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Disaster media could aid decisions

Researchers are examining how news coverage and social media activity during some of the largest disasters in recent years can help decision makers and incident managers prepare for crisis situations. Researchers at the University of Leicester’s Department of Media and Communication are contributing to a European Commission-funded project – “CascEff: Modelling of dependencies and cascading effects for emergency management in crisis situations”.

The project will look at the “cascading” effects of natural and human disasters – where an initial incident can snowball, potentially threatening lives, property and the environment across large areas. The researchers are looking specifically at how disasters are framed in both the mainstream media and by the public on such sites as Twitter as events unfold.

They hope to identify examples of good practice for information dissemination to the public during crises. These will be used to develop a communication strategy for emergency services and incident managers to aid their preparation for disaster events. The researchers will examine: natural catastrophes, such as earthquakes and flooding; fires in buildings and tunnels; and outdoor events such as pop concerts. Examples may include the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011, Hurricane Sandy around New York City in 2012 and the floods in south west England last winter. They also plan to look at news coverage of several earlier disasters, including the North Sea flood of 1953, the Sandoz fire and chemical spill in 1986 in Switzerland, and fires which have broken out in the Channel Tunnel since its opening in 1994.

Dr Paul Reilly of Leicester’s Department of Media and Communication is leading the project. He said: “We hope this research will help emergency services in the planning of their communications strategies during crises. We will look at both social media and news media during these events, and how they can be used by incident managers to provide accurate, real-time information to members of the public. Clearly the immediacy of social media may have advantages and disadvantages for those involved in managing such situations. Our focus will be on how key stakeholders can harness these tools to correct rumours and false information and to minimise the cascading effects of these incidents.

“The project will result in a report on the role of the media and the information flows that emerge during crisis situations, as well as a communication strategy which is intended to help decision-makers during future crisis situations.”

The Leicester team will consist of Dr Reilly and Research Associate Dimitrinka Atanasova, with this part of the project due to finish in December 2015.

The CascEff project also includes: SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden; Lund University, Sweden; the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency; Ghent University, Belgium; INERIS (the French National Institute for Industrial Environment and Risks); KCCE (the Belgian Federal Centre for Civil Security); Safety Centre Europe; Université de Lorraine; Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service; and E-Semble, a Netherlands-based firm which makes simulation software for training safety professionals.


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