The Pacific Northwest was rarely mentioned in conversations about earthquakes until a recent New Yorker article cited scientific evidence that the region is overdue for a potentially devastating convulsion. Unlike neighboring California, seismic tremors seldom occur in Oregon.
Our research team at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC) became aware of the findings prior to their publication in the popular press, and we saw an opportunity to experiment with new uses of media to engage Oregonians about ways to prepare.
The result was “Don’t Wait for the Quake,” an hour-long public forum produced by our students in partnership with Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB), which serves the entire state and southern Washington. The multi-camera-covered event was streamed live over OPB.org and simulcast over its statewide radio network, and a few weeks later it aired on KOPB-TV. The event, hosted at the university’s White Stag building in Portland, assembled a panel of experts along with an audience of concerned citizens, community organizers, state/local officials, students, educators and first responders.
Our experts included Andrew Phelps, director of Oregon Emergency Management; Chris Goldfinger, an oceanographer at Oregon State University and one of the world’s foremost experts on subduction zone earthquakes; and T. Aisha Edwards, a licensed therapist in Vancouver, Wash., who specializes in treating patients with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The evening forum was moderated by Dave Miller, host of OPB’s “Think Out Loud.” However, it was the audience that served as the focal point of this live news experiment.
Specifically, our innovation centered around the use of Harv.is, a mobile app that measures audience engagement. As users (both present and at home) watched a series of student-produced multimedia stories, they were able to indicate their emotional response by swiping up or down in the app. Harvis then aggregated this data and generated a visual display that Andrew DeVigal, chair of the SOJC’s Agora Journalism Center, interpreted on the spot to help inform further discussion. (DeVigal, who developed Harvis, worked previously as multimedia editor at the New York Times, where he was responsible for leading numerous groundbreaking projects, including “Snow Fall.”)
The project was funded by a $35,000 micro-grant from the Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education. Our project was one of 11 funded in 2015 through a partnership between the Online News Association (ONA), the Excellence and Ethics in Journalism Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund and the Rita Allen Foundation.
Prepping a Quake Preparation Special
Planning for our earthquake preparedness event began a year in advance when we assembled several student production teams to explore aspects of the topic. We sent two students to Nepal to report on recovery efforts following a violent 8.1 magnitude quake that hit the country last April, killing more than 8,500 people. They interviewed survivors in Kathmandu who rallied together to feed fellow villagers who lost their homes and livelihoods.
Our students’ own safety was a prime concern. We consulted with local authorities and increased the lodging budget to make sure they would be staying in places that were structurally sound.
Another team traveled to Southern California to interview the director of the Southern California Earthquake Center. He compared California and Nepal’s earthquakes, and explained how they differ from what Oregon can expect.
Closer to home, a team covered the Portland Bicycle Relief Trials, a disaster drill where volunteers navigate road debris on cargo bikes while delivering supplies to isolated survivors. A fourth team documented a Pathfinder Minutemen simulation exercise on the coast in which volunteer “victims” with fake wounds and bandages were placed throughout earthquake-affected sites to await rescue and treatment by participating civilian doctors and National and Air Guard units.
A fifth team profiled one of our students, who also works as veterinary assistant, to document the process of putting together an emergency preparedness kit for her new dog. A sixth team produced a brief video explaining the science behind subduction zone quakes. The last team created a short video explaining how to use Harv.is.
OPB’s television studio was under renovation, so we contracted with Picture This Productions to transform our largest Portland meeting space into a broadcast-ready television facility. It took two days to rig lighting, load cameras, and run wiring. A narrow corridor served as a makeshift control room, separated from our “studio” by a thin wall that was less than optimal.
Most members of our freelance crew were meeting and working together for the first time. Stress levels were high, as any single misstep might have derailed the live production. That truth was evident during rehearsals when we blew a fuse and temporarily lost our lights. With just a few hours before we would go live, electricians ran heavy-duty extension cables out into the surrounding hallways to find additional circuits to prevent the overload in the main room.
Hot coffee and warm seats comforted 100 people who endured pouring rain and rush-hour traffic to join our live audience. As we counted down to the live broadcast, one of our students offered comic relief by treating attendees to his stand-up act. Fears and fumbles abated, the production was (mostly) flawless.
During the live hour, we experimented with several varieties of storytelling, seeking to understand how differing approaches would resonate with the audience. The Nepal story was presented with cinematic style and minimal use of text. The Pathfinder Minutemen story was reporter-mediated and told in first-person. The Bicycle Relief Trial story was a more traditional documentary short. Finally, the pet safety kit story was presented as an instructional demonstration.
For analysis updates during the program, we stationed Andrew at a round tabletop and stool position next to a flat-screen monitor in the audience seating area. Harvis collected data from people in attendance, as well as from those participating remotely. A key question we asked to begin and end the broadcast was: On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being most prepared, how prepared do you feel to respond to an earthquake? Significantly more people felt better prepared by the end of our program.
Harvis provided a visual display of responses organized by group categories: concerned citizens, community organizers, state/local officials, students, educators, and first responders. The Nepal story resonated with audiences when incidents of resilience were depicted.
The software also captured qualitative text message responses. Participants expressed their intention to “set up earthquake warning systems,” to “have neighborhoods create earthquake preparation associations for their area,” and to “require property owners to provide funding to make earthquake proof buildings.” Others committed to “gather plenty of supplies in order to properly act afterwards,” to “meet with neighbors to plan,” and to “identify skill sets within [their] neighborhood/city block and assign roles.”
This was our first of many experiments designed to push beyond the boundaries of conventional ways to engage audience members and measure their responses. We are planning additional research projects to maximize the potential of Harvis.
Ed Madison holds a Ph.D. in Communication from the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon (2012), where he is now an assistant professor. He is an Apple Distinguished Educator and an Adobe Education Leader. Madison’s multifaceted career in media and journalism began as a high school intern at the Washington Post owned CBS television affiliate in Washington, D.C. during the height of Watergate. At age 22, he was recruited to become a founding producer for CNN. His own subsequent companies have provided services for most of the major networks and studios, including CBS, ABC, A&E, Paramount, Disney, and Discovery. His new book is “Newsworthy- Cultivating Critical Thinkers, Readers, and Writers in Language Arts Classrooms” from Teachers College Press (Columbia University). Follow him @edmadison.