How Journalists Become First Responders during a Natural Disaster

In most emergencies, police, fire and medical workers are first responders. New research suggests that was not the case in the days following Hurricane Maria. The category four cyclone devastated Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, and left more than three million people in the dark. With power lines down across the island and most major means of communication destroyed, information on safety and storm updates became a precious commodity. 

School of Journalism researchers were recently awarded a $404,873 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study communication in Puerto Rico following this disaster, specifically the ways information spread during and following the hurricane. 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. 

Disaster Relief Efforts

The current research team is composed of Bruno Takahashi, an associate professor and co-director of journalism graduate studies; Manuel Chavez, associate professor of journalism; and several colleagues from Puerto Rico.

“A well-equipped free press that reports on important issues facing the country is essential in maintaining a well-informed citizenry,” said Takahashi. “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 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 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. 

Nieves-Pizarro is now an assistant professor in the Inter American University of Puerto Rico, where she teaches journalism and news production courses. 

Plans for Improvements

With the new funds provided by the NSF grant, what began as Nieves-Pizarro’s dissertation has grown to a much larger scale. 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 Chavez. “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 of 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.

“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.,” said Chavez. “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.”

By Kristina Pierson