Briefing paper

Leveraging media coverage of disasters to support disaster risk reduction

Media regulation News media Disasters Emergency management

Natural disasters receive considerable coverage from news media, which temporarily focuses public and political attention on the hazard that triggered the event, such as a flood or wildfire (Birkland 1997). This period of heightened attention offers a short window of opportunity for advocates and interest groups to propose alternative policies for disaster management (Johnson, Tunstall and Penning-Rowsell 2005).

Indeed, advocates have leveraged media attention to influence disaster management policy, resulting in both small adjustments in particular policy instruments (for example, additional funding) and more substantial changes in policy direction (for example, shifting from reactive to prevention-based models) (Sapat et al. 2011; Smith, Porter and Upham 2017). Because natural disasters generate uncertainty for decision makers, their policy choices are influenced by the way in which media narratives frame the urgency and solubility of the problem (Kaufmann et al. 2016; Valencio and Valencio 2018).

Key points:

  • Disasters focus attention on hazards, creating a window of opportunity to adopt new risk reduction policies. The news media can shape post-disaster policy debate by directing the attention of policy makers toward problems and solutions.
  • A content analysis of newspaper coverage around two of Canada’s most significant floods reveals that the media are focused more on the short-term impacts of hazards than on the policy problems that underpin flood risk.
  • Broadening the constituency of flood risk management advocates and improving outreach with stakeholders could help to better leverage the focal power of media coverage for disaster management policy change.
Publication Details
CIGI Policy Brief No. 157
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