9th Conference European Sociological Association

RN08 Disaster and Social Crisis

2009-09-03 13:30:00 2009-09-03 15:00:00 Thursday, 3 September 13:30 - 15:00 Disaster, Risk and Communication Building AA, AA.226

Extreme weather events: Disaster information - or disastrously informed? A diagnosis of shortcoming in media reporting, media use habits and risk awareness

Social science literature has established that the media plays a key role in many aspects of crisis and disasters. Specifically national research on media coverage of disasters highlights factors that are unique to a given nation as this research in the Swiss context illustrates. However, the findings have general application to some extent although European national media systems vary in terms of regulation and economic structures.

Most European countries have recently experienced devastating disasters such as flood, storm or drought, associated with global climate change. Switzerland for example, in 2005 faced the worst flood in the last 100 years. In line with Beck's (1986) statement of a so called "risk society" the recent increase of environmental risks and extreme weather are pertinent to measures that aim to mitigate, prepare for or respond to potential threats. In addition, there are general tendencies of increased medialization processes. This includes new modes of communication to manage risk at a local, national and international level. Due to the high level of effectiveness and the value of warning and informing the public, the national media system remains indispensable for risk prevention.

On the one hand, the rapid diffusion of new communication technologies, such as internet or mobile phones can assist with fast and easy communication paths to sustain emergent forms of risk awareness and damage reduction. On the other hand, in the past four decades we have witnessed an unprecedented rise in economic pressures, resulting in profit drives that displace the public service ethos of journalism. However, this market-oriented coverage can significantly alter risk communication and public perceptions of disasters.

The results of my content analysis of flood coverage from 1910-2005 in Switzerland provide new insights into the routines of news media during natural disasters, specifically topic selection and presentation. Additionally, a nation-wide survey is included providing important insights into the styles of media use during a disaster, risk awareness or preparedness. These are areas in which the media can both help and/or hinder. It is in this context that European wide surveys and research of media coverage is of real value.