Many people ask us – as communication experts: how can we predict when any one incident will attract media attention? Our answer: it depends. In short, we recommend a four-question test: (1) can you take a picture of it? (2) Does it connect to a larger story? (3) Can people beyond the immediate stakeholders feel impacted? And (4) are there recognisable names involved?
But dig a little deeper and the plot line thickens. While the four-question test gets to the heart of “what makes a story attractive,” it doesn’t obviously account for that X-factor.
And, as any real estate agent knows, selling a story is all about location, location, location.
In a similar vein, think of the atmosphere at a sports game – it is set by the venue and spectators. Sure the players and score are important, but it’s the fan-based party and stadium ambience that really makes or breaks the “experience”.
Expand that logic to the maritime field and it’s easy to see the Port of Vancouver – with its millions of smartphone spectators and environmentally conscious agenda – more as a colosseum ready to capture chaos than a placid backdrop to an operational meltdown. The punch line: some colosseums are more sensitive to disaster.
But its not only about the way media culture varies across the world. Physical proximity to population also sets risk. Incidents that happen far out at sea are just less likely to attract major attention. It’s part of the reason so many murders go unsolved in international waters.
Why exactly does close proximity to a population centre drive media coverage? The obvious answer: the closer to people, the greater the visibility, the more potential for photographs. But the real impacts are more subtle. Recall the four-question test: Photographs? Connections to stories? Impacts? And recognisable names?
First, it’s not only about the number of photographs taken, but also what those photographs capture. Maritime chaos occurring across a backdrop with the Statue of Liberty is sure to attract intense media interest – just based on public familiarity with the location and name recognition.
Second, incidents near population centres impact more people. Proximity to the public determines disruption – the consequences of smoke, pollution and vessel traffic delays are amplified when more people feel the effects. Not to mention, more people are drawn into the storyline – with more personal accounts of “what people saw”, the media has an endless supply of “human connection” to the disaster.
Finally, incidents in these population danger zones are connectable to larger stories within the community. Incidents are pulled into discussions on port operations, local businesses, environmental concerns, community events and ongoing transportation.
With all of this in consideration, some people might be quick to point out that certain disasters like the Exxon Valdez and Titanic occurred away from population centres and still managed to attract enormous news headlines. Clearly the high seas and unpopulated coastlines are not exempt from media scrutiny, but it’s also worth noting that many of these “rural” disasters happened in an era before smartphones – and obsessive ‘sharing’, instant news cycles, and rigorous improvements in safety systems. Both disasters also check each of the boxes in the four-question test (though there are no pictures of the Titanic actually sinking).
The upshot of all this? When analysing an incident’s potential for media traction, it is important to start with the four-question test: Photographs? Connections to stories? Impacts? And recognisable names? But at the same time, its critical not to have tunnel vision.
Location – whether it is the politics, incident visibility, or proximity to population centres – is a vital aspect to consider across each of the four questions and the wider media risk analysis.