Media Effects on Public Safety Following a Natural Disaster: Testing Lagged Dependent Variable Models

Article excerpt

This study assesses news and media campaign effects during the recovery phase of a catastrophe. With data from a panel telephone survey in New Orleans in 2006, this study tests lagged dependent variable models for safety beliefs and safety behavior in the context of Hurricane Katrina. News attention and media campaign exposure influenced safety behavior. The effects of news attention were synchronous, while those of media campaign exposure were cross-lagged. In contrast, neither news attention nor media campaign exposure influenced safety beliefs, which may be attributable to ceiling effects of the belief measure. Safety beliefs did, however, have a cross-lagged influence on safety behavior.

A catastrophe represents a context-whether considering natural disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes, or unnatural disasters, such as terrorism and bioterrorism-rife with the three primary characteristics of crisis: short response time, surprise, and threat.1 In such contexts, news coverage and news use predict related indicators of awareness, knowledge, and behavior.2 Such effects can be theorized using media dependency theory, which postulates that media dependency and the effects of such dependency intensify in times of societal change and conflict.3

Empirical research in this area, however, has four limitations. First, it has focused on news effects-and not media campaign effects. second, it primarily considers such news effects during the response phase of catastrophe, not the two subsequent phases of catastrophe: restoration and recovery.4 Third, it has relied on cross-sectional data and other nonpanel data approaches, which limits its ability to yield inferences about causality. Fourth, it has considered news effects on behavior, but not the joint effects of beliefs.

The current study aims to address these limitations within the context of Hurricane Katrina. It empirically tests news and media campaign effects during the recovery phase of a catastrophe, using panel data and related modeling techniques to strengthen inferences of causality. The study also takes into account the effects of beliefs when considering media effects on behavior.

Media Use and Media Effects in Contexts of Catastrophe

Media dependency theory postulates that people's dependency on the media and the effects of such dependency escalate during times of societal change and conflict.5 Dependency relates to the manner by which a person's satisfaction of needs and attainment of goals are contingent on media information resources. This increased dependence on the media results from both the reduced capacity of social arrangements during times of societal change and conflict and from the media's capacity to disseminate information that can help rebuild such arrangements. The consequences of media dependency include cognitive effects (e.g., attitudes and beliefs), affective effects (e.g., emotional responses), and behavioral effects (e.g., prosocial and anti-social action). The importance of these cognitive and affective effects rests on the degree to which they influence behavioral effects.

Empirical research has assessed the uses and functions of news information during the recovery phase of different catastrophes,6 indicating that the public depends heavily on the news media in such contexts.7 For example, on 9 /11, traffic to the CNN Web site doubled every seven minutes between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m.,8 and more than 90% of Americans reported using television news that day.9

Other empirical research in the context of catastrophe has tested the role of news in predicting social psychological outcome variables, including knowledge and awareness, attitudes and beliefs, and behavior. A first line of such research, with a basis in diffusion, has demonstrated the role of the news media in stimulating awareness of California earthquakes,10 the eruption of Mount St. Helens,11 and the terrorist attacks of 9/II.12 One such study found that more than 90% of the American public was aware of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 within just three hours, with the primary source of such awareness being the news media. …