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Framing in news coverage of major U.S. natural disasters, 2000-2010

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When disaster strikes, newsrooms swing into action, with reporters working long shifts to cover breaking events. Huge amounts of coverage are typically devoted to the immediate aftermath of a disaster, as stories of victims emerge. Occasionally reporters will delve into issues of community preparedness — both strengths and weaknesses — and spotlight issues that could help mitigate future disasters. But such reports are less common. Particularly with the national media, disaster coverage appears to have its own distinctive patterns that differ from reporting on other major news events. And the frames for coverage — the ways journalists select and package information — may not always be ideal for civic learning and future policy decision-making.

In the 2013 study “Disaster News: Framing and Frame Changing in Coverage of Major U.S. Natural Disasters, 2000-2010,” published in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, J. Brian Houston and Cathy Ellen Rosenholtz of the University of Missouri and Betty Pfefferbaum of the University of Oklahoma analyzed press accounts of 11 major events: Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, Hurricane Charley in 2004, Hurricane Frances in 2004, Hurricane Ivan in 2004, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hurricane Rita in 2005, the Evansville tornado in 2005, the California wildfire in 2007, the Super Tuesday tornado outbreak in 2008, the Iowa floods in 2008, and the Arkansas floods in 2010. The field of news analyzed included 927 reports from five major news outlets: the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the New York Times, ABC World News and CBS Evening News.

Key study findings included:

  • The data showed that “on average, mass media covered natural disasters for shorter periods of time than other issues; that media coverage tended to focus on the current impact of disasters on humans, the built environment and the natural environment (i.e., who was hurt or killed and what was destroyed); that disaster economics was an important topic; that disaster media coverage generally focused on the state and region related to the event; and that disaster news was largely about what was happening now.”
  • News topics typically have a life of about 18.5 months in the media, but disaster stories were only reported on for 12 months. (The researchers note that outlets in communities affected by disasters covered the events for longer periods of time.) Further, if coverage of Hurricane Katrina is excluded, disasters were only covered for an average of 178 days among the national outlets examined.
  • Nearly two-thirds of the coverage, 62.8%, occurred in the first 30 days after the disaster began.
  • Early coverage tends to focus on physical damage, while later coverage looks at the human interest and political dimensions. “Given the significant impact that disasters can have on the human, built and natural environments, the media’s tendency to move away from an environment frame is worthy of further examination.”
  • The findings ultimately “raise questions about the implications of such disaster coverage on wider political conversations about disaster-related issues such as disaster aid, environmental protection, global climate change or the costs of human development in areas prone to natural disasters.”

“From a preparedness perspective, media coverage can help communities identify potential threats, advocate for needed changes in the built environment, and inform personal and family disaster readiness,” the researchers conclude. “Media coverage could [also] inform citizens of available post-disaster services and provide a forum for community planning about post-disaster rebuilding. From resilience perspective, ‘responsible’ media could play a key role in creating a narrative about the disaster for the community.”

Keywords: disasters, news, California


    Writer: | Last updated: October 10, 2013

    Citation: Houston, J. Brian; Rosenholtz, Cathy Ellen; Pfefferbaum, Betty. “Disaster News: Framing and Frame Changing in Coverage of Major U.S. Natural Disasters, 2000–2010,” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 89 (4), 606-623. doi: 10.1177/1077699012456022.

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    Analysis assignments

    Read the issue-related Reuters article titled "Terror and the Template for Disaster Journalism."

    1. What key insights from the news article and the study in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues?

    Read the full study titled “Disaster News: Framing and Frame Changing in Coverage of Major U.S. Natural Disasters, 2000-2010.”

    1. What are the study's key technical terms? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
    2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
    3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
    4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
    5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

    Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

    1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
    4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
    5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
    6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

    Class discussion questions

    1. What is the study’s most important finding?
    2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
    3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
    4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
    5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
    6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?