News & Analysis Fire near Port Lincoln

Published on November 23rd, 2012 | by EJC


Australia’s Natural Disasters: Journalism And Social Media

Australia is a particularly disaster-prone country. With bushfires, floods, cyclones, severe storms and now fire tornados battering the continent every year, journalists and news outlets quickly learn to use new digital technologies to help them gather information and provide the public with accurate and timely disaster coverage.

As a major media centre for the Asia-Pacific, Australia is also a world provider of coverage of natural disasters across the region, adding tsunamis, earthquakes, and land slides to the media’s reporting responsibilities. Furthermore, being situated in a volatile region, Australia’s journalists are often dispatched to cover civil unrest, coops and acts of terrorism.

This series, however, will focus on how Australia covers natural disasters in its own backyard, beginning with a look at how news outlets use social media to convey information during natural disasters.

In addition to their own content, Australia’s national and local media outlets are increasingly using social media to relay information from emergency authorities and services during natural disasters.

This use of social media obviously has benefits for emergency authorities and communities in the midst of natural disasters, but it presents a number of complex challenges to journalists. One of the key issues is the lack of clear guidelines about using content and information obtained through social media. Most of the media Codes of Practice emphasise the use of common sense by journalists when drawing on outside sources, but is this really sufficient in emergency situations?

SBS Radio journalists and producers are expected to draw on their specialised knowledge of homeland affairs to judge the news value and reliability of stories from outside sources. SBS Codes of Practice

Having a set of guidelines about using social media and user-generated content would help the media to make informed decisions while also giving recourse to defend their actions if necessary. It could also encourage the use of social media during disasters, which, in addition to traditional forms of broadcasting, is a “vital component of resilient communities,” according to this report.

One news outlet, ABC Local Radio, has committed itself to working with emergency agencies “to issue graduated and localised warnings on all radio and online platforms,” says Manager of Emergency Broadcasting and Community Development, Ian Mannix. The initiative is founded on a policy which includes social media as a core element of the warning system. The network is currently the only ‘emergency broadcaster’ in the world, says Mannix, who adds “this is a voluntary initiative and is not underpinned by legislation.”


While many radio and news broadcasters issue information, and read weather bulletins and news releases, the difference between what we do and all other broadcasters is the commitment to repetition and urgency. The end result is that listeners and readers will receive information when it’s available, with a specific warning for the time it is issued, knowing that as the threat increases, so will the repetition of the warning and the content. – Ian Mannix, ABC Local Radio

Another issue is whether there is a legal obligation to provide emergency information via social media if there is a community expectation to do so.  Michael Eburn, a Senior Fellow at the Australian National University College of Law, raises this question in relation to emergency services, however the question could also be considered for news outlets.

The emphasis placed on the public’s right to know and journalists’ responsibility to serve the public interest in the Code of Ethics to which all unionised journalists must comply also raises the question: do journalists and their employers have a responsibility to convey emergency information to the public? While there is currently no definitive answer, it may become an important corporate responsibility issue in the future.

Emergency services, both official and voluntary, are also using social media, often with more confidence and authority than the media. One of the reasons for this may be the recognition and commitment to the role of social media during disasters by State and Federal governments.

Following a meeting of the Ministerial Council for Police and Emergency Management - Emergency Management in 2011, the Federal Attorney-General issued a communiqué stating a priority of convening “a forum to consider new and emerging technologies that could be harnessed to assist with preparedness, response and recovery to natural disasters, with an initial focus on floods.” It also declared the intention to “give particular attention to the emerging role of social media, as part of the work on communicating with, and educating people about risks [...]“

This video shares some of the findings about the use of social media during the 2011 Victoria floods, including that there were around 12,000 mentions of the floods on social media, that Twitter was the most common social media platform used to share information and that in metropolitan areas, social media reported flooding faster than official news outlets.

Links and Research

Emergency Media and Public Affairs

Australian Emergency Management Knowledge Hub

Mapping Online Publics - Queensland University of Technology blog on research into social media and crisis communication

Tragedies & Journalists – DART Center for Journalism and Trauma (2003, guide)

Flooding Facebook – the use of social media during the Queensland and Victoria Floods, Australian Journal of Emergency Management (2012)

Disaster management and social media, Queensland Police Service (2011, case study)

Report: Bushfire Coverage Raises Ethics Questions, DART Center Asia Pacific (2009)

Photo: Twitter/Tim_Morris14

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