Framing disaster : a topic modeling approach for the case of Chile




Saldaña Villa, Magdalena Carolina

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Guided by framing theory, this dissertation observes how the respective narratives of the Chilean government, media and public framed an earthquake and tsunami occurring in Chile on April 1, 2014. Three weeks after Chilean President Michelle Bachelet began her second presidency, an 8.2-magnitude earthquake struck off the northern coast of Chile. President Bachelet quickly declared a state of emergency, issued a precautionary tsunami warning for the entire coast, and evacuated 900,000 residents in the northern part of the country. Despite a timely response, the government encountered strong criticism from the public primarily based on how President Bachelet and her team handled a previous disaster, which occurred at the end of her first four-year term in 2010. Most framing research focuses on how frames are created and embedded in news content. Research has also examined the effects of news frames on the audience. However, only a few studies have simultaneously analyzed how the three key actors of the framing process – the media, audience, and political elites, compete for their own frames to become salient and shape public opinion. This dissertation aims to fill this gap in the literature by identifying frames and frame functions in government press releases, local and national news stories, and online news comments in the context of a natural disaster. This study uses a mixed-methods approach to provide a holistic understanding of disaster news coverage. First, earthquake-related news stories and official press releases were content analyzed using structural topic modeling, an automated text analysis method. Second, online news comments posted to earthquake-related stories were analyzed using both structural topic modeling and qualitative textual analysis in order to achieve a more in-depth understanding of the online public discussion about the disaster. Third, semi-structured interviews were conducted with journalists covering the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in order to provide context to these findings. The main findings from this dissertation indicate the media framed the governmental response to the 2014 earthquake as a result of lessons learned during the 2010 disaster, while the public framed it as a consequence of changes introduced by former President Sebastián Piñera to the National Emergency Office while he was in power from 2010 to 2014. Despite a successful crisis management during the 2014 disaster by the government, President Bachelet did not succeed in improving her public-evaluation rating, and those who supported her when posting comments online were not numerous enough to create countertopics for the negative evaluations. These conclusions confirm what other studies previously found regarding Chile: political trust is low among Chilean citizens, and the government is one of the least trusted institutions in the country. This study matters because of its implications for democracy in a context where natural disasters occur often and are therefore normalized. Citizens who suffer damage in disaster contexts present lower evaluations of democratic institutions, lower support for democratic values and practices, and stronger dispositions toward action. As such, understanding how Chilean citizens assessed the government’s performance is crucial to address the impact of a natural disaster on public opinion formation.



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