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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Twenty Seconds that Shook the Agenda: An Assessment of Transportation Issues in the Mass Media Following the Northridge Earthquake


This study investigates how transportation issues were conveyed by the mass media, following the January 17, 1994 Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles. It is shown that the media are a vital tool for transportation planners, when a disaster causes damage to major arterials. The media are the primary means through which the public assesses damage to the transportation system, and learns which roadways and detours to use. They are also studied by out-of-town officials, who must appraise the damage. The media also expose people to new travel alternatives, like bus, carpooling, and rail service. 

A content-analysis is used to study trends in major mass media, including radio, local and national television, and newspapers. This technique was used to quantify the volume of transportation news, as well as changes in emphasis over time. A number of related issues were investigated through content analysis including change in the overall level of traffic news; change in information about alternative modes, like train service and buses; and change in news about freeway recovery and rebuilding efforts. It is observed that stories about transportation were a regular, and continuous component of earthquake reports.

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