Living with the headlines

May 2 2017

Student researcher explores the impact of media reports on Fort McMurray evacuees


After a harrowing night on Highway 63, Alana Kehoe’s extended family arrived in Edmonton at 6 a.m. on May 2, 2016. From the moment the three adults, two one-year-olds and the family dog made their way out of their car and through Alana’s front door, they were consumed by news of the fire.

“They hadn’t slept and couldn’t,” says Alana, a fourth-year Bachelor of Arts student. “So we watched the news 24/7 for a solid week.”

Even with television news constantly flowing and a live video feed from a baby monitor in the family’s Fort McMurray home, she recalls the frustration of feeling uninformed while flicking through different TV stations and seeing seemingly conflicting reports about which parts of the city were on fire.

“Every station had a map, but they all seemed to be different. It was confusing and left us wondering what was really burning,” Alana says.

While she adds that confusion during a disaster isn’t unexpected, it was still difficult for evacuees who relied on the media as their main source of information.

“ Those of us who weren’t directly affected can turn off our TVs and go back to our normal lives, but it’s a different story when the media is your primary source of information about your home.” Alana Kehoe 

The experience left her asking herself about the impact media coverage would have on people over the long term. So she approached Dr. Sarah Shulist, assistant professor of Anthropology, and set out to do an independent study in the form of an audience ethnography—in-depth research with small groups of people that sheds light on the stories behind statistics and brief qualitative surveys.

As Alana interviewed seven Fort McMurray residents—mothers, fathers, firefighters, people who lost homes and others who didn’t—they shared very personal insights into how the media coverage impacted them, what they felt was the real story and pieces they thought the media missed. While interviewees understood that the coverage couldn’t represent every single person, some felt entirely left out of the narrative.

“They were struggling with something that completely consumed their lives and felt some of the important issues they were facing weren’t making their way into the headlines,” says Alana. “Things like the ongoing trauma of the experience, issues with insurance claims, dealing with agencies and the aftermath of losing everything. Emotions ran high during our interviews and people got angry when they spoke about how the stories were told in the media, whether they felt their own stories were heard and if they felt stories in the media were over-dramatized.”

Specific examples interviewees cited included stories about scavenging bears taking over Fort McMurray, potential bug infestations and stories that focused exclusively on areas of the city that had burned.

“Those were important stories, but they were also upsetting and difficult headlines for people to see within the first couple of weeks after the fire when they had just lost their houses or didn’t know if or when they would be able to return home,” she says.

Interviewees also spoke of preparing themselves to go back to the disaster zone they saw on TV only to return and discover that huge parts of the city were untouched.

“In the reports they saw in the news, it looked like everything was gone, but that wasn’t the case,” says Alana. “Interviewees felt like they weren’t getting the facts that they wanted and wondered why the stories they saw in the media made it look like everything was gone.”

The impact of media coverage didn’t end once people began returning to the city. Months later, interviewees said that mainstream media messages of rebuilding, perseverance and life getting back to normal in Fort McMurray weren’t easy to hear for those still struggling.

“Seeing news that people were happy and that life was getting back to normal was hard when that wasn’t the case for everyone,” she says.

What is the message she hopes hopes to share with her research?

“I hope that people covering disaster situations in the media really think about things from the perspective of the people the disaster is affecting and that they focus coverage on the people who are most impacted,” says Alana. “Those of us who weren’t directly affected can turn off our TVs and go back to our normal lives, but it’s a different story when the media is your primary source of information about your home.”

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