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Social control of media in a natural disaster: a critical view from professionals and citizens

Magdalena SaldaaThe University of Texas at AustinLorenzo Parra Universidad San Sebastin (Concepcin-Chile)


ContextThe Chilean earthquake on February 2010 rated a magnitude of 8.8 on a Richter scale and affected the center and the south of the country


Alto Ro Building, City of Concepcin

Photo by El Sur Newspaper


After the earthquake, a tsunami devastated the coasts of those regions, causing losses close to 30 billion dollars and more than 600 people dead.

Photo by El Sur Newspaper


The lack of information about the disaster and the erratic performance of the authorities caused a social and economic crisis in the main cities

Photo by El Sur Newspaper


The shortage of basic services, the interruption of telephone lines and internet connection, and the impossibility of accessing banks, provoked feelings of insecurity among people.

Photo by El Sur Newspaper


At first, the idea of a shortage of supplies drove people into the pharmacies and supermarkets to steal first necessity products.

Photo by El Sur Newspaper


However, lootings soon became usual.

Photo by El Sur Newspaper


However, lootings soon became usual.

Photo by El Sur Newspaper


Media showed people running away with food, alcohol or electrical appliances, emphasizing more the criminal facts than the earthquake and tsunami consequences.

Photo by El Sur Newspaper


In the specific case of Concepcin, there was such social chaos that a military intervention was required to restore order and normality.

Photo by El Sur Newspaper


The city was declared under state of siege and an 18-hour curfew was imposedPhoto by El Sur Newspaper


Total prohibition of going out in times different from those legally stated (from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m).

Photo by El Sur Newspaper


These measures were received with peoples approval, due to their feelings of terror and extreme alertness for the information on the media.

Photo by El Sur Newspaper


Newspaper, and especially radio stations, constantly informed about lootings and supposed hordes of people coming from the periphery to the city, stealing and destroying everything in their path.Photo by El Sur Newspaper


People were in a highly vulnerable situation; so, the idea of a group of criminal people trying to get the city was quickly absorbed.Photo by El Sur Newspaper


People raised barricades on the street entrances and established night vigilance, waiting for the supposed looting crowd. However, that crowd never came, and the curfew gradually decreased until it ended by middle April. Photo by El Sur Newspaper


QuestionsIf the information showed by the mass media caused fear and therefore influenced the approval of military intervention, what is the role played by the media after the earthquake?

How should information be presented in emergency periods or chaos situations?

What is the role which professional ethics and common sense play at the time to evaluate the available information?


GoalsThe purpose of this research is to describe in which way the media exerted social control over people, and to discover if the social conflicts generated after the earthquake were influenced by that control.


Theoretical frameworkFoucault (1975) Discipline and Punish. He argues that the new mode of punishment becomes the model for control of an entire society, with factories, hospitals, and schools modeled on the modern prison: disciplinary society.

Deleuze (1992) Societes of control. Deleuze argues that our environment has shifted from disciplinary societies to societies of control: individuals and their moralities as products of the organization of control; individuals are continuously and limitlessly controlled by systems of domination.


Method and measurementExploratory, cross sectional approach, through qualitative methodology using case study.

The data collection procedure was conducted by individual and in group in-depth interviews.

To discover how the media exerted social control over people, six journalists from local outlets which covered the earthquake news were interviewed.

To understand how the media influenced the sensation of fear and chaos in the city, two families were also interviewed.

The data analysis is based on the constant comparative method according to Taylor and Bogdan (1984) .


FindingsCategories made by constant comparative method are presented below. Four categories were found:

Journalism as community service

Media, watchdogs of social facts

Mass media for social (dis) order

Mass media legitimizing social control


FindingsJournalism as community service

So, the responsibility of this profession is here. In these situations, you realize how important is to be a journalist. If we brought the information to people, we would produce calm, because people needed to find out what was happening. Radio journalist

For me, media was very relevant. My neighbor had those flashlights with radio receptor, so we listened to and started to find out what was happening of course nobody said anything specific , but at least they gave some information about the disaster that information made us calm. Interviewee from Coronel


FindingsMedia, watchdogs of social facts

I took pictures of people looting and then we showed the photos to make people confess. That was very effective, because people called to the radio or the police saying I know that person who is running away on the bicycle or with something in a shopping cart, this is Mr. So and so And when the information systems worked, the police went to those peoples houses. Radio journalist


FindingsMass media for social (dis) order

I think lootings and fear occurred due to the idea of the hordes which supposedly would loot houses. And that was the result of the terrible performance of the radio. Press journalist

I think the media contributed to the increase of lootings for example, they said they are looting the supermarket in Prat Street and there were a few people but when the radio informed that, five minutes later there were 200 people looting the place. Press journalist


FindingsMass media for social (dis) order

It was a way to keep people in their homes, taking care of the streets, avoiding anyone walking out at night it was a way to create order and the media got that, the radio created the idea of the hordes, and one believed it because we were in such a social chaos but in fact, if you think about it now, you realize it was a method to establish order to produce chaos was a way to establish order. Interviewee from Coronel


FindingsMass media legitimizing social control

You know, I think it was society asking for a curfew, and I really dont know anybody who disagreed with the curfew everyone felt safer with the military on the streets. Now, if we talk about the time that curfew lasted, I imagine it is related to social safety and so, I dont understand it, but they should have some criteria to decide it TV station journalist


ConclusionsMass media can get important power in times of natural disasters, since they are a relevant information source for citizens as well as for authorities. According to the findings, three factors make media social control possible :

The information itself: the media was the only information source about the earthquake.

The non-existence of authorities, which allowed the media to control public and private sphere.

Finally, the fear among people; the insecurity sensation they lived made them to ask for help and military protection.