presented to the
International Geographical Union
Prague, Czech Republic
August, 1994


Susan Place


Christine M. Rodrigue


Center for Hazards Research
Department of Geography and Planning
California State University
Chico, CA 95929-0425 USA

Internet e-mail:



In the early morning of January 17, 1994, a magnitude 6.8 earthquake shook the Los Angeles area. Several buildings and freeways collapsed, killing at least 57 people and injuring thousands. Because that Monday was a national holiday (in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), making it a three-day weekend, a number of people were out of town, which probably saved some lives. Also, there was very little traffic -- both because of the holiday and the pre-dawn hour. Although loss of life was moderate, damage to property was enormous (current estimates exceed $15 billion). The January 17 earthquake is now considered the costliest "natural" disaster in US history. How has this widespread damage affected the people of Los Angeles (Angelenos)?

It is generally recognized that such disasters have differential impact on various segments of the affected population, both because of the underlying physical processes and the social geography of the area (Mortenson 1994a, 1994b; White and Haas 1975; Whittow 1979). Los Angeles is an extremely culturally diverse city, with strong spatial segregation of its various racial, ethnic, and national groups and socio-economic classes. Geographers would expect that quake damage, because of its discrete spatial patterns, would have differential impacts on the Los Angeles population. We suggest that, because of the ghettoization of the city, there will be substantial social differentiation in risk exposure and in access to emergency relief, recovery, and reconstruction.



Because Los Angeles is such a profoundly ghettoized city, residential segregation has led to extreme crowding in areas of recent immigration and to tremendous sprawl as "white flight" creates the "edge city" phenomenon described by Garreau (1991). This process accelerated during the 1980's as a result of de-industrialization of old established industrial areas (also, not surprisingly, traditionally the site of non-white residential zones) and a rapid influx of immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and Asia (Davis 1991). The demographics of the Los Angeles metropolitan area changed dramatically during the 1980s, as Ben Wisner discussed (1994).

Massive white flight and overcrowding in old racial and ethnic neighborhoods, in the context of a kaleidoscope of different political jurisdictions, translates into nightmarish problems when a disaster strikes (Wisner 1994). Emergency response and subsequent recovery are all compromised by the large number of different political jurisdictions that need to be co-ordinated. This is made doubly difficult by the budgetary problems caused by the declining tax base in the older ethnic communities and the resistance to paying taxes by the denizens of the affluent edge cities. The mean-spirited, anti-civic consciousness that first manifested with Proposition 13 in 1978 continues unabated, and indeed has become more deeply entrenched during the current economic crisis/restructuring (Soja 1989), as seen in the anti- immigrant sentiment in the state.



This paper is a progress report on aspects of the research we at the Center for Hazards Research have been conducting on the Los Angeles earthquake of January 17. Our research, together with that of Eugenie Rovai of the CHR, traces the perceptual and behavioral linkages among the events of January 17, the representation of these events in local media, local residents' mental maps of earthquake damages, and the spatial and temporal allocation of emergency response, recovery, and reconstruction activities. In this work, we are developing a conceptual framework integrating Herman's and Chomsky's propaganda model of media (1988); Wisner's integrated systems approach to hazard risk analysis (1994); Palm's hazard perception work with earthquakes (1990, 1981; Palm et al. 1990); Haas', Kates', and Bowden's model of disaster reconstruction timelines (1977); Rovai's application of the timeline model to differenentially vulnerable communities (1993); and Rodrigue's differentiation of risk from vulnerability (1994, 1993).

Also, as natives of the area, we were both able to draw on local knowledge to identify distortions in media coverage of the event, which were invisible to researchers with less intimate familiarity with the place. Outsiders and new residents often perceive Los Angeles as a uniform dystopia, due to its overwhelming spatial scale, whereas natives recognize subtly differentiated places within the vast megacity. Furthermore, one of us (Susan Place) learned through her multiracial extended family about extensive damage in the Crenshaw District, an African-American community in Los Angeles, which did not receive any media coverage. Our research confirms that the Crenshaw District experienced the greatest loss of residential and commercial structures in any postal zip code area of Los Angeles, including any of the zip codes in Northridge itself (California Office of Emergency Services 1994; Los Angeles City Department of Building and Safety 1994). Christine Rodrigue, living in Reseda, was the first to notice that the actual epicenter was technically in Reseda, not in Northridge (Reich 1994; Johnson 1994; Kotowitz 1994). The insights resulting from our local knowledge caused us to question whether the media are systematically biased in their coverage of disasters.

In Manufacturing Consent, Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky (1988) provide a model for predicting the behavior of media, which we are trying to apply to this case. They identify several filters operating to bias media selection of newsworthy items from the chaos of daily events. These filters include, first, the intense capital concentration in the media, which limits critical public debate on issues involving parent corporations and encourages sensational coverage likely to increase circulation and the bottom line (see also Bagdikian 1992 and Lee and Solomon 1991). Second, dependence on advertising revenue constrains serious and critical discussion of anything that would upset the income flow of the advertisers and also promotes the interests of the prosperous target markets of the advertisers (see also Steinem 1990). Third, media fear pressure from well-off and well-organized readers and politicians. The end result of such filters is a bias in media coverage favoring the interests and concerns of affluent people and de- emphasizing the interests and concerns of poorer people.

Given these filters, it can be expected that media reportage will tend to emphasize more upscale areas in a chaotic natural disaster situation. Northridge, the site of the three most sensational building failures and the loss of sixteen lives in one of these, understandably commanded a great deal of media attention. The naming of the Reseda-epicentered quake as the "Northridge" quake, however, may possibly reveal demographic bias on the part of media, compounded by initially confusing pronouncements by the California Institute of Technology: Northridge is a much more upscale community than Reseda, which is a downwardly transitional blue-collar and modest white-collar community. For example, per capita income in Northridge is US$23,308, while in Reseda it is US$15,177. For the state of California, that figure is US$16,409 (US Census 1990).

That this disparity between the geographies of damage and of news coverage, of epicenters and media naming, has significant consequences and is more than a one-incident aberration is suggested in work done by our colleague, Eugenie Rovai (1993), on the California North Coast earthquake of 1992. There, the epicentral community was Petrolia, but the national media dubbed it the Ferndale Quake, after a fashionable community famous for its trendy restored Victorians. There was virtually no coverage of Rio Dell, a downwardly transitional old Italian blue-collar community nearby, which experienced identical dollar damages. In a poor community, this translates into more extensive and dramatic infrastructural damage than in a more prosperous community, because of the depressed property values in the former. It is, therefore, particularly ironic that the devastation of Rio Dell was an invisible disaster outside the local area, due to biased media coverage, as in the case of the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles. Similarly, Lee and Solomon (1991) and Smith (1992) have critiqued press coverage of the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, which emphasized the suffering of the affluent Marina district of San Francisco 60 miles from the epicenter and little covered the distress in the largely Black Oakland equidistant from the epicenter. Conspicuously ignored was catastrophic damage in the largely Latino Watsonville and in the countercultural college town, Santa Cruz, both much closer to the epicenter.

The significance of such disparities, should there prove a consistent upscale bias in reporting, is that emergency, recovery, and reconstruction activities are allocated to affected areas on the basis of disaster management personnel's mental maps of damage. These mental maps may be strongly influenced by media coverage, with the possible result that better-off communities may secure thereby the lion's share of disaster relief. While everyone in coastal, desert, and Sierran California is at some risk to the earthquake hazard (Hornbeck 1983: 29), uneven performance of reconstruction can mitigate vulnerability for more affluent communities and exacerbate vulnerability for the more marginalized (Blaikie et al 1994: Ch. 8). Ferndale today is nearly completely recovered; Rio Dell has scarcely begun its reconstruction. As Charlene Shaffer, director of the Watsonville Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture, put it: "It's distressing to see hard-hit communities near the quake's epicenter ... being overshadowed by the Bay area in the media's coverage ... Donations, which could make the difference between economic survival and devastation to a small community like ours, are pouring into San Francisco instead..." (cited in Lee and Solomon 1991).

Within a community, there are also substantial differences in vulnerability to disasters. The poorest people are the most vulnerable, especially those in the informal sector and the secondary labor market (Blaikie et al. 1994; Wisner 1993). In Los Angeles, recent immigrants are frequently relegated to the informal sector and, thus, marginalized. Their economic situations, already highly precarious, make them extremely fragile in a disaster, such as this earthquake. An anecdote from La Opinión illustrates the obstacles faced by such people in obtaining relief and rebuilding their lives following a disaster. A Central American woman, who had been working as a live-in domestic/nanny with a family in the San Fernando Valley in exchange for room and board and a small amount of money, found herself homeless and jobless following the January 17 earthquake. The family with whom she had lived left their damaged home to move in with relatives, where there was no room for the domestic. She was unable to obtain aid, because she had no proof of having lost home or employment as a result of the earthquake ("Cierre de albergues..." 1994).



With these ideas from the integrated systems approach to hazards and the propaganda model of the media, we will use Los Angeles City Department of Building and Safety data, data from the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and from the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services (OES), literature content analyses, telephone surveys, and timeline analyses to accomplish the following objectives:

  1. to establish whether the geography of media coverage differs significantly from that of earthquake damages;
  2. if so, to test the hypothesis that any imbalances in media coverage will favor more upscale communities and to see if there are significant differences in such imbalances between the dominant regional English-language newspaper, the Los Angeles Times and the dominant regional Spanish-language paper, La Opinión, arising from the differences in their target readerships, ownership, and advertisers;
  3. to survey the reflection of media coverage in Los Angelenos' mental maps of quake damages; and
  4. to establish whether these mental maps are replicated in the timing and amounts of disaster emergency response, recovery, and reconstruction activities across social space.

To accomplish the first two objectives, we are simply counting place references in front page articles in the Los Angeles Times and La Opinión in order to compare the resulting geographies of newspaper coverage. We are then comparing these geographies with various measures of earthquake damages by community. These measures include loss of single family dwellings, loss of apartment units, loss of commercial and industrial structures, and dollar damages.

For the next objective, both of us are working on a survey of Los Angeles area residents, in order to create a composite map of Angelenos' mental maps of the disaster. Rodrigue has developed a random sample of 300 telephone numbers, proportionally stratified among the several telephone books in the LA area.

We are working with Eugenie Rovai to accomplish the last objective: assessing the variations in disaster emergency response, recovery, and reconstruction activites among the socially, economically, and ethnically diverse communities of the greater Los Angeles area. In this, Rovai is using the Haas, Kates, and Bowden timeline model but decomposing these activities as they occur in particular Los Angeles subcommunities. Her work is an expansion of the similar work she did on the North Coast earthquake, in which she compared and contrasted the two communities of Rio Dell and Ferndale. Her work will use information from the Los Angeles Times and FEMA and OES. These two agencies co-ordinate the collection of data on the condition of inspected buildings and provide computerized longitudinal databases on the status of buildings for all the political jurisdictions within the Greater Los Angeles area. Updates of this database allow analysis of the differential rates at which buildings are rebuilt or repaired in the various communities of Los Angeles.



Our work explores the reflection of earthquake damages in local English and Spanish media representations of the disaster and in local residents' mental maps of the damage. We are testing the idea that such representations and perceptions embody systematic social and economic biases of the media, an effect observable in other earthquake situations. The significance of these biases lies in the possible skewing of disaster emergency response, recovery, and reconstruction activities, with the resulting deepening of social divisions. Our work also demonstrates the value of local knowledge in providing a counterweight to biased media images.



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Document maintained by Dr. Christine M. Rodrigue
Last maintained: 10/01/99