The New Communication Environment

In ACIA’s discussions, many threads led to one theme: communication. The need for information is ageless. “What’s going on?” has always been an instinctive human response in any critical situation. So have “Are you OK?” and “I’m all right” — reaching out to people who are important to us to learn or tell that someone has survived a violent or dangerous event. But if the questions haven’t changed, the means of asking and answering have been changing with dizzying speed. It is already hard to remember a world without cell phones, instant messaging and social networks, but that world is actually not far back in time. Only a handful of years before the Virginia Tech shootings we didn’t yet live in the confident expectation that we could contact anyone anytime from anywhere. That assumption is now universal, or very close to it, and among many other consequences it has had a profound effect on how people experience and respond emotionally in a critical incident. A striking indication of that effect was a survey finding that the largest single reason for post-traumatic stress symptoms among Virginia Tech students after April 16 was, as Professor Michael Hughes reported, “not being able to contact friends to confirm their safety.” In a different survey, described by Steven D. Sheetz, one of the authors, students were asked how important they felt it had been to have a cell phone. The response was unsurprising:

Having your cell phone on that day, well it was really important. People who had cell phones really felt it was an important thing that they had that ability to communicate available to them on that day.

In Sheetz’s sample, nearly two-thirds said having a cell phone was “extremely important” and another 13 percent called it “quite important.” Other means of instant communication were important too, though there were notable differences between students and others in their use of communication channels other than cell phones and e-mail. Texting, instant messaging and Facebook were used by large majorities of students (73 percent, 75 percent and 66 percent, respectively) but by much smaller numbers of faculty and staff respondents (less than 5 percent of faculty and 10 percent of staff reported using Facebook on April 16, for example, compared with two-thirds of students). It can be guessed, though, that only two years later, those generational gaps would be narrower.

The revolution in communication technology has fascinating implications for incident management and critical incident analysis. One question is how use of that technology affects the emotional experience of a crisis. Does it reduce stress when people can tell others more quickly that they are safe, or learn that friends are OK? Or can it make the experience more stressful because unlike people in past crises, we have learned to expect instantaneous communication and become stressed much more quickly when we cannot reach someone? Steven Sheetz pointed out that it can be hypothesized that communicating will ease stress, but that such questions await further analysis:

We know that that happened in Facebook. In Facebook there were groups that were headed “I’m OK at Virginia Tech” and by 2 o’clock that day many people could look at the list of names for that group and know everyone they knew was okay.* So from a computer guy’s perspective, it’s like hey, technology matters. It probably reduced stress. Now the question is how do we figure out how to measure that.

Another set of questions has to do with how new communication channels can be used by institutions and authorities to inform, direct and reassure their communities in an emergency. Ned Benton, chair of the ACIA council, noted that one lesson from Virginia Tech for other universities is that they have to adapt communication strategies for the new technological environment. He cited responses to a 2008 survey conducted by the National Campus Safety & Security Project:

All kinds of universities and colleges answered what they do differently now, and one of the areas had to do with communication. How to broadcast, how to e-mail, how to make sure that if you communicated, whichever way you were communicating you could get the message and whichever way you wanted to get the message out there you could do it.

It is not just communication among people involved in a crisis, or among incident managers, that has been revolutionized in recent years. Communication to the larger public has also undergone profound change. It has been a cliche for some time to say that news, in a headline event like the Virginia Tech shootings, is now instantaneous and nonstop. It is rapidly becoming a cliche to add that news from conventional broadcast and print media is now accompanied by — or frantically trying to catch up with — a flood of information and images from spectators and participants, which reaches the public through the Internet and social networking sites without ever passing through any traditional news media structures. Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Foundation for Journalism and Trauma, recalled that when the July 7 terrorist bombings in London occurred in 2005,

A number of people sent their video to the BBC. A year later the head of online news for BBC said to me that if that happened this year those videos would have gone straight to the internet, they wouldn’t have gone to the BBC.

If that transformation is now widely recognized, though, it is less clear just how it has changed the way we experience critical incidents, and how it shapes the public’s response. Jeffrey Stern posed the question this way:

We just had the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, the first globally witnessed televised event. Now it’s become commonplace, everything from shock and awe in Baghdad to the O.J. Simpson chase to Michael Jackson to coverage of Virginia Tech and Columbine, Hurricane Katrina, the 9-11 attacks. We used to have an incident and it would affect the people right there, and everybody else would get the news on the radio later or the next day. Now we’re all a part of the incident on a global scale. That has to have a huge sociological, psychological impact. I was working in the White House the day of the Virginia Tech incident, and one thing that struck me was that within 24 hours we went from this bloodbath, this tragedy, to mourner-in-chief President Bush playing out this role before the blood has dried — this script of what we know we’re supposed to do because we’ve watched it so much. What is the psychological impact of the fact that whenever something happens everyone is a witness, globally and instantaneously? What is the impact for the future?

James Hawdon: There is a literature that doesn’t particularly look at mass media coverage, but the whole notion of communal bereavement where people who have no attachment to the victims still suffer trauma, some aspect of trauma. The classic study was done in Sweden after the sinking of a ferry there, and there was a traumatic event for the country. One could hypothesize that the more coverage we have the more widespread this effect is going to be.

Danny Axsom: People desire information in order to reduce uncertainty. And that includes about typical norms for bereavement. We don’t know how to act and we look for a lot of comparison information from other people and from the media. Whether that’s constructive is another question. People here were being advised to step away from the computer or the TV. But with the lack of information about what’s going on, there’s also a lack of information about what’s normative as far as adjusting. How should I be adjusting, how are other people adjusting? So you look and look. That’s not necessarily saying it’s good, but there’s a motivation for the audience to seek that information out.

In the new information era, we are flooded not just with instant facts but with instant speculation, opinion, unreliable early reports, spin, and guesswork. Arnold R. Isaacs commented:

While information spreads farther and faster than ever before, so does misinformation. Every reporter and every cop, everybody who deals with emergency situations, knows how chaotic and confusing and fragmented the story is during the initial stages. Even if individual reports are cautious and qualified — and obviously that’s not always the case — the way the process works today means that volume, intensity and repetition can make a whole that is much less careful than any of the individual parts. Think about the white van frenzy during the Washington sniper case. It was a flimsy story to begin with, there really wasn’t much there. Yet it had police stopping hundreds of white vans all over the mid-Atlantic states for days. And it obliterated the reports that did exist about the blue Chevy that was the actual vehicle used in the shootings. That’s an example of the echo effect, when something is repeated enough times that it starts to bounce back and forth: witnesses tell investigators and journalists things that are not new information or from their experience or observation, but just repeating what they’ve heard. Dave Cullen describes this process brilliantly in his book on Columbine. This doesn’t only complicate life for incident managers while something is happening. It can clutter up historical understanding as well. I’ll bet there are still people who think the Washington snipers were driving around in a white van.

Steven M. Gorelick,  professor of media studies at Hunter College, City University of New York, calls the phenomenon “cultural noise”:

A nonstop onslaught of rumors, partial knowledge, misinformation, self-proclaimed expert comment, nonsense, rumors and all sorts of craziness. This noise surrounds catastrophic and other incidents and complicates incident management and understanding. It comes from everyone from the evangelists to the scholars to the bloggers. They complicate the lives of people involved with this, they can offend, but they can’t be ignored. I’m not suggesting there’s anything that incident managers or sociologists can do about this. Much of this is protected speech.

Catastrophic events now can be safely said to occur almost 98 percent in real time. Even in less developed countries, virtually everyone who comes to witness a catastrophe is carrying the equivalent broadcasting power of a television station. They carry it with them. They broadcast from an event. It used to be that an event would occur and it would be some moments before society could get sense of what was going on and start building an account of it. But now noise occurs during an event.

Last point, all this stuff now sticks around. It used to be ephemeral. You’d see it then it’s gone. Today’s cyberspace is an infinitely expanding area where all the noise is still there. Noise that you all from Virginia Tech have moved on from, rumors, crazy stuff, it’s all still there, and even if it’s been ripped off the internet, you know it’s been mirrored or cached and it’s still really there.

Why does this matter? More than at any other time, anyone in the midst of a calamity with a clear, serious message to communicate — perhaps immediate enough to involve actual danger — now sends that message into a confused and noisy environment packed with obstacles that can completely stymie the message’s reception. Finding paths of communication amidst this confounding labyrinth, especially when the stakes are high and the danger great, is a serious challenge of the digital age.

Bruce Shapiro noted that underlying the noise is a fierce competition to define what an event means, and to use that meaning to influence political or policy or other consequences:

Charlotte Ryan, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts, says that power is the ability to control rules, resources or meaning.* Maybe one defining factor of critical incidents is that they overwhelm or undermine the ability to control rules, resources and meaning. I think where these collisions happen in the aftermath of critical incidents, what really matters more often than not is who will have control over the meaning. Whose story is it becomes critical in the aftermath.

Who are some of these stakeholders who have a role, a stake, in shaping the meaning of an event? There are disaster response agencies, there are mental health professionals, there are educators, religious leaders, political leaders, organized victims. And institutions; we’ve heard about the university attempting to control how the story gets told. These are all stakeholders. Then there are hijackers of meaning. In the walk on campus we were talking about religious proselytizers who came to the campus trying to manipulate the meaning of this event to get people into their sects. We have talked about pundits who are hijackers of meaning, who try to graft a misleadingly simple narrative line onto something that’s really quite complex. There are politicians who seize upon critical incidents and then hijack them.

I think the question of roles and responsibilities in shaping the aftermath has something to do with recognizing that meaning needs to be put together through the combined efforts of all the stakeholders rather than competitive storytelling. It’s a big challenge.

* More information on the use of Facebook after the April 16 events can be found in S. Vieweg, L. Palen, S. Liu, A. Hughers, J. Sutton, “Collective Intelligence in Disaster: Examination of the Phenomenon in the Aftermath of the 2007 Virginia Tech Shooting.” Proceedings of the 5th International ISCRAM Conference, Washington D.C. (May 2008)

* Charlotte Ryan and Samuel Alexander, “‘Reframing’ the presentation of environmental law and policy,”

Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review, 33:3 (2006) pp. 563-592