zondag 3 juli 2005

The Role of the Media and Media Hypes in the Aftermath of Disasters

·      The Role of the Media and Media Hypes in the Aftermath of Disasters

Peter Vasterman 1
C. Joris Yzermans 2
3. Anja J. E. Dirkzwager 2
Received July 29, 2004.
Accepted November 9, 2004.
Key words
MPI, mass psychogenic illness

It is hardly a surprise that disasters occur more often now than in the past: the world is getting more crowded, air traffic is busier, terrorists are operating worldwide, and the world is much more dependent on complex, but vulnerable technological systems. In the database of the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, an increase was found in the number of disasters worldwide. During the decade 1970–1979, 1,230 disasters were registered; in the 1980s, this figure was 2,856; and, in the 1990s, 4,790 disasters were listed. For the years 2000–2003, more than 3,000 disasters were reported (1). Disasters can be defined as acute, collectively experienced traumatic events with a sudden onset, and they can be both natural (e.g., hurricanes, floods, earthquakes) and man-made (e.g., plane crashes, industrial accidents, terrorist attacks) (2).
A growing body of literature suggests that disasters can have both short-term and long-term health consequences for the victims involved, such as posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, or substance abuse (2,3). Increased self-reports of nonspecific psychological distress and medically unexplained physical symptoms (e.g., fatigue, headache, difficulty concentrating, joint/muscle pain) have been noted following disasters as well, for instance, after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania (4), the Buffalo Creek dam disaster in West Virginia (5), and the Amsterdam air disaster in the Netherlands (67). Similar symptoms were also reported by veterans after their involvement in traumatic military situations, such as the first Gulf War (8).

These health consequences after disasters cannot be studied without focusing on the role of the mass media. In modern society, the significance of the media in everyday life has increased dramatically, turning the world into a global village. On September 11, 2001, people all over the world watched the dramatic images of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center; they saw the gigantic smoke clouds, the panic in the city, the people jumping from the buildings, and finally the collapse of the towers. “Nine eleven” redefined the worries of most people in the Western world. In postmodern society, coined by sociologists the “risk society,” people feel threatened by all kinds of invisible risks that exist only in terms of knowledge (9), which means that all depends on the social construction of that risk. In that respect, the social definition of a specific risk can be manipulated, amplified, magnified, or minimized. Especially when key events such as “nine eleven” launch new risk issues and uncertainty reigns, the public has to rely on the messages communicated to them by the media. But what do we actually know about the effects of these media messages on the definition of risks, health perception, and personal well-being?
To answer this question, we searched three databases and, in this paper, review the current literature on the role of the media in the context of disasters and their aftermath. In addition, we explore theoretical frameworks on the risk amplification process that takes place after disasters and the way in which so-called media hypes frame new risk issues. In the last part of this paper, we present the case of a 1992 plane crash that occurred in Amsterdam (the “Bijlmermeer plane crash”), as an example of how media hypes can trigger a process years later, in which a growing number of people attributed their health problems to the disaster.