Media Hype's Impacts On Disaster Victims And Endangered Species

July 15, 2006

By JAN KNIGHT

After a disaster, news coverage can amplify risk, create new health syndromes, study shows.

Disasters and their aftermaths can have repercussions that reach beyond the days or weeks that follow, and news reports can strongly impact public reaction to related risks, even contributing to increased reports of health-related problems that may not be linked to the disaster, a recent study shows.

Researchers examining published studies of the news media's impact on how people perceive their health and personal wellbeing after a disaster also found that most studies portrayed the media as "sensation-seeking, enlarging anecdotic stories, especially on who is to blame; being in the way of rescue workers; repeating the same images … over and over again; separating the physical and mental health consequences of the disaster (with no attention paid to the latter); and creating new syndromes."

The researchers specifically focused on news coverage of a 1992 plane crash in an Amsterdam, The Netherlands, neighborhood known as the "Bijlmermeer," killing 39 residents and four crew members. Although mechanical problems were quickly established as the cause of the crash, rumors of a "secret" toxic cargo abounded and received much media attention over the years. In 1998, the rumors were supported by a controversial study showing that traces of uranium had been found in rescue workers' blood and feces and by news reports that the plane carried components of the nerve gas sarin. News media reports of these events created a "toxic agent cover-up" frame, the researchers wrote. Further, the number of people claiming health problems linked to the disaster was associated with the news coverage. Namely, "each time after a media hype, new groups of people reported suffering from 'Bijlmermeer-related' health problems," the researchers wrote, with numbers growing from 611 reports in 1998 to 6,430 in 1999, after a parliamentary inquiry and related news articles.

"In this case, there is reason to believe that the intensive media hypes contributed to the development of a new functional somatic syndrome," the researchers stated, adding that "in their stories, many Bijlmermeer victims directly referred to messages in the media about the link between health problems and the disaster. 

 "Media hypes are media-generated news waves reinforcing over and over again one specific frame while ignoring other perspectives," the researchers stated. "Such news waves can fuel fear and anxiety among people involved in one way or another in the aftermath of disasters. People tend to adopt the explanations offered by the media and integrate them into their story about their own health complaints."

For more information, see Peter Vasterman, C. Joris Yzermans and Anja J.E. Dirkzwager, "The Role of the Media and Media Hypes in the Aftermath of Disasters" in Epidemiologic Reviews, Volume 27, 2005, pp. 107-114.

Shark coverage shifts to focus on recovery, but the "maneater"label persists, study shows.

 News coverage of the grey nurse shark shifted over a 34- year period to focus less on its undeserved reputation as a "maneater" and more on its threatened status, but alarmist language used to describe the shark persisted, a team of Australian researchers has found.

The researchers conducted their study based on the premise that the news media "are central in reflecting broad attitudes and can act as a powerful force in influencing individual attitudes and, furthermore, wildlife policy outcomes."

The grey nurse, also known as the spotted ragged-tooth or sand tiger shark, can be found in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. In Australia, it is listed as critically endangered in the east and vulnerable in the west, and globally it is listed as vulnerable by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals.

Its ferocious appearance may have contributed to its reputation as a human predator and to its near-extinction via indiscriminate killing by spear and line-fishers, according to the Australian Department of the Environment and Heritage. In 1990, the grey nurse was firmly established as a docile animal that poses no threat to swimmers or divers unless provoked.

The researchers examined 41 articles about the grey nurse appearing in 15 Australian newspapers between 1969 and 2003. Nearly half of the articles (49 percent) offered positive coverage, while 39 percent portrayed the shark in neutral terms and 12 percent focused on the shark's alleged ferocity, according to their study. From 2000 to 2003, the coverage became strongly positive, focusing on recovery plans and netting, a major threat to the grey nurse. Previous coverage tended to focus on grey nurse sightings and what are now believed to be incorrect attributions of grey nurse shark attacks

The study included a strong focus on language used to describe the shark, finding that even positive news articles used negative terms, such as the headline, "Bid to save a 'man-eater.'" It also showed that the shark's appearance made its way into many news stories, whether positive, negative or neutral, including descriptions of the shark's "frightening dental work [and] soul destroying glare."

This study was similar to one that examined news coverage of the California cougar, which also showed that the animal's appearance and related but undeserved reputation were difficult to shake and appeared commonly in news coverage.

"Terms such as 'serial killers,' used to describe the California cougar and 'savage killer,' to describe the grey nurse shark are vividly alarmist terms that evoke images of both the California cougars and the grey nurse shark as vicious and indiscriminate killers," the researchers wrote.

"Thus, the underlying implication is that animals that the media refer to as 'killers'" don't deserve public support or protection, they suggested.

For more information, see Marie-France Boissonneault, William Gladstone, Paul Scott, and Nancy Cushing, "Grey Nurse Shark Human Interactions and Portrayals: A Study of Newspaper Portrayals of the Grey Nurse Shark from 1969-2003" in Electronic Green Journal, December 2005. Full text available at http://egj.lib.uidaho.edu/.

Jan Knight, a former magazine editor and daily newspaper reporter, is an assistant professor of communication at Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu. She can be reached at Jknight@hpu.edu.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Summer, 2006 issue

JAN KNIGHT