Are the News Media Responsible for the Disaster Myths? A Content Analysis of Emergency Response Imagery

November 1984 (VOL. 2, NO. 3)

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Disaster research scholars and emergency planners have often contended that the news media play a major role in creating and perpetuating various myths of natural disaster response. These myths include widespread panic flight, psychological dependency and vicious competition for necessities on the part of victims and physical convergence for the purpose of looting by non-victims. The evidence which ties the news media to these myths of community breakdown is largely indirect. Survey data reveal a generalized belief among members of the public that the above enumerated behaviors are typical reactions of peopel faced with a sudden crisis. These data also indicate that the news media are the principal source of information about disasters for most people. Lacking are detailed analyses which document that extent to which the myths of community breakdown actually appear in news coverage o natural disaster events. The present study, which focuses on the reporting of four earthquake events by two Southern California newspapers, attempts to address this issue. The results, though preliminary, suggest that some caution is warranted in making the generalization that natural disaster coverage disproportionately conveys a breakdown imagery of communities facing a major natural catastrophe.