Publication Details

Nicholls, S., Sykes, J. & Camilleri, P. (2010). The role of the media and communication in recovery from natural disasters: A case study of the Canberra 'firestorm' and its aftermath 2003-2007. Australian Journal of Communication, 37 (3), 33-50.


The enormous tragedy of bushfires with significant loss of life, destruction of property, and differential recovery resulting in community division-that is, 'cleavage planes'-has become an all too common feature of the Australian experience. Research on the communication aspects of emergencies has tended to focus on preparedness and response with little in-depth analysis of the role of the media and communication strategies relating to the recovery process. In this paper, focusing on the Canberra 'firestorm' of 2003 and the aftermath recovery process, we report on a study seeking survivors' views on the functions of communication in the recovery process. The key points were that the media played a significant role in affecting the recovering community-both positively and negatively-in their recovery, that multiple sources of information were needed, that individuals experiencing post-disaster stress absorb information differently, and that the timeliness of the information to individuals was important. A very powerful message was that political and legal issues arising from the aftermath of the fire greatly affected people's recovery. The research demonstrates that it is important for the media to acquire a degree of sensitivity regarding the effect its reporting has on a seriously damaged community and provide an accurate portrayal without sensationalism. It also suggests that communities seek agency in their own recovery and that government involvement can assist or hinder this process.