Paper No. 4
Presentation Time: 9:45 AM


BUELOW, Ellen K., Department of Geology, San Diego State University, 5500 Campanile Drive, San Diego, CA 92182, HER, Xai, Department of Geology, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, 154 Phillips Hall, Eau Claire, WI 54702 and CLARK, Scott K., Department of Geology, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, 105 Garfield Ave, Eau Claire, WI 54701,

This study explores the role of scientists in the media’s efforts to educate the public about natural disasters. Using the LexisNexis® database we obtained U.S. newspaper and newswire articles published during the week immediately following two major tsunamis: The 26 December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 11 March 2011 Japan tsunami. Retrieved articles were searched for information attributed to science experts (n=74 articles for the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and n=97 for the 2011 Japan tsunami). Articles were coded for the field of expertise and the type of information provided. The data show a clear difference in the topics that were discussed after the two tsunamis. Following the 2004 tsunami, 86% of coded articles provided basic information on tsunami-related topics: Explaining what a tsunami is; distinguishing between a tidal wave and a tsunami; describing how tsunamis are generated by earthquakes, and how earthquakes are related to plate tectonics; and, discussing the need for an Indian Ocean warning system. In the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami, a more diverse range of experts were called upon to discuss a more encompassing range of tsunami-related topics, including ocean-wide water level fluctuations and wave arrival times; the effectiveness of the Pacific Ocean warning system; and, the threat of a nuclear disaster. The extent of the media’s change in focus is seen in the proportion of articles that included scientific explanations of how earthquakes cause tsunamis (64% in 2004 versus 19% in 2011), and those that discussed the difference between tidal waves and tsunamis (26% in 2004 versus 2% in 2011). We interpret the wider focus of the scientist-based information following the 2011 tsunami as evidence that the news coverage of the 2004 tsunami educated people about basic tsunami facts, which allowed the media to discuss a wider range of relevant scientific information in 2011. Prior research has shown that most U.S. adults learn about science through the media. Curiosity about disaster-related breaking news provides opportunities for ‘just-in-time’ teaching when people are motivated to learn about the science behind the disaster. These findings suggest that effective collaboration between scientists and the media during the news cycle of a disaster can improve the public’s understanding of natural disasters.