis response, and incident management. Increased accessibility to mobile phones and the emergence of social media platforms like Twitter, open data portals, and new information networks have dramatically shifted the mediascape that both constitute and are shaped by emergency events. Internet, social media, and mobile phones have enhanced the speed and accessibility of information during a disaster. Yet, at the same time, these media have also created new opportunities for monitoring and surveillance and have disrupted the ability of states and other powerful actors to tightly manage public perceptions of disaster response.

To illustrate, Cottle (2014) compares the large volume of information and eyewitness accounts that emerged after Hurricane Nagris swept through Burma in 2008 with the news blackout imposed by Chinese authorities after the enormous and destructive earthquake that struck Tangshan in 1976. The speed and availability of information that are afforded by new technologies, combined with the ability of citizens to provide real-time eyewitness accounts of these events, have enabled the proliferation of a multitude of sources of information no longer constrained to traditional gatekeepers of information. However, although new media have arguably democratized the production of and access to information, it hasn’t replaced the vital role that mainstream media play in providing vital life-saving information and reporting on the unfolding of a disaster to an international audience. Covering disasters, particularly in far-away places, is time and resource-intensive, and while citizen accounts from these regions are important particularly in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, properly resourced reportage is crucial to obtaining a fuller, more complete picture of what happened, what the consequences will be, and who may be responsible.

Governments can use social media effectively to mobilize communities, support humanitarian groups, receive feedback from affected populations, and disseminate information, however citizens are most often the main beneficiaries of these technologies. International studies of disasters have documented numerous cases in which ordinary citizens play key roles in disaster response, largely supported by the affordances of newer, mobile technologies. During a five-day media ban following a controversial election in Kenya, social media provided a means for citizens to act as on-the-ground reporters who both produced and curated information (Hughes, Palen, & Peterson, 2013). During the protests, citizen reports of protest activity and violence were published well before traditional media channels reported them. Similarly, the first widely available video footage of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake in China was taken not by a reporter from China Central Television, but by an undergraduate student using a camera phone (Hughes et al., 2013). Finally, in their study of the 2009 l’Anquila earthquake, Farinosie and Trere (2014) argue that citizen journalists are crucial for countering traditional media misinformation in the aftermath of a disaster.

On the one hand, the coverage is seen as overabundant, especially in the first days following the disaster, when conventional media were bombarding audiences with so much information that it was hard to obtain a clear picture of the situation. On the other hand, citizen journalists feel that the mainstream coverage of local events is bad, incomplete, almost entirely pro-government—this is the main reason why they provide their own version of the facts.

(Farinosie & Trere, 2014, p. 80)

While there is enormous potential to harness social and mobile media to improve communication flows and facilitate social mobilization during a disaster, there are also important drawbacks and limitations. False information may be an inherent problem, given the number of people creating information at the same time, and often with different interests and vantage points. Out-dated, inaccurate, or false information not only increase in scale, but also they can complicate situational awareness of an incident and consequently hinder or slow response efforts (Lindsay, 2011). Further, as Tierney (2014) argues, social media does not automatically provide the coordination capability for easily synchronizing and sharing information, resources, and plans among disparate relief organizations. While crowd-sourcing platforms such as Ushahidi are attempting to resolve this problem, humanitarian agencies, governments, and local communities are also working to develop platforms that will ensure information flows are reciprocal, providing agencies an ability to disseminate information and also have capacity to listen to affected populations. Authentication of information from credible sources is also crucial because of the obvious risks associated with an unregulated stream of information, especially as misinformation can spread rapidly online (Navarez, 2012). As is often the case, disasters present a context in which uncertainty and high stress is prevalent, which is why information ideally needs to be transparent, accurate, and easily and quickly accessible.

Another possible limitation of social media has to do with the infrastructural requirements of sustaining an internet-based network, which may be vulnerable to damage during a disaster. Also, depending on the demographics of a disaster area, affected communities may not have access to technologies in the first place. Within hours of the Fukushima earthquake, social media applications were set up to find survivors, to connect communities with humanitarian relief, and to recruit and mobilize volunteers:

A combination of high internet penetration and 3G mobile usage, along with the rapid roll-out of internet-based information initiatives, created a lifeline for those in areas with internet connectivity and power. Those with enough power to use mobile and smartphones were able to access information announcements, contact friends and relatives, and access information about the wider dimensions of the disaster.

(Appleby, 2013, p. 10)

Yet, despite the rapid mobilization and accessibility of ICTs in Japan, the impact of social media was limited by large-scale power outages and damaged telecommunications infrastructure. Moreover, use of these technologies was further hampered by the population demographics of Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima, the areas that suffered the most damage and were in greatest need of assistance. These areas are predominantly rural, with an aging population that were unaccustomed to the affordances of social media.


While mass media are quick to carry coverage of all kinds of emergency events, the attention they devote to any given disaster situation is likely to be determined by who is affected, where it occurred and the type of incident involved. Because the dominant international media language is English and the main global media nerve centers are located in London and New York, media attention is more likely to be sustained if an event occurs in the West or affects westerners in one way or another. When an event is seen as important, media are likely to converge on the scene and commit significant resources to the coverage. This works well when there is a specific site that’s accessible—conversely, this is much more difficult in disasters and catastrophes when there is no obvious site or when the event has disrupted communications and transportation. Unfortunately, media coverage is often distorted by the inaccurate assumption that, in times of emergency, people are likely to panic or will be unable to cope with the stress of the event. Most news organizations are either blissfully unaware or unable to acknowledge that survivors are far more likely to help than to hinder an emergency response—stories of death, despair, and tragedy may be more compelling than stories of coping with loss and supporting others, but this doesn’t make them true. Media coverage of disasters has painted a picture in our heads of panic, chaos, and the contagion of paralyzing fear. There is little to no empirical research that supports this view.

Despite these concerns and the limitations of media coverage, news organizations can and do play an important role in emergencies. They are essential to providing early warnings, and they often afford a key link between the public and official sources. The focus on a specific event can also lead to changes in emergency response, including accelerating opportunities for humanitarian assistance. Media attention is also more likely to happen if the incident appears to have occurred suddenly, such as in a terrorist attack, rather than cases that are slower to develop, like a famine or drought. Shamefully, when media lose interest, so do the authorities and populations who are not directly affected or impacted by what happened. All the while, media provide an important arena or environment in which different policy actors—state and supranational agencies, humanitarian groups, citizen journalists, and others—struggle to capture, chronicle, and define the event in ways that are consonant with their interests and views. A critical understanding of the role media play in disasters has to include some understanding about the politics underlying emergency media coverage.

The increased availability, speed, and saturation of media attention have had a profound effect on the coverage of disasters and the role of communication technologies in disaster response. New communication technologies are reshaping both the global and local experience of a crisis, and infusing disaster communications with new voices and perspectives. Social media networks, in particular, are enabling emergency response agencies to focus their efforts and resources, challenging erroneous official claims and insufficient government response, and mobilizing the international community to provide support at an unprecedented scale. And mobile media present opportunities for situational awareness that were never conceivable in the past. Nonetheless, despite all the hope and optimism, it is important to note that the potential that new ICTs hold for disaster response and mobilization have to be tempered by the realities on the ground, where digital access, infrastructure, policy frameworks, and disaster demographics truly limit their potential and promise.


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