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The Role of Media During Crisis

Karen Sieczka -- Does how the media portray crisis events effect the outcome?

Although the media are generally accepted as observers and reporters of events, by keeping the public informed, they also have the power to shape and influence events, sometimes as the events are unfolding. This gives the media a power of significant magnitude. There are some 70,000 media outlets available to broadcast real time coverage, 24/7, so the influence of the media touches every corner of the globe, every segment of the population. This can be a great service or disservice depending on the event and its representation by the media.

Both local and national media are crucial in relaying information to the general public, especially during times of crisis. Because the US doesn't have a nationwide emergency broadcast system, the media has become the system. People rely on what they see on television, read in the newspapers, download from Web sites, and hear on the radio so these media are a primary link to unfolding events. Most tend to take what they see portrayed in the media as fact or truth without question or debate, which can lead to problems when incomplete or erroneous information happens to be broadcast.

The media provides an invaluable service by documenting unfolding events for posterity and then relaying instructions of local and national officials to the public during crisis. For instance, the media plays a key role in public response to emergencies by alerting the public to actions they should take, such as staying indoors, or actions they should refrain from such as staying away from a certain area.

During the first World Trade Center bombing incident in 1993, the media both helped and hindered the rescue effort, helping by giving out emergency phone numbers to those trapped inside, calling the local television station from their cell phones, and having reporters pass on the workers' locations to emergency personnel.

However, the media also hindered rescue efforts when one reporter suggested trapped workers break their office windows to get fresh air while awaiting rescue. This caused thick glass splinters to rain down at fifty miles per hour toward rescuers. The suggestion was quickly refuted and the reporter admonished by emergency officials.

With the advent of technology to provide instantaneous news coverage from anywhere on the planet, the military has had to change its relationship with the media, moving from a historically adversarial association to one that has become more collaborative and proactive. This is especially true now that the practice of embedding of reporters in a variety of front-line and supporting military units has become commonplace.

This instant news comes with a price, one that can show an operation's strength or weakness and can bring intense public scrutiny to military operations, policies and procedures. In this capacity, it can also alert the enemy to war plans and be the catalyst for loss of life and equipment.

Images speak volumes in the media, oftentimes depicting violence and negative scenes rather than showing uplifting events or positive descriptions of military or police and the law. The negative psychological aspects of these images can be quite perilous with images sometimes inciting the viewing public to actually become participants in events. During the 1992 Los Angeles riots, maps provided by the local media coverage were thought to be used a guide for some residents to join in the looting and general lawlessness of the event, thus adding fuel to the fire.

Members of the media are also part of the public at large. They have a vested interest and concern during crisis events and are usually just as concerned as the next guy about getting the most accurate information available and getting the facts out as quickly as possible.

However, the media also has great power, power to help or hinder rescue of victims, power to jeopardize military operations, power to affect investigative efforts, and the power to shape public opinion for the good or bad. Therefore, the repercussions of how the media portray events should be a primary part of the reporting process.

Karen S. Sieczka considers herself a renaissance woman, one with many interests. Her background includes working as a trainer, community educator, an entrepreneur, a researcher, a website content developer, a gourmand, a budding photographer, an advocate for seniors, literacy and early education, as well as a desktop publisher. Underlying her myriad pursuits is an enduring love of the written word and a need to express her unique view of the world with humor and wit. Karen is available for freelance writing, corporate training, and desktop publications development. Visit : or ontact her at

© 2004 Karen S. Sieczka

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