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Media Interaction With the Public in Emergency Situations: Four Case Studies

NCJ Number
LaVerle Berry; Amanda Jones; Terence Powers
Date Published
August 1999
70 pages
This report analyzes media coverage of four major emergency events in the United States and the impact of that coverage on the public: the Three Mile Island nuclear accident (1979); the Los Angeles riots (1992); the World Trade Center bombing (1993); and the Oklahoma City bombing (1995).
Print and television coverage were analyzed for each event, and radio coverage was examined in one instance. Based on the analysis, the themes identified and discussed from the four case studies are media response time, the media as "creator" of events, the media as a source of emergency information and help, media potential to alleviate or to exacerbate, the media as jury and judge, and the tendency to exaggerate and sensationalize. The study found that the interval of time between the occurrence of each of the four events and the arrival of media representatives on the scene varied widely. The two bombings and the Los Angeles riots received immediate coverage; however, there was little media coverage of the Three Mile Island accident until a day after it occurred; full media coverage did not begin until the second day after the reactor malfunctioned. Regarding the media as "creator" of events, the study concluded that the creation of public tension and fear that attended the Three Mile Island accident and the rioting in Los Angeles were created to one degree or another by the media. Regarding the media as a source of emergency information and help, in the case of the New York bombing, the media provided information that for the most part was beneficial, but was occasionally detrimental when instructions were incorrect or misguided. In Oklahoma City, television media helped to locate victims' families and aided rescue operations by broadcasting appeals for food and supplies. The degree to which broadcast media disseminated emergency information during the Los Angeles riots is less clear. Radio was the primary source of useful information to people in the vicinity of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant. Regarding the media's potential to alleviate or to exacerbate the aftermaths of the events, the four case studies offered instance after instance in which the presence or the reports of journalists served either to alleviate or to aggravate a given situation. In the case of the Los Angeles riots, television reporting in particular exacerbated the violence, even if unintentionally; at least part of the coverage was sensational and probably inflammatory. Television certainly enticed rioters into the streets, and continuous coverage kept them informed about what was happening and where to go to join the rioting. A theme common in all of the case studies was the tendency of the media to focus on placing blame for the emergency. The tendency to exaggerate and sensationalize is recognized by this report as a subjective assessment of media performance; however, there is little doubt that the media tend to focus their images and reporting priorities on the dramatic and most injurious aspects of emergency events. There is a general belief among media representatives that sensationalized images and content help to sell media products and attract television viewers. 81-item bibliography