Lessons from media reporting of natural disasters : a case study of the 2011 flash floods in Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley

Gearing, Amanda Ann (2012) Lessons from media reporting of natural disasters : a case study of the 2011 flash floods in Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley. Masters by Research thesis, Queensland University of Technology.


Practice-led journalism research techniques were used in this study to produce a ‘first draft of history’ recording the human experience of survivors and rescuers during the January 2011 flash flood disaster in Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley in Queensland, Australia. The study aimed to discover what can be learnt from engaging in journalistic reporting of natural disasters. This exegesis demonstrates that journalism can be both a creative practice and a research methodology.

About 120 survivors, rescuers and family members of victims participated in extended interviews about what happened to them and how they survived. Their stories are the basis for two creative outputs of the study: a radio documentary and a non-fiction book, that document how and why people died, or survived, or were rescued. Listeners and readers are taken "into the flood" where they feel anxious for those in peril, relief when people are saved, and devastated when babies, children and adults are swept away to their deaths.

In undertaking reporting about the human experience of the floods, several significant elements about journalistic reportage of disasters were exposed. The first related to the vital role that the online social media played during the disaster for individuals, citizen reporters, journalists and emergency services organisations. Online social media offer reporters powerful new reporting tools for both gathering and disseminating news. The second related to the performance of journalists in covering events involving traumatic experiences. Journalists are often required to cover trauma and are often amongst the first-responders to disasters. This study found that almost all of the disaster survivors who were approached were willing to talk in detail about their traumatic experiences. A finding of this project is that journalists who interview trauma survivors can develop techniques for improving their ability to interview people who have experienced traumatic events. These include being flexible with interview timing and selecting a location; empowering interviewees to understand they don’t have to answer every question they are asked; providing emotional security for interviewees; and by being committed to accuracy. Survivors may exhibit posttraumatic stress symptoms but some exhibit and report posttraumatic growth.

The willingness of a high proportion of the flood survivors to participate in the flood research made it possible to document a relatively unstudied question within the literature about journalism and trauma – when and why disaster survivors will want to speak to reporters. The study sheds light on the reasons why a group of traumatised people chose to speak about their experiences. Their reasons fell into six categories: lessons need to be learned from the disaster; a desire for the public to know what had happened; a sense of duty to make sure warning systems and disaster responses to be improved in future; personal recovery; the financial disinterest of reporters in listening to survivors; and the timing of the request for an interview.

Feedback to the creative-practice component of this thesis - the book and radio documentary - shows that these issues are not purely matters of ethics. By following appropriate protocols, it is possible to produce stories that engender strong audience responses such as that the program was "amazing and deeply emotional" and "community storytelling at its most important". Participants reported that the experience of the interview process was "healing" and that the creative outcome resulted in "a very precious record of an afternoon of tragedy and triumph and the bitter-sweetness of survival".

Impact and interest:

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ID Code: 61628
Item Type: QUT Thesis (Masters by Research)
Supervisor: Romano, Angela
Additional Information:

A radio documentary called "The Day That Changed Grantham" is available from ABC Radio National at:


Keywords: journalism as creative practice, journalism as research methodology, reporting, disaster, trauma, survivors, rescuers, narrative journalism, online social networking, social media, post traumatic stress disorder, posttraumatic growth, CEDM
Divisions: Current > Research Centres > Centre for Emergency & Disaster Management
Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Creative Industries Faculty
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Deposited On: 31 Jul 2013 05:41
Last Modified: 26 Oct 2015 03:22

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