Natural Hazards: Changing Media Environments and the Efficient Use of ICT for Disaster Communication

Natural Hazards: Changing Media Environments and the Efficient Use of ICT for Disaster Communication

Helena Zemp
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-987-3.ch004
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The growing importance of mass media in the ‘information society’, combined with society’s increased dependence on electronic modes of information is important to the perception, regulation and management of risk at a local, national and international level. However, media organisations have their own logic and goals that are not necessarily compatible with the logic and goals of disaster planning and assistance agencies. Using a detailed study of the media coverage of floods in Switzerland from 1910 to 2005, we will illustrate the salient features of disaster reporting and how these relate to issues of risk perception and risk prevention behaviour in the public sphere. The findings are used to discuss the traditional media’s shortcomings for the goal of risk reduction, the public’s information seeking behaviour, and the opportunities and limitations arising from the emergence of digital, internet-based information and communication technologies (ICT) for disaster communication.
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When people are under threat, perceived or actual, information seeking is intensified. In such circumstances the national mass media system has a major responsibility to disseminate news, as well as public perceptions of disasters. Optimal preventative strategies for reducing damage require planned interactions with the media. As a system and process, risk communication does not take place in a vacuum. Communication is shaped by a variety of contingent and historical factors, including politics, media and culture (Renn, 1992; Dunwoody, 1992). Optimal disaster communication needs to fine-tune all activities related to disaster planning and relief with the logic of traditional and new media. Effective communication needs to be based on profound knowledge of media systems. Not understanding media channels and the public’s use of them can worsen crisis and disaster situations (Zemp & Bonfadelli, 2008).

We will argue that communication strategies that are not aligned with the potential victim’s behaviour have a limited opportunity to raise the level of risk awareness. By producing a comprehensive map of the basic structures of disaster coverage deployed by traditional mass media we can identify which areas of the disaster process are covered and which topics are relatively neglected or ignored.

Findings on the changing logic of news production, its consequences for disaster reporting, as well as the public’s information seeking behaviour and its perception of risk, will enable us to identify lessons for the use of new information and communication technologies (ICT)1for risk communication. Evidently, these developments provide low-threshold access to worldwide information, communication and publication. We conclude with suggestions for the successful adaptation of risk communication in an increasingly commercialised environment and the role of web-based information channels.

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