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“Of Gods and Men”: Selected Print Media Coverage of Natural Disasters and Industrial Failures in Three Westminster Countries

Kevin F. Quigley EMAIL logo and John Quigley

Abstract

This article examines selected print media coverage of a domestic natural disaster and domestic industrial failure in each of three Westminster countries: Australia, Canada, and the UK. It studies this coverage from several perspectives: the volume of coverage; the rate at which the articles were published; the tone of the headlines; and a content analysis of the perceived performance of key public and private institutions during and following the events. Its initial findings reveal that the natural disasters received more coverage than the industrial failures in each of the newspapers considered. There was also no significant difference in the publication rate across event type or newspaper. In each case, government was assessed at least as frequently and negatively as non-government actors, particularly during and following industrial failures. The manner in which government and non-government actors were assessed following these events suggests that, contrary to government claims that owners and operators of critical infrastructure (CI) are responsible for its successful operation, government in fact is “in the frame” as frequently as the industry owners and operators are. In addition, the negative assessments of governments following industrial failures in particular may prompt over-reaction by policy makers to industrial failures and under-reaction to natural disasters. This inconsistency is indeed ironic because the latter occur more often and cost more, both financially and socially. We reviewed 340 newspaper articles from three different newspapers: The Australian’s coverage of the Canberra bushfires and the Waterfall train accident, The Globe and Mail’s (Canada) coverage of Hurricane Juan and the de la Concorde overpass collapse, and The Daily Telegraph’s (UK) coverage of the 2007 floods and the Potters Bar train wreck. Our sample size is small; our ability to compare across newspapers and countries limited. Further research is warranted.


Corresponding author: Kevin F. Quigley, School of Public Administration, Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS B3H 4R2, Canada, e-mail:

We would like to thank our research assistants, Penney Young, Gillian Carter, Casey Hilliard, Reama Khayat, and Emily Pond, and the anonymous reviewers for their comments. We would also like to thank participants at the Critical Infrastructure Protection Conference at Fo Guang University, Yilan, Taiwan, in October 2011, and the Disasters in the Infrastructure: Response and Assessment Workshop hosted by Dalhousie University’s CIP Initiative in Halifax, Canada, in October 2010. Participants at both of these events provided helpful comments on earlier drafts of this work. Finally, we would like to acknowledge the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (Grant No. 410-2008-1357).

6 Appendix

Table A1

Performance Assessment of Key Sectors – Canberra Bushfires.

SectorNumber of Positive AssessmentsNumber of Negative AssessmentsNet DifferenceRatio of Negative to Positive Assessments
NFP Community (Emergency Response)*4040:4
Health Care2020:2
Electrical2020:2
Fire1010:1
Communications and IT122:1
Police1010:1

*NFP: Not-for-Profit. This includes organizations such as the Red Cross.

Table A2

Performance Assessment by Key Sectors – Hurricane Juan.

SectorNumber of Positive AssessmentsNumber of Negative AssessmentsNet DifferenceRatio of Negative to Positive Assessments
NFP Community (Emergency Response)3030:3
Health Care3030:3
Electrical3121:3
Police4040:4
Fire5050:5
Ambulance3030:3
Military6261:3
Finance122:1
Water11
Table A3

Performance Assessment by Key Sectors – UK Flooding.

SectorNumber of Positive AssessmentsNumber of Negative AssessmentsNet DifferenceRatio of Negative to Positive Assessments
NFP Community (Emergency Response)9090:9
Water18–78:1
Police100100:10
Fire170170:17
Ambulance2020:2
Military6060:6
Communications and IT2020:2
Table A4

Performance Assessment by Key Sectors – Waterfall Train Accident.

SectorNumber of Positive AssessmentsNumber of Negative AssessmentsNet DifferenceRatio of Negative to Positive Assessments
Transportation08–88:0
Communications and IT011:0
Ambulance11
Judiciary11
Table A5

Performance Assessment by Key Sectors – De la Concorde Overpass Collapse.

SectorNumber of Positive AssessmentsNumber of Negative AssessmentsNet DifferenceRatio of Negative to Positive Assessments
Transportation28–64:1
Police10:1
Manufacturing111:1
Table A6

Performance Assessment by Key Sectors – Potters Bar Rail Accident.

SectorNumber of Positive AssessmentsNumber of Negative AssessmentsNet DifferenceRatio of Negative to Positive Assessments
Transportation035–3535:0
Finance22:0
Fire10:1
Ambulance10:1
  1. 1

    For the U.S., see US, Department of Homeland Security (2008); for the UK, see Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (2011); for Australia, see Australian Government, Attorney General’s Department (2011); for Canada, see Canada, Public Safety Canada (2011).

  2. 2

    For example, see Public Safety Canada’s Canadian Disaster Database, the International Disaster Database at the Université catholique de Louvain or the Attorney General of Australia’s Emergency Management Australia Disasters Database. The Canadian Disaster Database, for instance, reports that natural disasters occur 40 times more frequently in Canada than conflict disasters. This ratio has been (relatively) stable for over 40 years.

  3. 3

    All three countries derive their governance arrangements from the Westminster tradition. Canada and Australia are federal systems. The UK is traditionally described as a unitary state, though devolution introduced a degree of decentralization that is similar to a federation.

  4. 4

    For Australia, see Australian Government, Attorney General’s Department (2011); for Canada, see Canada, Public Safety Canada (2011); for the UK, see Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (2011).

  5. 5

    The Daily Telegraph publishes seven days per week; the other two newspapers publish 6 days per week. For the purposes of this research, this difference only affects volume of coverage and performance assessment of government and industry.

  6. 6

    Local media coverage may well yield different results but they are not part of this research project.

  7. 7

    Rowe, Frewer, and Sjoberg examine how science and technology risks are communicated to the public.

  8. 8

    Using a one-sided Mann-Whitney test for comparing these samples resulted in an exact p value of 0.05.

  9. 9

    If we were to assume that the publication time of each article was independent and identically distributed we would obtain a 95% confidence interval about the median of (26.57, 29.42). The strength of such an assumption would rely in part on the similarities between the distributions for each event.

  10. 10

    We used the Mann-Whitney U test when comparing two sub-populations and the Kruskal-Wallis Test when comparing more than two (Conver 1999).

  11. 11

    Using the Kruskal-Wallis test, the hypothesis that the three distributions in Figure 3 are sampled from the same distribution resulted in a significance value of 0.966 and thus would not be rejected at the 5% level.

  12. 12

    Using the Mann-Whitney U test to assess the difference in the distributions between event types we obtained a significance value of 0.298 so the null hypothesis that the two distributions have the same underlying distribution would not be rejected at the 5% level.

  13. 13

    Using a Kruskal-Wallis test, we obtained a significance test statistic of 0.004, thus a statistically significant difference at the 1% significance level.

  14. 14

    For the U.S., see US, Department of Homeland Security (2008); for the UK, see Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (2011); for Australia, see Australian Government, Attorney General’s Department (2011); for Canada, see Canada, Public Safety Canada (2011).

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Published Online: 2013-04-13
Published in Print: 2013-01-01

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