Community resilience researchers share work at AEJMC conference

Community resilience has traditionally been defined as bouncing back, but it is more than that; it is bouncing back better, according to J. Brian Houston, director of the Disaster and Community Crisis Center (DCC) at the University of Missouri.

“A resilient community is not just a community of resilient individuals,” Houston said. “It includes many elements — information gathering, communication, responsible media, and social capital are all integral traits of resilient communities.”

Houston was one of five researchers who spoke about the strides being made in research on community resilience and the expectations and roles of media in sharing information about disasters and crisis. They referred to community resilience as a process linking a network of adaptive capacities (resources with dynamic attributes) to adaptation after a disturbance or adversity.

The panel was held on Thursday, August 4, at the Association of Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) annual conference in downtown Minneapolis. I spoke on the panel, along with Houston and three others: the University of Maryland’s Brooke Fisher Liu and Brooke Fowler, and CUNY’s A. Adam Glenn.

We identified a number of ways that media and communicators can contribute to a community’s resilience after a crisis or disaster situation, along with different communication systems and resources integral to community resilience.

Houston, who organized the panel, said that not only do media and communication networks help to connect people to resources, but also they often provide “intervention targets” for building community resilience for future crisis situations.

Glenn spoke about his work examining how certain frames make climate change information more or less trustworthy. Glenn, who identified these “adaptation frames” with a team of University of Missouri researchers, said the frames include writing stories that are more localized and catering stories to an audience with a frame they can relate to. He identified specific frames that are better understood locally and with either more conservative or liberal audiences.

I explored story frames in my dissertation, which involves a case study of local journalists who lived in or near Wimberley, Texas, in the six months after the 2015 Memorial Day Wimberley Texas Flooding. My research found that not only were local journalists able to communicate with their communities on a more personal level after the disaster, but they often chose certain frames that they saw represented in the morale of the community post-disaster. Relationships between the journalists, local community leaders, friends and neighbors often influenced their stories and directed the narratives they told.

Local journalists are not the only communicators who can help build resilient communities, Fowler said. Her research focused on the ideal of community policing and the potential police have for being part of beneficial communication during a crisis. Community policing involves partnerships between the police and other local individuals who can monitor the challenges of that community before a crisis. These partnerships can also help mitigate the crisis. In this model of policing, “citizens are co-creators of public safety,” Fowler said.

Policing is often thought of as separate from communication, although police are often on the front lines when a crisis or disaster takes place. The credibility of the police can make or break the way a community responds and therefore affect a community’s resilience. As more communities move toward adapting a community-policing model, there are opportunities to harness the networks the model establishes in crisis and disaster situations.

Fowler also said police might be able to contribute to “community resilience in the moment” by implementing community policing practices ahead of a crisis or disaster.

Fowler spoke about all of this alongside Lui, who is director of the Risk & Resilience Program at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). The consortium, Lui said, has worked extensively to identify more effective warning message practices to provide accessible, clear and trusted messages.

Liu and her colleagues have worked on several projects over the past decade and discovered these five commonalities among projects:

1. Content can often make or break how serious an audience takes the message.

2. People facing crises or disasters are more likely to take action if they receive the information from multiple concurrent sources.

3. Social media cannot replace the trust of face-to-face communication, and sometimes social media lacks the structure and ability to provide detailed and motivational information.

4. In a crisis there is often a small window of opportunity where the media can provide accurate information.

5. Interpersonal communication can often be the most beneficial and the least dangerous in a crisis.

Liu’s research teams have tested more effective Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs) of differing lengths. There is still, however, not enough information about the effectiveness of different lengths of messages. One of Liu’s research goals is to understand how to make WEAs better.

Liu also emphasized there is very little research on mobile communication and alerts. More researchers need to examine the information gaps, how that information is received, message accuracy and redundancy, threat creditability of those messages, and the actual wording of the hazard information, she said.

For more information about these projects and others developing around media, community, crisis and communication, visit the University of Maryland’s START; the University of Missouri’s Disaster and Community Crisis Center; Appalachian State’s Research Institute for Environment, Energy, and Economics; the Adapt NY Climate Project; and the Fostering Community Resilience fact sheet.

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