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Information acquisition by Gulf Coast residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: A Message Convergence framework

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Wednesday, 26 January 2011: 11:30 AM
Information acquisition by Gulf Coast residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: A Message Convergence framework
309 (Washington State Convention Center)
Kathryn E. Anthony, The University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY

This study retraces Hurricane Katrina victims' information-seeking and uncertainty-reduction strategies. Mississippi communities are the focus of the project because, although they received considerable damage, they did not receive the degree of national media and federal agency attention given to Louisiana victims. The fact that New Orleans' devastation overshadowed the hurricane's impact on Mississippi forced Mississippi residents to exercise considerably more effort to gather information than would typically have been the case. The communication constrains experienced by Mississippi residents provide an unusual and enlightening case for examining how victims of natural disasters actively seek information during the crisis recovery period. A study of this capacity is necessary as it provides insight into the message preferences of the public during a crisis. Once the message preferences of a public facing a disaster are established, this study can inform managing agencies as well as media sources so that messages disseminated to the public will not only contain useful information, but will contain instructions for enacting self efficacy. People are more likely to act in the face of heightened risk when they perceive that they are capable of acting to reduce their risk. During disasters, individuals need information concerning the crisis so that they can make informed decisions to protect themselves and those around them. Those affected typically engage in active information-seeking by constantly looking to family members, friends, and the media for information. Specifically, the media tend to be regarded as a trusted source for seeking information in the midst of a crisis. In times of heightened uncertainty resulting from disasters, the media are often considered a primary source for obtaining information . After Hurricane Katrina, crisis and recovery information was disseminated by various sources, including local and national media outlets, local and federal government agencies, and interpersonal channels such as families and friends. Identifying sources utilized for information-seeking, the believability of various sources, and the cognitive management of discrepancies among sources is essential to understanding message convergence during a crisis event. Despite the constraints experienced by individuals in the media, residents were forced to sort through competing messages to make sense of their environment. The use of message convergence as a guiding theoretical framework may provide an explanation for the ways that residents dealt with the competing messages. During crises, messages disseminated to the public from different sources often result in seemingly contradictory arguments. As competing arguments interact, the strength and weakness of the claims are assessed by those engaged in discourse about the issue. In other words, stakeholders such as hurricane victims engage in an informal dialogue about whom to believe. When two opposing sides of an issue offer conflicting arguments, however, there is rarely a complete distinction between them. Thus, stakeholders typically cannot conclude that one party is absolutely right. Instead, as arguments interact in the system of discourse, there are typically some degrees of convergence among the claims. This study is fashioned in the interpretive paradigm. Personal interviews enable researchers to learn things that cannot be observed by other methods. Participants were recruited for the interviews based on their experience during Hurricane Katrina. Twenty-five residents of the Mississippi Coast were interviewed for this study. Interviews with coastal Mississippians revealed three emergent themes concerning information seeking, characteristics of message preferences, and message convergence in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The first theme reveals the residents' preference for and reliance on local media outlets including local television, radio, and newspapers for information after the storm. Another theme focuses on the deficiencies of information dissemination from national media sources, specifically television, concerning sensationalized coverage and the dissemination of disaster media myths. The third theme involves the communication received from both federal and local government agencies after the storm and the tendency of residents to rely primarily on local agencies for information. Throughout the interviews, participants revealed they relied heavily on the reports disseminated by local media outlets in the days following Katrina. In the midst of an unprecedented natural disaster, residents looked to local media for information about safety and recovery. Twenty-two of the twenty-five interviewees reported attending to one or more local media outlets after the storm (television, radio, newspaper). Local sources were committed to disseminating credible information about recovery and relief, and was especially helpful in clearing up conflicting or inaccurate messages One deficiency in the national media cited by the respondents concerned the dramatized coverage of coastal areas after the storm. Residents felt the national media exacerbated the crisis by embellishing and exaggerating descriptions of the damage. New Orleans is much larger and certainly much more well-known than any city on the Mississippi Coast, but according to Mississippi residents, this should not have been a major reason for national media outlets to focus primarily on the hurricane damage there. Mississippi actually incurred more of the brunt of the hurricane than New Orleans. Another pervasive complaint concerning information seeking revealed the dissatisfaction with the federal managing agencies. Residents believed the agencies were underprepared to handle the effects of such a devastating hurricane. Twenty of twenty-five interviewees voiced some complaint concerning the communication and information from the agencies After the storm, local government officials worked around the clock to organize relief efforts and distribute necessary supplies to storm victims. While residents were displeased with the information received from federal managing agencies, interviewees tended to be more satisfied with the efforts of local agencies. The current study offered support for the theoretical framework of message convergence. When presented with interacting messages after the storm, residents had to decide what sources to rely on, which sources were most believable, and what messages they would eventually decide to follow. This study suggests that residents in areas susceptible to hurricanes are more likely to seek information and attend to messages from local sources including media and managing agencies than national media sources and federal managing agencies.