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How Journalists Become First Responders During a Natural Disaster

Nearly a year after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, Michigan State University researchers have been awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to study communication following the disaster.

The Department of Media and Information researchers will use the funds — $404,873 — to explore the way information spread during and following the hurricane.

With power lines down and most major means of communication destroyed, communicating safety and storm updates was difficult.

“A well-equipped free press that reports on important issues facing the country is essential in maintaining a well-informed citizenry,” said Bruno Takahashi, an associate professor and co-director of journalism graduate studies. “In times of crisis, this role gets magnified as information provided by the news media serves functions in the prevention and response phases of a disaster.”

The project began thanks to a rapid response grant from the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The grant allowed MSU Ph.D. Media and Information graduate Yadira Nieves-Pizarro to conduct preliminary research about radio communications in Puerto Rico after the hurricane, in parallel to her dissertation work on political talk radio.

In the aftermath of the disaster, radio was the only mass form of communication on the island. Last December, Nieves-Pizarro, who is now an assistant professor in the Inter American University of Puerto Rico, interviewed 16 radio workers who said they were unable to travel due to flooding, debris and depleted transportation resources, at times limiting their information coverage to what they could see from their station windows.

When possible, members of the community traveled to news stations where broadcasters shared their stories about what was happening elsewhere.

Communication efforts faced additional obstacles due to confusion in the role of the news media and government officials. With no formal training, broadcasters became first responders, transforming news stations into community centers for refugees seeking shelter and supplies.

Plans are now being made for Takahashi and Chavez to travel to Puerto Rico in January for further research.

“NSF is the top organization that funds scientific research,” said Manuel Chavez, director of the Information and Media Ph.D. program. “For us to be granted this money is a fantastic opportunity, and we are more than thankful they thought that our proposal could help journalists and policy makers.”

While in Puerto Rico, the team will gather data through focus groups and interviews with reporters and Puerto Rican residents, as well as documentation from news organizations. They will also map which areas are still without electricity.

The information will help them to conduct a more in-depth analysis of why infrastructure in Puerto Rico failed and how crisis communication was utilized before, during and after Hurricane Maria. All the research will eventually be compiled to produce a book, website and documentary about the storm’s impact on disaster reporting and the lives of Puerto Rican residents.

Beyond the academic research, the goal is to produce policy recommendations for effective communication in places that share similar cultural and contextual characteristics with Puerto Rico. The suggestions will help guide government agencies and reporters when future natural disasters strike.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to help people and governments figure out what to do when natural disasters the size of [Hurricane] Maria hit any state in the U.S.,” Chavez said. “We couldn’t be more delighted — not just about the academic research component, but also the opportunity to contribute to governmental decision-making changes that can help people.”

In addition to Takahashi and Chavez, the research team includes several colleagues from Puerto Rico.

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