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Role of Mass Media in Earthquakes

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 3074 words Published: 12th Oct 2017

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  • Lai Yuen Yau
  • Choi Kiu Lok Kelly
  • Chu Wing Yan
  • Chu Lok Yin
  • Law Shun Hei


As we humans are living on Earth, natural disasters like earthquake are seemingly inevitable. We can only make our greatest possible effort to minimize the loss in human lives and properties brought by the disaster. According to Haddow & Haddow (2008),“Communication is core to the success of disaster mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. The media remains the single most effective means for communicating timely and accurate information to the public.” It seems that the mass media has a great contribution in reducing the adverse effect of natural disasters. Therefore, it aroused our curiosity towards the roles that mass media take during disasters, and we will focus on recent earthquakes.

In our report, we would like to investigate on the roles and functions of the mass media, namely newspaper, radio, television and new media during earthquake in three phrases: Mitigation & Preparedness, Response and Recovery. Besides, we would like to look into the relationship between mass media and earthquake.

Definition of mass media

Before introducing the roles mass media took during earthquake, it is better for us to define mass media.

Since mass media facilitates mass communication, Baran et al. (2004) suggested that communication refers to a reciprocal and ongoing process of creating shared meaning. People create meanings by encoding and decoding messages. The encoded message is carried to the target audience through a medium. If the medium does not only carry the messages to an individual but a large number of people, it is regarded as a mass medium.

Newspapers, television broadcasting, radio and new media such as the Internet, Facebook, Weibo, and Twitter are common examples of new media. They all have their own characteristics and fulfill different roles of the mass media during earthquake. Most people’s first heard of a disaster will be through the mass media. (Harrison, 1999)

Characteristics of different mass media

1) Printed Newspaper

Although printed newspaper lack immediacy, according to Harrison (1999), newspaper still owns the physical advantage that people can hold it in their hands and read it over and over again. It can provide more detailed description of the incident with words and pictures. Moreover, printed newspaper can be kept as references.

2) Television

Television has a several roles during an earthquake. Fry (n.d.) suggested that television is “a purveyor of information, a storyteller and sometimes an agent of change.”

Before the disaster approached, television news can give out warnings or vital information of the disaster to the people. By featuring vivid images and videos in the television news, it on one hand informs the people, but on the other it draws connections with the audience. It evokes their emotions and arouses their attention towards the earthquake. (Fry, n.d.) Besides, Television is often used as a platform to raise fund for the victims.

3) Radio

Radio still plays a unique role. It can immediately inform a large number of people in vehicles and at home. Unlike newspaper, one doesn’t have to listen to the radio literately. It is inexpensive to own a radio receiver. The poor can also afford owning it. Moreover, radio receivers are portable and do not rely on electric power supply. Therefore, if the earthquake cut down the electrical supply, the victims are able to obtain the newest information through radio.

Radio is being regarded as a one-chance medium that audience may easily miss out the message brought by the radio. (Harrison, 1999) However, by repeating the of importance message, reinforcement effect is resulted.

4) New Media

New media is often regarded as media that is related to the Internet and the interplay between technology, images and sound (Socha & Eber-Schmid, n.d.). Facebook, Twitter, Weibo are common examples of the new media. They have the highest immediacy among the media. People can quickly post information or spread messages on the Internet if earthquakes suddenly occurs. Since anybody can share their views or comments and post photos to the Internet, information on the Internet may not be reliable. Some of them may be rumors.

Mitigation and Preparedness

In this phase, it is important to send preparedness messages to notice the public in anticipation of the coming earthquake through different forms of technologies and media, in order to reduce the maximum loss of life and property.

In most countries, such as the United States and Japan, billions of money is invested in researching and developing an earthquake early warning system.

It uses seismic networks to detect earthquake very quickly, so that advance announcement and warning signals can be sent before the arrival of destructive seismic waves to evacuate general public. It aims at mitigating earthquake-related damages by allowing people to have more time to take immediate protective action after the warning signs (Earthquake Early Warning System, 2012) . Also it triggers automatic responses to safeguard critical infrastructure such as providing time for moving trains to slow down and stop; opening elevator doors, stopping landings and take-offs of flight at the airport.

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Take the example of 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. When earthquake occurred, Earthquake Early Warning (EEW) system (Kinkyu Jishin Sokuho) activated instantly. “This is an Earthquake Early Warning. Please prepare for powerful tremors.” Immediate warning alert like this was announced immediately in the affected regions. It also informed the public whether there would be a risk of a landslide or tsunami caused by the quake in the affected area.

When tsunami warnings were issued, it activated an Emergency Warning Broadcast system which automatically turned on all the radios and televisions in the warned areas. Announcements are then broadcasted in different languages to reach a wide range of people including the tourists in the district.

During this phase, radio broadcasting plays an effective role. The specific chime tone from FM stations is automatically detected internally and turns on the radio and sounds a chime tone and EEW message to people for careful attention and wake up people in bed by a very loud sound before any destructive shaking occurs. Radios, as a traditional media, are very common and easy to access. EEW radio waves can reach remote areas and can be received in areas where no broadband internet is available. The general public can therefore listen to the announcement even with limited electrical power, from anywhere and with groups.

Mobile Networks Warning System

In modern days, mobile phone networks maybe a better medium to send mass warning message to the general public, as most people will have cell phones by their sides. In Japan, in addition to media broadcasting, cell broadcasting is also another way to warn the public. With sophisticated communication technology, it allows millions of early warning text messages to be sent simultaneously to individual cell phones (Earth Systems group of companies, 2012).

After 2007, it is mandatory for Japanese mobile phone manufacturers and mobile network service providers to support EEW early warning notification in their phones and services. And NTT docomo, au (KDDI and Okinawa Cellular) and SoftBank Mobile, have developed the simultaneous broadcast systems conforming Cell Broadcast to receive EEW and provided phones with this service since 2007 (NTT docomo, 2007).


According to Haddow & Haddow (2009), “the primary purpose of communications activities in a disaster response is to provide accurate and timely information to the public.” It provides notification, warning evacuation and situation reports on the ongoing disaster to the public. It also aims to describe what has happened and is happening in the aftermath of a disaster event; what impact the disaster event has had on individuals, the community, and the physical landscape and what is being done by the various organizations responding to the disaster to help the prone parties to recover.


Newspaper has a lower priority compared to television and radio, so it cannot provide live reports to the readers; instead, it gives in-depth and detailed reports from different perspectives on what has happened and is happening after the disaster. It is involved in the “response” phrase, providing first-hand detailed reports about the disaster. Reporters were sent to the disaster areas, to reveal the rescue condition after the disaster, and how is the on-going rescue progress.

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Take example of a news article from Reuters, dated 12 May 2008, “China quake kills nearly 10,000 in Sichuan”. It provides confirmed and official information regarding the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, like the estimated death toll and the destruction of the facilities. Readers can get the first-hand information about the disaster and how the authority handle the case and settle the victims. Another article on 2008 Sichuan Earthquake from NBC News, dated 13 May 2008 also focuses on the number of casualties, entitled “Massive quake kills nearly 10,000 in China”. Despite reporting the seriousness of the disaster, this article also looks into the impacts from different angles, giving sub-headings ranging from “thousands of students buried”, “panda refuge threatened”, “worldwide condolences” and “advice for the trapped”. The detailed description of the disaster shows the characteristics of newspaper reporting, and gives a full impression to the readers on the quake. Opinions from different parties and victims were also reported, as well as the immediate influences brought by the quake to other cities.

Likewise, in the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake, similar ways of reporting appeared immediately after the quake happened. A news article from CBC News, dated 11 March 2011, entitled “Japan quake, tsunami cause ‘major damage’” reported on this most powerful earthquake in Japan’s recorded history, which struck off the country’s northeast coast.The destruction and damage caused by the quake was also revealed in the report, in which the nuclear power plant issue caught the attention from the whole world, yet, it wasn’t confirmed as nuclear leakage at that time. Even the International Atomic Energy Agency said that there was no radiation detected at that time.

New Media

New media’s role in the phrase of response is to provide immediate background information and latest situation of earthquake to the public.

The background information mainly includes the time, the venue, the magnitude of the earthquake and the immediate effects.

1) Social media

Social media together with Internet perform vital relief functions such as safety identification, warning evacuation, displaced-persons locating and damage information. For example, the transportation arrangement due to road damage in an earthquake.

Social Networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are facilitators to wide currency of news. As they are public social media platforms, which people can see what their friends followed, liked, commented or shared if the user does not intentionally set it in private. Hence, the flow of information is encouraged. People share their first-hand experience or second-hand information on those social networking sites.

For example in Twitter, there are specific users who keep updating information during earthquake. Like the twitter account “地震速報 ( @eew_jp)”, having more than 76.9 thousands followers, is the offical account of the Japan Meteorological Agency. For example, on March 11, the day of 2011 Tohoku Earthquake happened, more than 25 updates posting any preliminary earthquake forecast or any lastest earthquake were recorded. During the emergent situation, important informations were spreaded in the tweets to notify the public of the time, the venue and the magnitude of the earthquakes.

Another example is Facebook. There were more than 4.5 million status updates from 3.8 million users in the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake. News, reports and prayers were shared on the day the 8.9-magnitude earthquake struck the coast of Japan. (Kessler, 2011)

2) Internet

Internet also contributes in the phrase of response in an earthquake. In 2011 Tohoku Earthquake, different news agencies had made updates on the internet. NHK news network should be the fastest one in updating news. In addition to the photos taken by people on the scene, the website showed images of news reports on television, as well as images expressing condolences to people affected by the attack.


As Haddow & Haddow (2009) points out, the focus of communication efforts in the recovery phrase of a disaster is on providing timely information about the types of relief assistance available to the individuals and communities victimized by the disaster and how they can access this assistance. Therefore, reports on relief measures and after-quake work are focused in this phrase. Besides, the role of monitoring is also shown here. When more and more information are collected, reporters or audience could keep an eye on the authority during the disaster. Anything hiding or misleading could then be pointed out and exposed to the public.

In short term, a fast recovery of radio system and frequent reports of earthquake situations in newspapers keep local citizens updated about the destruction and other information about the earthquake. Media can also help raise the international concerns about the earthquake hence gaining more international help for recuse work as well as immediate financial support. For example, international citizens offered financial assistance to Japan Tohoku earthquake victims and recovery work. After media reported the massive destruction during the earthquake, UNICEF responded by setting up a team called “Japan Commmittee for UNICEF; Emergency Relief and Reconstruction Support”.

Next, in terms of long-term roles, media can keep people updated about reconstruction work and also point out problems during reconstruction. Newspaper and various reports can act as an alarm to remind people about the recent situation of the severely destructed areas while some people forgets about the recovery work of the earthquake. For example, Xinhua News Agency reminds the public about the Sichuan earthquake that took place in 2008. Xinhua News published an article to raise the attention of the public about the current recovery problems of an earthquake that took place six years ago. Media guides people to reflect about the problems remained after a serious earthquake, which is a prolonged problem. Another example is 2011 Tohoku Earthquake, in which Huffington Post (American online newspaper) reports about where were people’s donation gone on an anniversary of the earthquake. The newspaper article also provided alternatives of how people could still help after the earthquake.


During the “recovery” phrase, sources of detailed information concerning relief programs and how to apply are contained in the newspaper. Besides, newspaper reporters gave in-depth reflection on the disaster. There were also reports on epidemic prevention, settling victims and analyzing the disaster. At the same time, there are more designated topics focusing on specific angle about the disaster.

For example, in BBC News dated 9 May 2013, “Sichuan 2008: A disaster on an immense scale”, it summarizes the statistics of the massive destruction in the earthquake and its effect brought. Another news roundup about the earthquake was written by Sina News, featuring a set of articles on recovery work and stories of the victims. Headings like “Village old woman after 28 days of quake: Struggling between living and dying alone are reporting touching stories of the survivors. Others like “No serious epidemic broke out in the quake area” reports the after-quake cases.

As time passes by, many “truths” during and after the earthquake are exposed. In 2011 Tohoku Earthquake, the Japanese government were hiding the nuclear power plant leakage accident.


Radio is always an important source for communication during and after earthquakes. When disastrous earthquakes occur, radio systems are very likely to be disrupted. Emergency restoration of two-way radios and radio receivers will usually be conducted in order to facilitate and speed up the recovery process.

Besides from emergency restoration of radio and broadcasting systems, licenses will also be granted to temporary FM radio stations established by various local authorities. Take 2011 Tohoku Earthquake as an example, Tohoku Bureau of Telecommunications granted temporary broadcasting licenses to let local authorities help spreading information and community notices to the victims in the earthquake. Radio stations can obtain licenses within shorter period of time, and it is easier for the public to obtain information, such as the number of deaths and injuries or methods to make donations after the disastrous situations.


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