New York Times and Network TV News Coverage of Foreign Disasters: The Significance of the Insignificant Variables

By Van Belle, Douglas A. | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

New York Times and Network TV News Coverage of Foreign Disasters: The Significance of the Insignificant Variables


Van Belle, Douglas A., Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


This article analyzes U.S. news media coverage of foreign disasters, using a new data set on disasters, and incorporates variables representing several possible contextual influences on the amount of coverage. The most notable aspect of the results produced in this analysis is that when the magnitude of the event is controlled for, the only contextual influence that demonstrates the expected relationship with the amount of coverage is the distance from the United States. Several of the other contextual factors that have been argued to be significant determinants of international flows of news are not significant in the analysis.

Utilizing a new data set that catalogs foreign disasters, this study builds directly upon three articles by Singer, Endreny, and Glassman; Gaddy and Tanjong; and Adams,l which analyze influences on the news coverage of disasters. Focusing on the contextual factors that might be related to the international exchange of information, some additional variables are incorporated from the broader study of international news flows. This makes it possible to also address issues raised in studies of the nature of foreign news as well as those identified in studies of influences on international news reporting more generally defined.2

Natural disasters provide an excellent set of events for studying the contextual factors influencing the reporting of international events. Disasters are unusual, dramatic, and often have great impact upon people's lives. This combination makes disasters newsworthy and creates the expectation that news outlets, which are driven by commercial imperatives, will report them. Natural disasters also occur throughout the world, are unplanned, and in most cases take place independent of political control.3 Further, the aspects of disasters that are likely to cause variations in their newsworthiness, such as the magnitude of the event, can be roughly controlled for in the statistical analysis, making it easier to isolate contextual factors. Finally, to varying degrees, natural disasters can also be identified through extra-media sources. This allows a set of cases to be drawn from a source other than the same media coverage being studied.

The news media coverage of disasters is, in and of itself, an important area of study.4 As an integral part of the social and political response to these events, news media coverage plays a crucial role in the immediate reaction to disasters, the shaping of disaster policy, and even the efforts to prepare for and prevent future disasters. More specifically, international relief efforts by both government and private agencies require recognition and action by officials in bureaucracies or national headquarters that might be 12,000 miles from the disaster site, and one of their most valuable information sources is often the news media. Additionally, news coverage influences agenda setting and public/national constituency demands for response and reconstruction programs. This is particularly likely for the national-level and international-- level of analysis. In the United States, 80 percent of survey respondents indicated that they had no direct experience with a true natural disaster, and the vast majority indicated that they relied overwhelmingly on electronic media (74.4 percent) and newspapers (63.9 percent) for disaster information.s

Therefore, the news gathering and dissemination institutions are playing a significant role in providing disaster information to individuals, who then use this information to form their opinions and develop their policy preferences. These opinions in turn should play a significant role in shaping their demands for government policies related to disasters as well as determining their support for private relief agencies. Though the links between public opinion and disaster response have not been established in the literature on disaster aid, there is a clear correlation between news media coverage levels and U. …

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