Media Community

Role of the Media

It is important to understand the difference between national/international media and local media.

Along with municipal government and public services, the local media really know a city, its character, its many faces, and its temperature.  They know the range of its elements and have contacts in all areas of the population and geography.  Because of this reach and prior knowledge, they can often gather the most comprehensive overview of an incident and its impact and bring to bear the most insightful analysis to the many challenges being faced by a community in trauma and in rebuilding after the trauma.  National and international media cannot bring to any single incident this detailed understanding and feel for the traumatized community, but they can compare the impact of similar incidents on various cities, how they responded to the incidents and the process of rebuilding.

Firefighter in New York being interviewed near The World Trade Center site/Jo Wolf

In some instances, there may be a level of disconnect between the local media and the national media.   The local media have a better understanding of the culture, ethnicity and impact of trauma on their own community than the more transit national media members, often called “parachute” reporters.  The local media also want to protect their rapport with local officials and agencies, as well as maintain their credibility with their readers and viewers, in order to meet their future needs.

The local media community plays multiple roles in an incident and has complex and sometimes conflicting responsibilities.

In discussions in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, the media identified its role as providing information, stimulating a range of reactions and emotions, including grief, and promoting a sense of involvement.  They felt that, at its best, the media can help stem panic and provide comfort and continuity through its coverage that will provide assistance in the early process of recovery.  (Collective Reflection)

The media serve as conduits for information to both those directly impacted and the general population.  At the same time, it serves as a resource for the first responders to fill needs and distribute information.  In Oklahoma City the media provided information regarding points of contact for victims, called for specific needs such as blood, notified the public when supplies were no longer needed, etc.  The Oklahoman produced a special section in the daily newspaper that provided comprehensive information on the incident including how the public could help and the latest on rescue and recovery.

The local media will play a significant role and bear an element of responsibility in shaping the mental landscape of the rehabilitation and rebuilding process of the community.  Local government, various agencies and the media must respect the needs of each other and assume their roles in this long-term process.  In a traumatic circumstance, the media must be extremely accurate to avoid giving credibility to rumors that might have an escalating impact upon a population that is already vulnerable.

In 2005, The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma reviewed studies related to the impact of the media’s reporting to the public.  The conclusions drawn were

  • Adults seem attentive to media coverage of tragedy, particularly early on.
  • Exposure to media coverage of tragedy appears to have the most detrimental effect on adults who were directly exposed to the event.
  • Research in the immediate aftermath indicates that
     - Among adults directly exposed to a tragedy, there is a positive relationship between exposure to media coverage of the event and symptoms of PTSD and depression.
     - For adults not directly exposed to a tragedy, there is a positive relationship between exposure to media coverage of the event and symptoms of anxiety and distress.
  • Later research indicates that
     - Among adults directly exposed to a tragedy, there is a positive relationship between exposure to media coverage of the event and prevalence of probable PTSD.
     - For adults not directly exposed to a tragedy, there is a positive relationship between exposure to media coverage of the event and symptoms of distress.
  • Viewing a tragedy live on television appears to strengthen the relationship between media exposure and symptoms of PTSD.
  • Some images of tragedy seem more distressing than others. For example, among direct victims of the September 11 attacks, those who frequently viewed images of people falling or jumping from the WTC reported more symptoms of PTSD and depression. It is unclear, however, how long this effect lasts.
  • Given the sparse research literature, making generalizations is difficult.  Furthermore, it is unknown if people who are more distressed choose to consume more disaster-related news, if news of the disaster causes distress, or if there is some other causal mechanism. It is important to note that media coverage may serve as a traumatic reminder to those affected by the event.

The full article can be viewed at

Central contact for media and information must be established in the first few hours.

Satellite City where the media was clustered and served in Oklahoma City/City of Oklahoma City

This contact must be under the control of a person who understands the media’s informational needs and time deadlines.  The media must fill time and space.  In a disaster, members of the media report the story, assist in filling special needs regarding supplies and services, and shape the public mindset.  For this reason, they should be treated as vital in the rescue and recovery process, especially the local media.  Political and business leaders and non-profit agencies should provide the media with regular updates, both print and oral.  Material presented orally should be accompanied by printed summaries and/or fact sheets.  The community must respect the fact that the media, while providing a service, is also a business.

The focus of media in covering disaster incidents – particularly terrorism

  • The media must be cautious about reporting on the motives of perpetrators of violence
  • The media should avoid exaggeration of the extent of emotional injury
  • The media should be wary of putting “terrorism experts” on the air who do not understand the psycho-social dynamic of this sort of incident
    (National Center for Critical Incident Analysis: Comments on London Bombings)

Perhaps, one additional caution is necessary for focus of media in covering disasters.  Be cautious about giving the impression that one action or theme is universal to the circumstances.  For example, media coverage of dangerous behavior in the SuperDome was proven to be misleading and inaccurate.  In most cases, although there was extensive coverage of the looting in New Orleans, responsible coverage also made the point that many individuals were only seeking survival necessities.  Since the media shapes the public understanding of an incident, it is important not to make the actions of a few appear to be indicative of the many.

Media need to meet physical plant and employee needs to continue filling their role.

In Oklahoma City, The Journal Record newspaper was located in one of the bombed buildings.  The business newspaper was in a unique position to provide insight and perspective on the toll the incident took on the community, which it did by the second day after the incident on borrowed presses.  Clear Channel radio stations were located in the same building with the FBI.  The building was evacuated, but the radio stations continued to report until the last possible second and returned as soon as possible.  As it turns out, the first reporter on the scene after the bombing was one of Clear Channel’s employees, and she began reporting live minutes after the bombing.  KWTV-News 9, the CBS affiliate, gave the viewers in the Oklahoma City area the first visual of the Murrah Building because its helicopter was in the area covering the morning traffic.  KWTV broadcasted visuals until the air space was restricted by law enforcement.

In New Orleans, The Times-Picayune used the Houma Courier presses to continue producing the newspaper.  One of the radio stations in New Orleans rode out the hurricane and flood, broadcasting continually until the power went out.

Media may need to find substitute locations from which to produce their product. They will need to consider basic food, water, and communication needs in the wake of a disaster to keep their staffs healthy and able to produce.  Media personnel must be assured that their families are safe and know that they, themselves, are safe.  Media outlets should prepare disaster plans that can be enacted when their facilities cannot be used in the aftermath of a tragedy.

Media need to be aware of the potential personal toll in covering traumatic incidents.

The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma published, in October 2005, an article compiling the results of research regarding what was known about the occupational stress of covering traumatic events.  The following is an excerpt from that article:

  • The majority of journalists witness traumatic events in their line of work.
  • Most journalists exhibit resilience despite repeated exposure to catastrophic events. This is evidenced by low rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety disorders. A minority are at risk for long-term psychological problems.
  • A significant minority of journalists may develop mental health symptoms including symptoms of PTSD, depression, or anxiety. In particular, it has been documented that war correspondents may be at greater risk for developing PTSD, depression, and drug- or alcohol-related problems.
Conclusions:  These studies suggest that increasing perceived social support for journalists who cover traumatic events may be a cost-effective way to address occupational risks. Lack of social support has been identified as a potential risk factor for trauma survivors (e.g., Brewin et al., 2000) and first responders (e.g., Halsam & Mallon, 2003). Educating journalists about risks and strategies for coping with these risks may be fruitful. For example, reduction of exposure to traumatic work-related events, education regarding maladaptive patterns of thinking, and coping skills for dealing with intense negative emotions may be beneficial for journalists. In addition, news managers may want to consider ways to structure the workplace to increase organizational support and decrease risks.

Complete article

The potential of new technology and new collaborations

Billboard on the interstate just outside of Atlanta, GA/In Their Name Collection, Oklahoma City National Memorial

“The digital communication revolution exposed novel channels and networks for information flow that require reexamination of the relationships between media, government, and citizens.  The traditional top-down paradigm was replaced by a more dynamic flow of information that empowered citizens and created ad hoc distributive information networks.” (First Informers, 13)  New technology is both enhancing and challenging the more traditional media, but media is a creative industry.  Disasters require creativity and even promote innovation and creativity.

  • Media is exploring new partnerships with and the potential of digital communication, citizen communication and blogging.
  • Media is exploring ways to protect and enhance the communication systems to avoid interruption caused by disasters, such as safer facilities and WiFi hot spots.  (ibid., p. 35)
  • Media is exploring collaborative efforts among commercial rivals and different media platforms.  After 9/11 the Federal Communications Commission established the Media Security and Reliability Council, which has developed templates for broadcasters to use in planning for disasters, individually and in cooperation with other local media and government. (ibid., 31)

The media and the government

After the Oklahoma City bombing, the Oklahoma City Fire Department, leading the search and rescue effort, made a deputy chief available at regular briefings at predetermined locations.  Prior to establishing this structure, briefings had been conducted with heads of each of the involved agencies presenting the latest information and responding to media questions.  By the third day, a multi-agency communication center had been established that provided continual updates from all agencies.  During the rescue and recovery, pool teams comprised of print media, visual media and audio media were taken into the search and rescue site.

Following the Oklahoma City incident, there was a major push, at least in the Oklahoma City area, for every agency to hire and train a Public Information Officer (PIO).  Manuals were written and training sessions were held to train personnel not only to provide information but also to manage information. This was criticized in the post-Katrina conference held by the Aspen Institute.

The media personnel expressed a need to be able to communicate directly with the operational leaders and experts.  “In the aftermath of September 11, David Bohrman, Washington bureau chief for CNN, said there was ‘a lot of forthrightness’ from governmental officials at all levels in what he described as the Giuliani approach: ‘Here’s what we know; we don’t know a lot, and here’s all I can help you with right now, and, if I learn more or learn I was wrong, I’ll let you know in an hour.’”  (First Informers, 10)  Distrust between media and government is ubiquitous, and trust-building depends on mutual recognition of institutional limits and shared responsibility to a common constituency.  Journalists desire greater access to operational leaders and experts and more transparency by government.  Government officials have concerns about exposing classified information, disseminating misinformation and overtaxing personnel and resources that are already stretched thin.  (ibid., 21-27)

Possible solutions

  • Creation of Joint Information Centers (JIC) and their integration into a joint information system was a goal of the National Response Plan (NRP) that Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had considered even before Katrina.  The lack of such Centers only exacerbated the mixed and contradictory information disseminated by the government and enhanced the adversarial atmosphere that already existed between media and government.  The media “stepped in as surrogates for the public and advocates for victims, sometimes dropping any pretense of detachment or objectivity.  Reporters standing waist-deep in water or shouting from highway overpasses, not anchors in the studio, marked journalism that was both emphatic and empathetic.  As the governmental response faltered and the adversarial grace period evaporated, journalists immediately questioned authority and demanded action.” (ibid., 11)
  • Embedding has been a valuable mechanism for the Iraqi War and is being considered by DHS as a way of including the media during disaster rescue and recovery.  Embedding and pooling pose some problems, however, with the advent of the new more diverse media.  At the time of the Oklahoma City bombing, media pools were used, but media forms were still more traditional (print, visual and audio).  There is some concern among the media as to who would be involved in embedding and pooling in today’s media. (ibid., 32)
  • Pre-announced information centers featuring regularized briefings by top officials, not their public information officers.  (ibid., 23)
  • Avoid the “Gotcha” game.  Media desire more transparency and timely information.  Government officials are concerned about getting the information right the first time.  Correcting information lessens credibility, is less apt to be featured with the same importance as the initial story and leaves the government open to claims of misrepresentation.  David Bohrman of CNN recommended that an image of forthrightness is most important.  Tell people what you know, even if you don’t know everything. (ibid., 26-27)  Mayor Giuliani very candidly shared his limitations of knowledge with the media in 2001 and advised in a meeting in Oklahoma City in 2007 that the approach had served him well.  (Oklahoma City National Memorial National Media Symposium with Rudy Giuliani and Ron Norick)
  • Better understanding of how each works through collaboration.  Inclusion of the media in the disaster planning process might be advantageous to understanding.  The Radio-Television News Directors Association hosted workshops on preparedness for terrorism attacks that included journalists with emergency management officials in 10 cities.  One of the lessons learned was “it wasn’t just that the media got educated in what the government was up to.  The government got educated in how the media thinks and what their likely reactions would be.” (Barbara Cochran, First Informers,  33)

    Concerns regarding inclusion of media in table top exercises stem from the very function of a table top, which is to find the gaps, weaknesses and mistakes in the plan.  Irresponsible coverage could cause embarrassment, exposure of soft areas and hinder the efforts to correct the problems identified in the exercise.  The media must be very cognizant of its reason for inclusion and to fill its role as a member of the whole trying to build a safer city.  The media could be an asset in helping to fill the gaps in public preparedness, but it also needs to be fully aware of its responsibility in not revealing information that exposes soft targets or hinders the government’s efforts to rectify and strengthen the weaknesses identified in the exercise.

Media may play a key role in launching the core networks.

In Oklahoma City, the image of city leaders showing confidence in the search and rescue effort strengthened the entire city and the visual and print media providing information of ways the public can help probably both launched and channeled the activities of the core networks.  But, in order for the media to fulfill its role in launching the core networks, it must be informed about any progress. In NYC, the image of a strong mayor gave the local and national public hope and confidence. In New Orleans, feature stories such as those about the successes in Broadmoor and Holy Cross, construction in Lakeview and on the Musicians Village in the Ninth Ward and the revival of the unique culture all contribute to the encouragement and potential of core networking.  THIS TYPE OF REPORTING IS PREDICATED ON THE MEDIA BEING INFORMED ABOUT THE PROGRESS BEING MADE.

As the media covers the succeeding activities, such as memorials and remembrance events, they need to keep the coverage current, supportive and respectful, being continually mindful of the influence that they have in any community.

The media is a natural ally in the Memorial Process.

Media are a front-line for ideas.  In Oklahoma City, the media were inundated with drawings, memorial ideas, poems and songs.  Because of their relationship with the public via coverage of an incident, they are the natural recipients of much of the public out-pouring in response.

As the memorial process begins, the media are primary conduits through which the public will be contacted to participate and evaluate.

Because the media will undoubtedly be covering the memorial process, they will also be viewed by the public as primary sources of information on the progress of the memorial process.  Through their coverage they will play vital roles in shaping the public’s view of the process.

Resources for Help 

The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma
Department of Communication
102 Communications Bldg.
Box 353740
University of Washington
Seattle, WA 98195-3740

The Dart Center is a global network of journalists, journalism educators and health professionals dedicated to improving media coverage of trauma, conflict and tragedy. The Center also addresses the consequences of such coverage for those working in journalism.

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