The Media: Positive Attributes
The significance of the media in the lives of people around the globe has increased dramatically since realizing communication is a vital component of disaster prevention and management. This growing influence is simply improving our connection to the realities of rising threats of natural and technological disasters through projected information such as televised images and detailed newspaper columns. Mass media has a fundamental responsibility in protecting the public from disasters by providing education on potential risks, broadcasting weather forecasts and warnings, and compelling those in power to improve their involvement in the four phases of emergency management. There are many positive elements within each of these responsibilities that reveal certain characteristic of the media to its advantage and are beneficial to a large portion of the population.
People are naturally drawn to disaster and the media is pressured to deliver a story that will capture its viewers. Usually many of these reports repeatedly show sensational images of facial expressions overwhelmed with desperation and grief or structural damages within the threatened vicinity with the ultimate goal of conveying to others just how bad things are after a disaster. Some believe there are psychological implications to graphic media reports and that it desensitizes the human psyche but in the long run it is important to inform people around the world about the possibilities of potential disasters. Images of debris, property damage and suffering within the community are the focus of reports on disaster situations; but there is also positive news of rescue workers conducting constant search and rescue missions to help save the lives of those in distress. On that note, it is recognized that there are heroes to be found among these painstaking stories and an increase in positive stories needs to be told to address the situation in a better light. In many cases, people enjoy amazing acts of heroism and survival to images of gore and destruction. In Hollywood, audiences watch as hardships unfold in storylines and yet happy endings and a positive insight to the situation is always anticipated.
The power of mass communication and broadcast coverage has improved how serious people heed warnings of natural disasters and the measures needed to be taken. This is contributed mainly to images that are embedded in our heads of past experiences. “We live on images and to grasp our humanity, we need to structure these images into metaphors and models.” (Lifton) For example, when Hurricane Katrina hit the coast of Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005, many people did not take proper precautions when told to evacuate. After experiencing the devastating effects of this category five hurricane, people took the warnings to evacuate areas expected to be hit by Hurricane Ivan, three years later, a little more seriously. Post disaster relief is frequently the focus point of a catastrophe but with the help of the media; shifts toward mitigation and preparation are becoming more of a focus. The media has the power to motivate and enable people to prepare for a disaster while educating them on how to react during an emergency situation.
The performance of the media is assumed to be at a certain standard to reassure the needs of the people are being met. It is imperative that replayed communication is not skewed and is properly reported when it comes to the safety of the people and the reduction in structural damages. In resent years, the media has taken measures to improve the level and complexity of emergency coverage with utilizing advanced technology and interviewing experts to help better illustrate causes and mitigation procedures before, during and after a disaster. During these times of crisis, what the government has to say will be listened to by the public, it is only a matter of how swiftly and accurately this vital information is provided to on-site media crews who are there to cover the issue at hand. When the government and disaster managers provide a constant flow of information and are there to inform the public of the situation, the media will skew away from improper reports and speculations. The people rely on the media when an earthquake devastates areas in California or when acts of terrorism affect the lives of people in New York, London and various other locations around the world. People use multiple media sources to obtain numerous accounts of a situation so it important that the information provided is accurate therefore the people can trust the words of authority figures as a disaster is being reported.
The media has a major influence on how the public learns of and perceives the impact of natural hazards and is the main source of information to the general population. The amount of technology available currently is capable of supplying information to a significant amount of the population, even in remote areas where communication systems are not as advanced. Preparing people with a plan of action when disaster strikes will save lives and a vital role of the media is to inform people of these threats to come. For example, meteorologists are a conveyor of information on the anticipation and mitigation of hazards in the duration of a natural disaster. Through the use of technology, they are able to predict and relay the development of a hurricane as it forms thousands of miles away, before it ever hits land, and have a general idea of its potential path of destruction. The news then takes it a step further by informing communities of measures that need to be taken to limit potential risks. In an earthquake that ravaged El Salvador on January 13, 2001, many people were forced to evacuate from their homes and in many cases the only belongings that they took with them were their radios. With radios being their only source of information, this cultural element established the media as being their salvation and form of communication with to the outside world. Through radio announcements, the media became a public service and civil society to the local population by providing news of places of refugee and where to obtain supplies and aid that were available to victims. Frequent messages were publicized over the radio on public health and safety precautions and the media maintained a constant stream of information to the people of El Salvador. They even established a link between earthquake victims and the over two million El Salvadorans that live abroad, by using telephone and internet connections, to assist in informing friends and family of casualties.
The presses assessment of a situation, particularly in developing countries, can generate an influx of financial support and other forms of relief that will assist in the response and recovery phases of a devastated region. There are numerous case studies that embrace the idea of an empirical relationship between media reporting of disasters and private donations to disaster relief agencies. In 2004, a tsunami devastated many coastal areas of India, Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka, media coverage of the event was reported consistently for weeks with images of destruction and figures revealed of people either missing or dead. Within weeks of the disaster, U.S. charities raised $1.6 billion dollars for disaster relief. After terrorist acts of September 11th, the American people donated $2.4 billion dollars and a staggering $3.3 billion dollars was donated to victims of Hurricane Katrina.
We rely on the media to uncover mistakes and wrongdoings by those who are in power and to disclose inadequate procedures that were taken prior to a disaster. The media can identify problems in our society and serve as a medium for reflection. Journalists are known as being watchdogs for civil societies by keeping a critical eye on powerful figures and uncovering scandals and decisions that have obviously failed. This then puts pressure on the government or other agencies to act more effectively and in a timely manner so not to be blamed for improper procedures during a time of need. The media stimulates debates in communities on how to prepare for a disaster or on how response measures were conducted by each level of government. Usually each side of the controversial issue is covered as to inform the public of all sides of the story so individuals can evaluate the situation and come up with their own conclusions. Local, state and federal agencies should take these criticisms as a way to draw and learn from their experiences and look back on procedures taken and modify them where needed. On September 11th, 2001, people from all points of the world were listening to reports and viewing images of two planes colliding into the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in New York City. The nation came together as the President declared a war on terrorism and soon after the different levels of government began creating more advanced precautions and security measures to protect the country from future attacks. Agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, were established after the media exposed the causes and impacts of this disastrous event and as a result the reaction of the government was to reduce exposure to risks and defend the United States from future assailants.
The media plays a critical role in communication between top and lower levels of society by identifying problems occurring and clarifying the situation by delivering information out from the people and into the limelight. Freedom of the press, an attribute of democracy, can be viewed as an early warning system in developing countries to the prevention of famine. Reports and coverage of food shortages in poor regions has allowed governments and relief agencies to respond to the situation before it has become a disaster. In China, where freedom of the press is hindered, between 16.5 and 29.5 million people perished from famine due to the fact that political figures were unaware of the situation until it had escalated into a disaster.
The media is a vital entity to the public and touches on each of the four phases of disaster management. It is a portal into the exchange of information and communication across borders and the responsibility of media is apparent. Many positive elements were explored within the many different responsibilities of the media and many advantages have been a result of coverage of disasters that have occurred. Through these advancements in technology, we are able to advance in procedures and mitigation of natural and man made disasters.
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