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How media cover disasters

The media's approach

A 1989 book examining how mass media covered specific crises suggested that reporting was largely even-centered. Events pertaining to each crisis made the news as steps in a timeline format. In doing this, the media may have missed important story angles. One researcher worried that inadequate coverage of complex issues could confuse or even mislead readers.14

Buckhart saw news frames in disaster coverage. These allowed the media to quickly gather and assimilate news but they also presented some potential risks.

“Such coverage may create disaster stereotypes, elevate heroes to prominence…and create stories with good guys and bad guys. Once a disaster becomes less newsworthy, the media give little coverage to recovery and to possibilities for mitigation of future threats.”7

Another source described coverage as melodramatic, body-count reporting that focused on the “unique rather than the patterns of events.”32 This “event-centered” style did not provide much context or analysis on the issues. It should be noted, however, that the prestige press escaped some of this criticism directed at television news organizations.

Has news coverage changed since then? Barnhurst and Mutz’s content analysis of three major newspapers’ stories on crime, accidents and employment revealed a trend away from this event-centered journalism. Instead, “they emphasize groups rather than individuals and depend on outside expert sources. They explain a single event by referring to other time periods. They focus on larger regions rather than particular addresses, and they emphasize the how and why rather than on the event itself.”2

The researchers suggest that newspapers developed this style to compete with television. Though the latter is able to deliver breaking news to its audience, newspapers were able to provide more depth of coverage and analysis.

Over a decade ago, one writer appealed to reporters to seek expert sources at universities when communicating stories about science and health. Getting opinions from both sides of an issue “may provide an illusion of objectivity” if those people are politicians and activists and not scientists and doctors.27 In other words, “Put health risks in perspective.”

Is the same still true today? Twenty-four hour news networks now bring in “experts” to discuss the history of conflicts, the ramifications of court opinions, and predictions of elections. Instead of avoiding depth, are the media over-analyzing stories? And has the Web, which provides mainstream media a place to report events along with links to all sorts of background information, changed the way news is reported?



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Copyright © 2003

Heather M. Edwards

Last Updated 4/16/03

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