Paper No. 89
Presentation Time: 7:00 AM
THE ROLE OF PROXIMITY IN HOW INDIVIDUALS DESCRIBE NATURAL DISASTERS: ANALYSIS OF THE 2004 INDIAN OCEAN TSUNAMI
The 26 December 2004, Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami devastated a wide region and resulted in hundreds of thousands of fatalities. The media reported widely on the disaster, with many of those reports including quotes from people across the globe. Several of the quotes described the tsunami as a “tidal wave”, whereas others used “tsunami”. We are interested in determining what factors affected whether a quoted person used tidal wave or tsunami. We searched U.S. newspaper and newswire articles in the LexisNexis Academic® database from the week after the disaster for quotes that contained “tidal wave” or “tsunami”. For each quoted individual the location relative to the disaster, and whether the person was a tourist, resident, government/NGO official, relative of an affected person, or a geoscientist was noted. Location was categorized as either proximal or distal, based on whether the person had experienced the disaster from an impacted country. After removing quotes from geoscientists (whom we expected overwhelmingly to use tsunami), quotes from 131 individuals (31 proximal; 100 distal) were analyzed. Of the individuals who were located proximally, 45% described the disaster as a tsunami and 55% described it as a tidal wave. This contrasts with individuals who were located in non-impacted countries, who nearly unanimously used tsunami (98%). Government/NGO officials comprised the majority (53%) of proximal individuals who used tidal wave. The difference in word usage relative to an individual’s location is statistically significant (P<0.001), based on a non-parametric Mann-Whitney U test. We interpret these results to suggest that, in contrast to individuals situated at a distance who used the scientifically correct and potentially less emotional term, tsunami, the trauma of the experience likely led people who were proximal to the event to 1) describe exactly what they experienced: a devastating series of waves; and, 2) rely on words with which they are most familiar. These findings, which are in line with prior research that shows people resort to familiar terms when they are under stress, can help the media, disaster relief personnel, and scientists to be aware of the potential for miscommunication in that affected individuals will possibly use inaccurate terms when describing details related to a disaster.