Role of media in Disaster Management

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“Role of media in Disaster Management”


Reducing the losses of life and property caused by natural hazards is a compelling objective now receiving worldwide attention. It is now being increasingly believed that the knowledge and technology base potentially applicable to the mitigation of natural hazards has grown so dramatically that it would be possible, through a concerted cooperative international effort, to save many lives and reduce human suffering, dislocation, and economic losses simply by better information, communication and awareness. Timely mass media communication about impending disasters can lead to appropriate individual and community action, which is the key to implementing effective prevention strategies including evacuation and survival of people. Such communications can educate, warn, inform, and empower people to take practical steps to protect themselves from natural hazards. The role of media, both print and electronic, in informing the people and the authorities during emergencies thus, becomes critical, especially the ways in which media can play a vital role in public awareness and preparedness through educating the public about disasters; warning of hazards; gathering and transmitting information about affected areas; alerting government officials, helping relief organizations and the public towards specific needs; and even in facilitating discussions about disaster preparedness and response. During any emergency, people seek up-to-date, reliable and detailed information. The main principle of information provision, therefore, should be an ethical one: and so, during an emergency, the media should be sensitive to the needs of the public in affected areas and should avoid misinforming and broadcasting unconfirmed reports that may lead to despair and panic. Therefore, correct and reliable information disseminated through the media is an important instrument for balancing the possible effects of incorrect, misleading or even willfully distorted information. Reliable and timely information provided through the media can help people overcome any kind of fear and fatalism during and after an emergency. Indeed, the availability of reliable and timely information and knowledge about an event and the resulting needs help to improve solidarity and also creates an atmosphere conducive to collective response for sharing the humanitarian challenges created by disasters. Media today has arguably penetrated every household in the world, in one form or another. Journalists pride themselves in reporting objectively on global events and regard an independent media as one of the pillars of democratic society.

1. Introduction:

Media coverage of natural disasters (and major events in general) defines and limits the discourse associated with these events. Natural disasters destroy capital resources while degrading the services they provide. Media coverage gives priority to the recovery of various forms of capital – natural, human, social, and built (see Ekins, 2000 for definitions) – based on cultural, social, political, and technical biases present in all media. This paper argues that these priorities shape how the public perceives the risks posed by natural hazards and that these perceptions will influence the set of strategies for the mitigation of future vulnerabilities that the public deems to be reasonable and worthy of expenditure (e.g. taxes, opportunity costs, lifestyle changes, etc.). We begin by reviewing the theoretical aspects of the media relevant to its role in natural disaster response and recovery. Through quantitative and qualitative content analysis, we will demonstrate how the media framed the events of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (of the 2005 hurricane season; henceforth “Katrina”) in terms of the roles the four capitals play in recovery and future vulnerability. Television, newspaper, and opinion polls comprise the media texts of the analysis. Comparisons will be drawn within and between media types as well as across time. The discussion will synthesize the theoretical roles of the Media with the framing of Katrina by applying the elaboration likelihood model (Petty and Cacioppo, 1986 in Pidgeon et al., 2003, p. 127) to characterize future public perceptions of the risks posed by natural hazards. The bridge from media theory to analysis is not easily traversed. The ever-increasing volume of media texts outstrips the time available to interpret them. Content indexed in databases (e.g. LexisNexis) are valuable research tools, but current indexing techniques are far more effective for text than for multimedia content (e.g. audio, video, etc.). Further, the results from searches on these databases are only as good as the content metadata and database indices. These searches typically involve the selection of keywords that are believed to be associated with the topic being researched (cf. Robinson, 2001). However, these keywords often have other connotations; indeed they are instances of Baudrillard’s (1981) “sign object.” They are merely signifiers that may be associated with one or more meanings. Therefore, one must be cautious when interpreting search results based on such keywords.

2. Media roles: functions and consequences:

The news media plays numerous roles in modern societies, ranging from primary functions such as informing and educating to emergent functions that result from interactions between the media and other social systems. It is these emergent functions that dominate the media’s relationship to recovery from natural disasters. In the course of reporting major events as they unfold the media provides metaphors that ineluctably promote particular readings of these events. These Roles of the media vis-à-vis natural disasters are considered in turn.

2.1. Social utility:

A basic understanding of the mass media’s purpose is that it spreads information to the populace. In the case of disasters, the media can provide vital information to those in and around affected areas. In this role, the media follow the unfolding of events as roughly objective observers (for more on the media and objectivity, see Anderson, 1997), reporting information to those directly affected by the disaster (victims, relief workers, etc.) and more significantly – from a social point of view – to society at-large. On a social level, mass media functions as a “social glue” by disseminating common information to various population sub-groups across geographic boundaries. This role is especially important in light of the recent trends of civic disengagement. As Putnam (2000) notes, mass media, particularly television, “at its civic best can be a gathering place, a powerful force for bridging social differences, nurturing solidarity, and communicating essential civic information.” (p. 243) by making the same information available to all, mass media enables common social experience in heterogeneous societies. In this sense, the media is itself a form of social capital.

2.2. Frames and metaphors:

Linking events into narratives Information disseminated by the media is shaped by many factors, most notably the characteristics of particular media forms as well as by journalistic and editorial practices. Satellite-driven television news and full-color newspapers thrive on the rapid transmission of dramatic images from event scenes. As Anderson (1997) notes, the intersection of complex social, political, economic, and environmental issues “require journalists to transform technical jargon into laypersons’ language; this itself may involve processes of interpretation and selection.” Moreover, editorial decisions, influenced by diverse forces such as cultural biases and profit motive, serve as a powerful selective force (p. 53). Interpretation and selection processes lead the media away from mere information dissemination and toward the social construction of problems (Vasterman et al., 2005) in which dominant subnarratives can be perpetuated in media narratives of disasters. Building on Lakoff’s and Johnson’s (1999) work on framing and metaphor, we can see how media narratives serve as semantic frames that “provide an overall conceptual structure defining the semantic relationships among whole ‘fields’ of related concepts and the words that express them.” Frames allow agents to generate inferences and assign meanings to symbols (from words and sentences to images both still and moving) enabling the cognition of events in terms of particular frames. In the process of framing, Vasterman et al. (2005) argue that the media relates individual events into narrative structures that are built on metaphors. In an earlier work, Lakoff and Johnson (1980) show that metaphor affords the coherent structuring of experience that enables the symbolic manipulation necessary for narrative frames to operate (see chapter 15 in Lakoff and Johnson, 1980 and pp. 115–117 in Lakoff and Johnson, 1999). Narrative frames can be characterized by their degree of: objectivity (i.e. reflecting the “truth” of a situation), impartiality (i.e. giving equal time to competing points of view), and neutrality (Anderson, 1997, pp. 46–7). Entman (1993) points out that this framing of events involves: select[ing] some aspects of a perceived reality and mak[ing] them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described. Typically frames diagnose, evaluate, and prescribe… (For a discussion of the importance of problem definitions in Ecological Economics, see Farley et al., 2007) These narratives cast the available actors as villains, heroes and victims. Benthall (1993) suggests that such narratives are a variation of the folk narrative and provide familiar entry points through which the public maps disasters onto preconceived mental models — models based on the “hierarchic distribution of power in society.” The folk-narrative nature of media coverage of disasters lends itself to the identification of villains – from individuals and groups to technologies and processes such as levees and wetland loss – on whom the failings of the disaster preparedness, response and recovery can be blamed.

2.3. Positive feedback loops: media hype

Positive feedback loops operating in the media are enabled by the self-referential nature of mass communications. To quote Vasterman et al. (2005) at length: During a media hype, news coverage seems to lead a life of its own, pushed forward mainly by self-reinforcing processes with the news production itself. Media hypes are triggered by unusual or shocking events…which are framed in such a way that the media shift into a higher gear, hunting for ‘newer’ news on the topic. A new wave is created by these intensive news making activities of the media and are then reinforced again and again by extensive coverage of the social actors’ reactions, responding to the massive media attention to a topic. Once a topic gains a certain level of attention in the media, it attracts more attention, and, because it attracts more attention, it becomes more noteworthy. This self referential system creates positive feedback loops, expanding the news wave. (p. 111) Hypes are accelerated by journalistic competition (i.e. the drive to be the first “with the scoop”) and benefit from shorter news cycles that have resulted from improvements in information technology. These technological developments –from newspaper and telegraphs, television and satellites, to digital technology in general – have made media hypes increasingly likely. These hypes act as a selective force in the formation of narratives around major events by promoting a small number of mediagenic topics (selected for by the aforementioned journalistic, editorial, and media forces) that jam the media, leaving little room for the discussion of topics “outside of the loop” (both related to and disparate from the major event in question). Opinion polls, especially those that ask questions about the media, are an important component of feedback loops in the media. The results of polls are frequently news topics in print, broadcast and electronic media. Many polls are commissioned by the news organizations that are reporting their results. Thus polls are both products and ingredients of the media – the output of these polls serves as input for subsequent media products (stories, editorials, and future polls). Hence the results of polls must be carefully considered – however statistically sounds their sampling and analysis may be. In general, these polls cannot be expected to capture opinions outside of dominant media frames. In this sense they amount to little more than pop quizzes registering how well respondents are paying attention to the media source that commissioned the poll.

2.4. Risk amplification and attenuation:

Modern mass media is a central force behind the social construction of risk. This is due to the social utility of the media, its narrative-forming tendency, as well as the focusing power of media hypes. The media’s function as social glue and television’s unique psychological power (discussed below) serve to legitimize the information received via the media. Thus legitimized, the information is more likely to be understood in terms of the narratives in which it is presented. Vasterman et al. (2005) point out that post-modern peoples feel threatened by invisible risks that exist only through second-hand information. Given the social origin of secondhand information, such risks are a priori subject to social definition. The narratives constructed by the media necessarily select those items to include and those to exclude. Inclusion in media narratives serves to amplify, justifiably or not, certain risks. Exclusion from a narrative can attenuate, for better or worse, the risk posed by particular threats. As suggested by Pidgeon et al. (2003, pp. 127–8) and others, the role of the media in the social amplification of risk can be understood in terms of the elaboration likelihood model (ELM). This model can be used to predict whether communication on an issue will induce a change in opinion (in an individual) about the issue. In the ELM, changes in opinion can occur through either the “central” or the “peripheral” information processing pathway. The former involves detailed introspective analysis while the latter relies on social cues embedded in the information being communicated (i.e. social information processing). The source of the information and the nature of the risk contribute to how an individual processes the information. The peripheral pathway is more likely to be used when hazards are thought to be under societal control, rather than personal, and when the individual trusts the information source. These two conditions will be evaluated in the discussion.

3. Case study: media promotion of recovery:

3.1. Hurricane Katrina timeline

Hurricane Katrina made landfall as a Category 4 storm near Buras, Louisiana (approximately 50 miles southeast of New Orleans) on the morning of August 29th, 2005. By August 30th, up to 80% of New Orleans was flooded — the result of storm surges breeching the levee system of the largely-below-sea level city. The evacuation of New Orleans, which began with the mandatory evacuation order by Mayor Ray Nagin the day before the storm’s Louisiana landfall, was more-or-less complete by September 4th. The repair of levees and the draining of New Orleans began in earnest on September 5th. A second hurricane, Rita, made its way through the Gulf of Mexico and approached western Louisiana and eastern Texas by September 23rd. Rita made landfall near Port Arthur Texas (approximately 175 miles west of New Orleans) on September 24th. As it approached and made landfall, Rita’s outer reaches brought more rainfall to New Orleans exacerbating levee breeches and flooding. The above time periods will be used to examine the Strategies for recovering from Katrina emphasized by media coverage as the events unfolded.

3.2. Methods

The quantitative content analysis of this paper examined how media focus during times of acute crisis compares with its focus during less harried long-term clean-up efforts. Keyword analysis of headlines, abstracts (when available) and full texts (when available) were the primary means of analysis. When considering the role and effects of the media, it is necessary to consider its consumption as well as its production. To this end, the qualitative analysis looked at opinion polls of audience interpretation and response to media during the case study time period.

3.3. Media under consideration:

The audience considered by this analysis is adults living in The United States. As most Americans receive their news from domestic sources (Pew, 2005a), American media outlets were the focus of the analysis. Given the broad social scope of this Time period Stage of Katrina.. Immediate aftermath — the flooding Long-term recovery begins paper, national media outlets received the bulk of the attention. However, local newspaper coverage was analyzed in order to explore the ways that national and local media differ in their emphasis of Katrina recovery strategies.

Television is the lowest common denominator of contemporary mass news media (and mass media in general). More people receive their news by television than by any other media (Pew, 2002; Kull et al., 2003). However newspapers – even in the face of declining readership over the past decade (Newspaper Audience Database, 2004) – have arguably greater influence over opinion-forming elite (Benthall, 1993; Putnam, 2000). It was therefore necessary to analyze the content of both TV and newspapers when discussing the media’s role in framing disaster recovery strategies. National evening newscast texts were analyzed using the Vanderbilt University Television News Archive. Analysis was limited to the three traditional broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) and the cable news network’s CNN and FOX News Channel (with approximately 25% and 50% respective shares of primetime cable news viewers in 2004 and 2005 according to Nielsen Media Research). News stories, as well as editorials and opinion pieces, in daily and Sunday newspapers were analyzed. LexisNexis was used for all newspaper text analysis. The New York Times and The Washington Post were selected for analysis due to their broad circulation (ranked 3rd and 5th respectively according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, 2004a,b) as well as their influence in national cultural and political spheres. USA Today was selected because it has the largest circulation in the nation (Audit Bureau of Circulations, 2004c) and for its appeal to popular audiences. The New Orleans Times–Picayune was chosen to provide a local perspective on Katrina recovery. Opinion polls can shed some light on whether audiences’ values agree with those promulgated by the media. Moreover, polls’ role as media texts suggests that they will take part in framing events. However one must be mindful of the potential “echo chamber” effects that result from media reporting on opinion polls. When attempting to glean a less subjective sense of audience response to media it is necessary to consider opinion polls that are not commissioned by media producers. To this end, polls sponsored by The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press were drawn on when discussing public attitudes towards the media. However, polls sponsored by media producers are valuable when analyzing poll results as media texts. This analysis relied on polls sponsored by various news organizations, including: The Associated Press, Newsweek, and FOX News. New media, such as Internet news sites, were not analyzed due to time constraints. Such analysis is indicated in further research, especially considering the prominence of online news as a news source among those younger than 30 (Pew, 2002). weights change as the disaster unfolded? The keywords chosen for this analysis are summarized in Table 2. The methods used to select keywords and analyze their occurrence in media texts build on those employed in Robinson (2001). In selecting keywords, we considered each capital form for its capacity to assist in the recovery from Katrina and to reduce vulnerability to future disasters. For built capital, the theme was restoring services through rebuilding. The human capital keywords were derived from notions of just distribution. Our notion of natural capital focused on structures that provide ecosystem services relevant to tropical storm protection. For social capital, we sought to identify institutions that support individuals in the event of disaster. The selection process involved brainstorming lists of keywords for each form of capital. Individual keywords were tested against the national newspaper sources (i.e. The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today) for the entire time span of study (i.e. 8/30/2005 through 10/31/2005). Keywords that resulted in matching articles—the number of articles tended to be on the order of a half-dozen—were retained. The articles matching a keyword were randomly selected to verify that the usage of the keyword was in the context of the respective capital form. This selection process could be enhanced by more systematic data mining methods such as choosing prominent keywords from an exhaustive list of words, with the frequency of appearance of each that appeared in the publications specified over the time period of the study. However commodity tools do not currently enable this relatively advanced analysis.

To identify newspaper articles related to recovering from Katrina, the keyword “katrina” was searched for in the headline, lead paragraphs and terms while the keywords “rebuild (ing)”, ”restore” and “restoring” were searched for in the headline alone. Articles related to the capital types were identified by refining this search to search for the keywords for each capital type in the full text of the article. For television news coverage, articles related to each capital type were identified by searching for “katrina” and any of the keywords associated with that capital type. The “rebuild(ing)”, “restore” and “restoring” keywords were omitted as including them resulted the exclusion of otherwise relevant pieces (a result of the coarser search granularity afforded by the Vanderbilt University Television News Archive when compared to LexisNexis

4. Results:

4.1. Major newspapers

Throughout the time periods, the major national papers emphasized the recovery of built capital most heavily with social Capital Keywords Built electricity, road(s), infrastructure, construction, real-estate, no-bid contracts Human race, class, poverty, income, education Natural wetland(s), delta, barrier island, sediment Social, community, civic, church capital a close second overall—excepting the initial aftermath phase (Fig. 1). Human capital received roughly equivalent focus during the initial recovery (0.61 articles/day vs. 0.67 and 0.50 articles/day for built and social respectively) and during the beginning of the long-term recovery (0.22 articles/day vs. 0.28 and 0.22). It is reasonable that built capital recovery would be emphasized during the immediate aftermath given the importance of infrastructure to disaster relief efforts (e.g. evacuation, caring for the injured, etc.). However, there is a general lack of coverage of natural capital recovery across all time periods, especially at the peak of Katrina coverage during the initial recovery period (9/5–9/22). How does the coverage of a major New Orleans newspaper, The Times–Picayune, differ? (Fig. 2) Local coverage of Katrina recovery appears to be increasing with time while national coverage appears to be decreasing. This is not unexpected given the national media’s national and international focus. Also, the local paper is produced by people who were themselves dealing with the direct effects of Katrina, so it is understandable that they would be consumed with the daunting task of recovering from this major disaster. Ignoring the understandable absence of local coverage during the immediate aftermath, the balance of coverage is similar to that of the national papers. Built capital receives the most attention, with social capital a close second and human capital a consistent third. Again, natural capital’s role in recovery receives far less attention (except during Hurricane Rita). Natural capital coverage was a paltry 0.08 articles/day during the beginning of long-term recovery while the other capital forms averaged 0.78 articles/day (Fig.2). This result is consistent with the paper’s coverage four-years prior to Katrina (8/1/2001 to 8/1/2005). During this time, the Times– Picayune carried 185 articles featuring “hurricane” in the headline, lead paragraphs and terms with the natural capital keywords appearing in the full text. In the same period, over one thousand articles related to hurricanes did not mention the natural capital keywords.

4.2. Television news

Analysis of television news broadcasts is complicated by the difficulty of archiving and indexing video content. The broadcasts indexed in the Vanderbilt University Television News Archive rely on summaries written by the archive’s editorial staff. These summaries understandably do not include the full text of broadcasts. Thus, the keyword analysis employed for newspaper content may not be as reliable a method when applied to television news. Additionally, the television archive does not allow searches at the same level of granularity as LexisNexis. For example one cannot specify that certain keywords be searched for only in the headlines of broadcasts. However, the distinction between headline and story body is arguably less meaningful in television news given the serial information flow inherent in the medium (ignoring the affects of “channel surfing”). Keeping these limitations in mind, it is worthwhile to perform keyword analysis of nightly television news stories related to recovery from Katrina (albeit slightly modified from the newspaper analysis). Firstly, the dominance of television in the media market makes it a central player in issue framing and social risk construction. Further, television lends itself to fewer stoics and more dramatic coverage than newspaper accounts of even inherently dramatic events such as natural disasters; this may lead to different emphasis in coverage

The coverage of the immediate aftermath of the disaster is dominated by social and to a lesser extent human capital related coverage. This is to be expected given television’s affinity for human-interest interpretations. The emphasis on social capital in national evening news coverage of Katrina (Fig. 3) is overall more pronounced than that of the other forms of capital. Although when focusing on the initial and long-term recovery phases, built capital again shows up as the most emphasized. Again, natural capital received the least attention and even less than in national newspapers (Fig. 1). Similar to national newspapers, there appears to be a trend of less coverage of Katrina as time passes. How does coverage by traditional network news compare to that by major cable news networks? Overall, cable news (Fig. 4) appears to have given more even coverage to the capitals (giving a slight preference to the built), though again natural capital receives relatively little attention. Network news (Fig. 5) had a preference for social capital early on, especially during the crisis phases when Katrina and then Rita were causing their primary damage. Both cable and network coverage seems to have settled on a rough balance between built, social and human capital at the beginning of the long term recovery. The complete absence of coverage for any capital type for cable coverage during Hurricane Rita is suspect. It may be that coverage of Hurricane Rita subsumed that of Katrina during this period, indicating that the keyword “Rita” should be added to the analysis. However this hypothesis is confounded by the strong coverage of built and social capitals from network news during the same period. Further research is indicated to understand this difference in coverage.

The cable news wars paralleled the Red State–Blue State divide in American politics that dominated the zeitgeist of the first half of the opening decade of the 21st century. CNN and FOX News Channel are seen by some as occupying two ends of the political spectrum. How does their attention to the four capitals compare? CNN’s coverage (see Fig. 6) is relatively balanced between the capitals—with the perennial exception of the natural—across all time periods (excepting the aforementioned no-coverage anomaly for cable during Hurricane Rita). Human and social capital saw spikes in coverage during the immediate aftermath of Katrina — as television is wont to do during the unfolding of dramatic events.

The data for FOX News Channel’s evening newscast’s focus on the capitals throughout the unfolding of Katrina are so sparse that even tentative observations or conclusions are hard to draw. It seems that FOX’s capital-related coverage of Katrina (Fig. 7) was roughly on par with CNN’s during the initial recovery, the only difference being the reversal of the weighting of human and social capital. However, FOX’s coverage (again, as specified by the keywords) during the immediate aftermath is only surpassed in spareness by that of USA Today (Fig. 8). It may be that the keywords chosen to represent each capital type are poor choices for content appearing on FOX News Channel and in USA Today. Further analysis is warranted given these outlets’ large audiences.

4.3. Opinion polls:

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press regularly polls public attitudes toward the press and public policy. Its polling in the immediate aftermath and early recovery of Katrina charts public reaction to media coverage of the events as they unfolded. In a poll conducted September 6–7, two thirds of respondents gave “news organizations excellent (28%) or good (37%) ratings for their coverage of the impact of Katrina.” (Pew, 2005a) This suggests that the extensive coverage of Katrina by television and print media sated people’s desire to learn about the disaster and share in the experience. This conclusion is reinforced by the finding that 62% of respondents thought that the amount of coverage was appropriate, while only 21% felt that there was too much coverage of Katrina.

A poll conducted September 8–11 (Pew, 2005b) showed vague consideration of recovery strategies. When respondents were asked if the federal government should help pay for rebuilding New Orleans or if it was “too risky” to rebuild in the current location, 51% thought that the government should help pay while 41% thought it too risky to rebuild (8% did not know or refused to answer). Leaving aside the flawed nature of the question (i.e. its conflation of federal involvement in reconstruction with the orthogonal notion that alternatives to rebuilding in the same location should be considered), a substantial portion of respondents appeared to be critically considering potential recovery strategies. Similar notions appeared in a poll sponsored by the Associated Press conducted September 16–18. Respondents were asked if people who choose to live in areas susceptible to natural disasters should be given government recovery assistance or if they should live at their own risk (in this poll the question did not suffer the same conflation as above). Fifty percent of respondents believed that the government should help affected people recover, while 45% felt they should live at their own risk (5% were unsure). In the same AP survey, half of the respondents were asked if the then 200 billion USD expected to be given over by the U.S. Congress for Katrina recovery was too much, about right, or too little. Twenty-four percent thought this amount too much, while 52% thought it was appropriate. Fifteen percent felt that more should be spent. The other half of respondents were asked their confidence that recovery funds were being spent “wisely.” Fifty percent were confident (8% very, 42% somewhat) while 49% were not (31% not too confident, 18% not at all confident). However, these questions illustrate the danger of echo chamber effects of the media and opinion polls. It is reasonable to infer that most respondents’ only knowledge of the proposed recovery funds and the sagacity of their application came from the media. Indeed, Pew (2005a) found that 89% of respondents felt that television was their main source of news on “the impact of Katrina.” As late as October 12–14th (six weeks after Katrina made landfall in Louisiana) 69% of those surveyed were following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita “very closely” (Pew, 2005d). However, opinion polls conducted during the beginning of the long-term recovery period tended to be concerned with how well/poorly local and federal officials responded to Katrina and with how the federal government should pay for relief (e.g. FOX News poll September 27–28; Newsweek Poll, September 29–30; Pew, 2005c). None of the polls reviewed dealt directly with how people felt about specific recovery strategies. Therefore it was not possible to compare the media emphasis on the four capitals with corresponding audience response. Moreover this poll analysis demonstrates, anecdotally, the difficulty of using poll results – especially from polls sponsored by media producers – to understand public opinion on subjects that are outside of the stream of media coverage. This difficulty, however, illustrates the socially- or at least media-constructed nature of peoples’ opinions of mass cultural events.

4.4. Perceptions of risks post-Katrina

Frewer et al.’s application of the elaboration likelihood model (ELM) to risk communication (cited in Pidgeon et al., 2003) predicts that communication can induce relatively rapid, though not necessarily long-lived, changes in risk perception through the use of social information processing. Recall that social information processing will be favored when hazards are out of the control of the individual. The hazards associated with hurricanes can be mitigated to some degree by the individual (e.g. by choosing not to live in areas affected by hurricanes, advanced evacuation planning, etc.). However there are many social, economic, and natural forces operating that can effectively remove the control that many individuals have over their vulnerability to hurricanes (e.g. family ties to place, not being able to afford to relocate, etc.). Recall further the role that people’s trust of an information source plays in promoting the use of social information processing in the ELM. It has been suggested that television is an instance of the “transitional object” concept of psychoanalysis. A transitional object is the first object to which a child becomes attached that is not herself or her mother. This object provides an association to a child’s first feelings of comfort and is embedded in the psychological makeup of adults (Benthall, 1993, p. 214). If transitional objects are retained into adulthood and if television does serve as such an object then it follows that television should have profound influence over its viewers, providing a source of comfort that arguably involves a trust relationship. Were the media a trusted source of information for Katrina-related information? Pew (2005d) summarized favorable views of news media across five time periods (October 1997, February 1999, December 2004, March 2005, and October 2005). For the two most recent time periods, 56% (Mar. 2005) and 52% (Oct. 2005) of respondents had a favorable view of news media. Favorability ratings for the two oldest polls were 50% (Oct. 1997) and 49% (Feb. 1999). (The anomalous 43% favorability in December 2004 may be explainable by its following a presidential election) These are not convincing data for the case of public trust in the media in general. With respect to Katrina coverage however, remember that 65% of respondents gave the media positive marks (Pew, 2005a). Thus there is some argument to be made that the media were a trusted source of information regarding the risks associated column-inches or minutes of airtime let alone the subjective notions of journalistic and editorial quality. Further research focusing on more sophisticated content analysis is indicated.

It is too early to tell if Katrina will help to catalyze a change to a natural system reference frame (with the political–economic system as a sub-system). The sustainability and desirability of our society depends on better knowledge of the risks associated with where and how we choose to live. The media’s role in building social cohesion and constructing narratives has made it an important element to social change (e.g. by contributing to problem definitions). However, the forces of profit and politics impel the media to reproduce the status quo represented by market fundamentalism. Given these hegemonic forces, ecological economics must work within the constraints of the mass media to define the problems and present the policy solutions that will uncover the fundamental role that ecosystem services play in our economic system. However, a true shift to a natural system reference frame will likely require a combination of mass media savvy as was well as a jolt from beyond the socio-economic discourse; sound science and policies alone are not sufficient to bring about this change (see Opening the Policy Window for Ecological Economics: Katrina as a Focusing Event, Farley et al., 2007).

5. Summary and conclusions:

If, according to the ELM, the media coverage of strategies for recovering from Katrina did contribute to risk perception, what aspects of hurricane hazards is the public likely to be concerned with? This paper has shown that the built, human and social capital components of hurricane vulnerability and risk will be emphasized over the natural capital components. This can be seen by looking at the emphasis on the four capitals during the beginning of the long-term recovery phase of Katrina (9/25–10/31) in television evening news (Fig. 3) and in national newspapers (Fig. 1). The underweighting of natural capital in media coverage of the recovery from Katrina is not surprising considering that the services provided by natural capital are also underweighted in policy making (Costanza et al., 1997). It appears that the dominant media takes as its frame of reference a political-economic system with natural systems in the periphery. However, our own experience of media coverage of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita demonstrate that there have been minority voices calling attention to the value of ecosystem services and their role in mitigating future natural disasters. One of the major limitations of our analysis is that only topic frequencies were recorded. We did not analyze column-inches or minutes of airtime let alone the subjective notions of journalistic and editorial quality. Further research focusing on more sophisticated content analysis is indicated.

It is too early to tell if Katrina will help to catalyze a change to a natural system reference frame (with the political–economic system as a sub-system). The sustainability and desirability of our society depends on better knowledge of the risks associated with where and how we choose to live. The media’s role in building social cohesion and constructing narratives has made it an important element to social change (e.g. by contributing to problem definitions). However, the forces of profit and politics impel the media to reproduce the status quo represented by market fundamentalism. Given these hegemonic forces, ecological economics must work within the constraints of the mass media to define the problems and present the policy solutions that will uncover the fundamental role that ecosystem services play in our economic system. However, a true shift to a natural system reference frame will likely require a combination of mass media savvy as was well as a jolt from beyond the socio-economic discourse; sound science and policies alone are not sufficient to bring about this change (see Opening the Policy Window for Ecological Economics: Katrina as a Focusing Event, Farley et al., 2007). Acknowledgements Thanks to the anonymous reviewers as well as to Karen Refsgaard, Charles Kerchner, and Robert Costanza for reviewing early drafts of this paper. The advice and suggestions of Adrian Ivakhiv were instrumental in the early stages its development. Thanks also to Barry Chad.


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