Narratives of Crisis
Telling Stories of Ruin and Renewal
Matthew W. Seeger and Timothy L. Sellnow


Chapter 1

Narratives of Crisis

The March II, 2012, Fukushima Daiichi crisis was a catastrophic failure of complex, high-risk technology following the magnitude 9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake. This crisis was so profoundly disruptive that Japanese officials and members of TEPCO, the Daiichi nuclear power plant owners, were deeply confused and unclear about how to respond and what to tell the public. The Japanese Nuclear Regulatory Authority originally classified the event leak as a level 1 or “anomalous” event according to the International Nuclear Event Scale. In response to international pressure, the regulatory authority revised the classification to a level 3: “serious radiation incident.” The technical and engineering response might best be described as trial and error as technicians and emergency managers sought solutions for containing the damage. The communication response was also confused, resulting in incomplete and inaccurate information, which ultimately undermined public trust and compounded the harm. Even months after the initial accident was under control, TEPCO continued to minimize the risk and deny that radioactive water was leaking from the damaged facility into the Pacific Ocean. Fish caught hundreds of miles from the facility show high levels of contamination, but little information has been available about the potential risk to human health.

Within this context of high uncertainty, an ongoing crisis that is rapidly changing, and official channels that are limiting their response, media, watchdog groups, and members of the community began filling the informational void. The story was also closely followed by international media organizations. The leak has the potential to affect Japan’s neighbors and international events, including the 2020 Olympics. Environmental groups such as EcoWatch and Greenpeace have also participated in the Fukushima narrative, calling for action and warning of widespread environmental harm. In addition, the disaster led to the development of event-specific groups such as and These and many other groups have added to the larger Fukushima story and offer competing stories. These narratives of what is probably the worst nuclear accident in history are complex and dramatic.

Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, Louisiana, on August 27, 2005. Initially the community appeared to have managed the storm’s impact, using well-established technologies and approaches such as levees, pumps, evacuations from low-lying areas, and family emergency kits. As the storm progressed, however, several key levees failed, resulting in catastrophic flooding of more than 80 percent of the city. The devastation was so widespread that it overwhelmed response capacity, which was further crippled by bureaucratic and governmental infighting and general lack of preparedness. In the end, Katrina was the most expensive disaster in U.S. history, costing over $108 billion and resulting in more than seven hundred deaths. The storm has become a powerful symbol of lack of preparedness, the disproportional impact of crises on poor and minority communities, and broader beliefs about government’s role in disaster response. Hurricane Katrina was also a significant event for larger social, political, and economic issues in the United States. It brought up issues of race and class, and failures with the subsequent response undermined the administration of President George W. Bush. The widespread destruction in a major American city shocked the nation.

Communication allows feedback and adjustment, and during a crisis, these adjustments can help refine a response or correct mistakes. The media-produced feedback of the Hurricane Katrina response is an example of this. Media, serving their traditional watchdog function, identified deficiencies in the government response through posts on blogs and other electronic media, prompting government correction. Despite being forced to abandon their offices due to flooding, many journalists, photographers, and editors of the New Orleans–based Times Picayune remained in the surrounding area to report on the aftermath of Katrina. With their presses inoperable, they published online editions until temporary offsite presses could be set up.

Journalists at the Mississippi Sun Herald also used electronic media to provide coverage of Hurricane Katrina before, during, and after by posting updates and stories on the blog Eye of the Storm. In addition to providing essential information regarding Katrina’s progress and subsequent instructions for citizens, they attempted to confirm or dispel various rumors and unconfirmed reports that began circulating as a result of the mass confusion and communication breakdown. One of the more interesting functions that blogs served during and after the storm was relating personal stories of not just the journalists who remained to cover the storm but also of emergency responders and regular citizens coping with the trials that Katrina brought.

While the ability to provide these journalistic functions in a nontraditional format during a crisis is interesting in itself, blogs provide a unique opportunity for rebuilding connections and empowering crisis participants. For a blog dedicated to a crisis, such as Eye of the Storm, posts range from real-time information and updates to personal accounts of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances and even observations about the quality of the response. These posts then become communication hubs for further information and elaboration related to the topic. Readers who are also experiencing the crisis can add their individual experiences, thus creating a rich narrative accounts of the situation from a variety of perspectives. For those not directly experiencing the crisis, these posts provide opportunities to connect and empathize with individuals and communities they have no prior exposure to.

The luxury ocean liner RMS Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, after colliding with an iceberg in the North Atlantic. The ship, on its maiden voyage from Southampton in the United Kingdom to New York City, was carrying many of the nation’s powerful and elite, including John Jacob Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim. More than 1,500 of the 2,224 passengers and crew died. The disaster shocked the world in terms of the scale of the loss and the fact that the most technologically advanced vessel of its time could suffer such a catastrophic failure. The Titanic has taken on almost mythic proportions in popular culture and has been the subject of numerous motion pictures and several museum exhibitions. The 1997 film Titanic is one of the highest-grossing film ever, at over $2 billion. The hundredth anniversary of the sinking in 2012 spawned several events, including the concert performance of The Titanic Requiem, candlelight vigils, and interfaith memorial services. The touring exhibition Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition featured more than three hundred objects recovered from the disaster site. The RMS Titanic has become a broad cultural symbol of risk, tragedy, loss, and arrogance.

Like many other disasters, the Titanic tragedy promoted official inquiries in both Great Britain and the United States. The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee conducted an extensive inquiry that included eighteen days of testimony from more than eighty witnesses. The committee concluded that design, operation, and regulatory failures were compounded by failures in response, including the iceberg warnings, the ship’s speed, distress calls, and the evacuation as the ship sank. The committee also specifically noted a lack of preparation for a potential disaster and, most important, inadequate numbers of lifeboats and life preservers. The investigations initiated the creation of the 1914 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea. The provisions recognized the power of the Titanic tragedy and the need for action:

The High Contracting Parties undertake to give effect to the provisions of this Convention, for the purpose of securing safety of life at sea, to promulgate all regulations and to take all steps which may be necessary to give the Convention full and complete effect. Having recognized the desirability of determining by common agreement certain uniform rules with respect to the safety of life at sea, have decided to conclude a Convention to that end, and have appointed as their plenipotentiaries who, having been duly authorized to that effect, have drawn up by common consent the following Convention. (Safety of Life at Sea, 1914)

The longevity and popularity of the RMS Titanic story may be attributed to a number of factors. The story appeals to many larger themes of culture, class, and hubris. Passengers were segregated according to economic class: the wealthy in first class, professionals and middle-class passengers in second class, and primarily poor immigrants in steerage. Thus, the disaster struck all classes of society and created a kind of social equality of tragedy and loss. The disaster’s theme of hubris is reflected in the failures of the industry and ship operators to invest in appropriate safety equipment. The safety of the passengers was compromised in favor of economic considerations. At the same time, some crew members and passengers gave up their seats in lifeboats to women and children and thus became heroes of the Titanic story. The Men’s Titanic Society, a group of television producers and directors, meets annually on the anniversary of the sinking at the Washington, DC, memorial, where they offer toasts to the men who gave up their seats in the lifeboats to women and children.

These and many other examples illustrate the power of large-scale crises and disasters to shape our culture, beliefs, lives, and institutions. Disasters and the stories told about them carry meaning, encode lessons, and frame larger public and societal understanding of risks, warnings, and potential harm. In some cases, crises take on mythic status and are commemorated in public ceremonies and memorials as ways of reifying specific meaning and lessons.

Disasters create significant confusion. Often leaders, members of the public, and those experiencing a crisis are unable to make sense of what is happening. This paralysis often compounds the damage. The loss of individual sense-making capacity following a crisis has been described as a cosmology episode by Karl Weick (1993). Cosmology episodes occur when “people suddenly and deeply feel that the universe is no longer a rational, orderly system.” In normal circumstances, “people . . . act as if events cohere in time and space and that change unfolds in an orderly manner. These orderly cosmologies are subject to disruption. And when they are severely disrupted, I call this a cosmology episode” (Weick 1985, pp. 51–52). Moreover, “What makes such an episode so shattering is that both the sense of what is occurring and the means to rebuild it collapse together. Stated more informally, a cosmology episode feels like vu jàdé—the opposite of déjà vu: I’ve never been here before, I have no idea where I am, and I have no idea who can help me.” Many crises create profound confusion and disorganization for those experiencing the event firsthand as normal conditions are radically and rapidly disrupted. The fundamental sense of personal meaning may be lost as a person’s life story takes a sudden and unexpected turn.

Sorting out the long network of intersecting factors, decisions, variables, and mistakes that cause a crisis like the Fukushima Daiichi accident or the Titanic tragedy is often a slow, tedious, and inevitably incomplete process. A crisis is always the consequence of multiple factors and decisions interacting in complex ways, often without being fully observed or understood. Katrina may be explained by decades of development and environmental policies. The Fukushima Daiichi disaster can be attributed to engineering practices, growing energy demands, and social norms that dissuade questioning of authority. During the postcrisis stage, various stakeholders advocate for specific explanations and may seek to shift blame and responsibility in strategic ways to restore or defend their image (Benoit, 1995). Various explanations and accounts of crises can lead to very different structures of liability, understandings of risk, and policy decisions. Moreover, crises often disrupt, overwhelm, and, in some cases, destroy established channels of communication, including television, print, and community-based networks. This strains communication capacities at the very time when more capacity and information are needed to tell the story. Natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods often disrupt local media as well as cell phone and Internet capacity. This reduced capacity may further impede the ability of crisis participants to tell the story of the crisis and make sense of what happened. This information vacuum can create particularly fertile conditions for the development of rumors. Stories of rapes and murders at the New Orleans Superdome were widely reported in the media but later were found to be incorrect.

Often this extreme disruption, loss, and general confusion result in a loss of ability to make sense of the events, contextualize them, and then create and connect with larger systems of meaning. The sudden loss of highly valued processes, possessions, and relationships often creates existential questions not easily answered. These losses may continue to affect individuals and communities for years. Seeing one’s entire home consumed in a fire, facing the cleanup from floodwaters contaminated with chemicals and sewage, or losing family members and friends in a disaster can create deep psychological and social harm. The economic impact can be quite extreme as well, with businesses destroyed, supply chains disrupted, and employees lost. These losses often leave individuals and communities struggling not just to recover but, more fundamentally, to make sense of what has happened. This meaning deficit may be manifest in psychological problems, social struggles, and larger disruption of communities and institutions.

Crises can create the need, perceived or real, for significant social, economic, and political change. In fact, crises are arguably the most powerful force in social change contributing to ongoing systemic adaption and evolution. The events of 9/11 precipitated a wholesale rethinking of security norms and procedures, resulting in the most extensive overhaul of U.S. federal bureaucracy in decades through the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Hurricane Katrina called into question fundamental assumptions about development, the environment, and social equality. Katrina also helped change basic assumptions and approaches to disaster response and a movement from centralized to decentralized “whole community” frameworks.

One of the most important features of crises and disasters is the increasing frequency and expanding impact of these events. According to normal accident theory, crises are often systemic failures involving complex interactive subsystems that are tightly coupled such that failures are compounded. Failures may become cascading events, with each step compounding the harm. Charles Perrow, the theory’s founder, also argued that such failures may be programmed into many large, technologically intensive systems such that complexity and tight coupling are dominant characteristics of these systems (Perrow, 1984). Many modern high-risk systems such as transportation, energy, and food are characterized by both complexity and tight coupling. Moreover, aging infrastructure; growing, aging, and mobile populations; greater centralization and technological dependence; more reliance on high-risk technologies; and environmental changes, including climate change, all contribute to a greater probability of crises creating more harm for more people.

Few social phenomena are as complex, multifaceted, and dynamic and carry as much potential impact as large-scale crises and disasters. These events bring together psychological, social, economic, political, technological, and environmental factors within the context of high uncertainty, high risk, and severe harm. The subsequent tapestry of stories, accounts, and explanations of these events is a narrative process necessary to make sense and determine actions. All crises generate these narratives, and within them are patterns and relationships that can help explain their larger impact.


The lack of clarity and the existence of a communication vacuum and meaning deficit of a crisis create a discursive space that is filled by narratives, often multiple and conflicting. The stories of loss, heroes, victims, hubris, blame, responsibility, recovery, and risk form the basis for a larger structure of sense making and meaning woven around large-scale disasters and crises. Through narratives, events are ordered in a sequential manner to create larger meaning structures that may be rooted in patterns of association such as cause and effect (Jasinski, 2001). Robert Heath (2004) notes that through the crisis narrative, “the world and people’s actions reflect a logic that explains what happens, why it happens, who makes it happen, when it happens, and how people should respond to these events” (p. 171). These narratives often compete with one another in support of the larger lessons of the crisis and ultimately for the social changes that may occur as a consequence. Various narratives may order events or activities in different sequences, include different associations between elements, and reach different conclusions about meaning. Characters may be shifted, taking on different roles in the narrative, and different lessons may emerge. Specific social, political, and cultural changes are supported by these competing narratives of loss, responsibility, and blame. A narrative that grounds a crisis as a technological failure, for example, may lead to greater regulation of technology. Narratives that describe a crisis as a natural disaster caused by natural forces suggest that nothing could be done to avoid the harm; therefore, no human agent is responsible.

Narratives are influenced by the physical, psychological, cultural, and ideological standpoint of the narrator. These issues are distinct from how a narrator intends to construct the narrative. While crisis narratives often function in an instrumental capacity to fill the absence of meaning in response to a specific event, they also have unintended or secondary constitutive consequences. The constitutive function of narrative relates or positions itself with respect to a culture’s social world (Jasinski, 2001). Because narratives function to help shape our perception of the world around us and narrators are responsible for those perceptions, it makes sense that their particular views, perspectives, life experiences, social standpoints, and deeper ideological views would influence how they interpret and organize the narrative. What is important to note is that these instrumental and constitutive functions of narratives are not mutually exclusive within the same larger narrative.

New technology allows us to see or experience a crisis in a new and sometimes very personal way. In essence, the larger public can become vicarious participants in a crisis. This is exemplified in the case of the apprehension of the surviving Boston Marathon bombing suspects. The search created an opportunity for the public to participate as approximately 2.32 million people listened to a live Internet broadcast of the police scanner during the apprehension of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Ngak, 2013). When the police started to move in on Tsarnaev, people began not only to post links to the live broadcast on Twitter, but also to post status updates with closely paraphrased excerpts of the police and FBI radio chatter. Twitter users began to “report” the events taking place even faster than the news channels could get and report “confirmed” information. Some of the major news networks, including CNN, began reporting on Twitter posts. As the events were unfolding, Twitter users began speculating on the status of the apprehension and what would happen next. The most powerful moment occurred when Twitter users were able to vicariously experience the relief of law enforcement officials when police scanners confirmed the suspect was in custody. A sequence of police officers and dispatchers expressed their relief, gratitude, and congratulations. The public was able to experience all of this as if they were actually there at that moment. For many, it was a powerful and gratifying conclusion to what had been an extremely emotionally charged crisis.

Much of the meaning, power, and ultimate impact of a crisis are functions of the ensuing network of narratives. In most instances, these crisis narratives cluster around a handful of meaning systems. The form, structure, storyteller, audience, channel, and frequency, as well as probability and fidelity of the content, influence the meaning, lessons, and the larger outcomes.


While scholars from various fields have debated the meaning of crisis, they have largely agreed that the term is filled with significance. The term is used widely to denote a disruption or threatening circumstance usually within a specific context, such as an environmental, economic, or political event. Sociologists view crises as extreme events arising from the interaction of a hazard, such as an earthquake, hurricane, tornado, or technological risk, with a social system (Burton, Kates, & White, 1978; Kaplan & Garrick, 1981). Robert Heath described crisis as the manifestation of a risk (1995), that is, the probability of a negative outcome or consequence. Crisis denotes some abnormal event or events that threaten values, goals, and resources. As a consequence, describing an event as a crisis is a rhetorical act that calls for some immediate action to alleviate the potential threat. A disease outbreak that is described as routine, such as seasonal flu, carries a different level of urgency than does an event described as a pandemic.

In Western use, the term crisis derives from the Greek krisis, a medical term that the physician Hippocrates used to describe the turning point in a disease, and Krinein which means to judge, separate, or decide. In its Eastern etymology, a crisis is a moment where a judgment is necessary. The Chinese symbol for crisis is wēijī. The symbol wēi roughly translates to danger, dangerous, endanger, jeopardize, perilous, precipitous, precarious, high, fear, afraid. The symbol may sometimes mean “opportunity” and may also mean “a crucial point” (Mair, 2010). Both Greek and Chinese translations suggest that a crisis is a point or time of threat and danger requiring some decision, choice, judgment, or action (Sellnow & Seeger, 2013).

These translations are largely consistent with the view that crises are characterized by three general attributes: surprise, high uncertainty, and threat (Hermann, 1963; Seeger, Sellnow, & Ulmer, 2003). Crises are generally unanticipated or violate expectations in surprising ways, creating high levels of uncertainty and sometimes creating cosmology episodes. Most often, they are a radical departure from the status quo and a violation of general assumptions and expectations, disrupting normal activities and limiting the ability to anticipate and predict. The severe violation of expectations is usually a source of uncertainty, psychological discomfort, and stress. In retrospect, however, warning signs and signals of a crisis are often evident. Crises almost always threaten some high-priority goals such as health, personal or family safety, property, economic security, and psychological stability. Finally, these events require relatively rapid response to reduce, contain, or mitigate the potential harm. Slow responses usually compound the level of harm or the scope of the damage. Crisis responses are often accompanied by the human stress hormone adrenaline, which produces several physical responses, including increased heart rate and dilated air passages. These responses develop the physical capacity to respond to a threat. Accounts of exceptional physical feats during crisis are common. In 2013, two daughters, aged fourteen and sixteen, lifted a 3,000-pound tractor off their father after it overturned on him. These reports of amazing strength in the face of a crisis are part of the larger hero narrative (McClam, 2013).

Given these characteristics, a general working definition of a crisis is a specific, unexpected, nonroutine event or series of events that create high levels of uncertainty and a significant or perceived threat to high-priority goals (Seeger et al., 2003). A crisis is generally concentrated in a particular space or locations at a specific defined time. As described earlier, crises precipitate a meaning deficit by disrupting the processes and patterns of sense making. During a crisis, communication channels—newspapers, television, personal networks—are often cut off. Established patterns and routines cannot be maintained. Personal possessions, physical objects, even buildings that carried social meaning may be gone. There is a need, therefore, to tell stories and offer accounts and explanations to reduce the uncertainty and find perspective and create or recreate meaning. In many ways, the human and social experience of crisis encoded in narratives and crises cannot be separated from the stories told about them.

From yet other perspectives, the question of what constitutes a crisis is a function of individual, community, or cultural experience. Events that occur frequently, even if they carry high risk, tend to be perceived as routine, and strategies for mitigating the risks have typically been developed and refined. Coombs (2010), for example, described crisis as a function of perceptions based on a violation of some strongly held expectation. Social or cultural expectations therefore create a kind of baseline of normalcy, and the violation of these expectations will be judged as a crisis. Risk theorist Vincent Covello (2009) has demonstrated that novel risks, which are invisible and seen as exotic or unfair, increase the perception of risk. Radiological events are considered riskier than secondhand cigarette smoke even though the latter causes many more deaths.

Other definitions have emphasized the relationship between crisis and risk. Heath and O’Hair (2009) describe a crisis as the outcome and manifestation of a risk such that crisis and risk are counterpoints. When a risk is inappropriately managed, it erupts into a crisis. The idea that a crisis involves the incubation or interaction of risks is widely accepted (Fink, 1986; Smart & Vertinsky, 1977). A risk incubates in the sense that it goes unaddressed or even unrecognized. A comparatively small flaw in the design of an aircraft may become exacerbated over time though normal stress. A risk may interact with other risk factors to create the kind of dramatic failure that triggers the onset of a crisis. The small flaw in an aircraft may interact with the wind shear caused by a thunderstorm and lead to the crash of an airplane.

Closely related to the term crisis is the term disaster, the term favored by those approaching these events as sociological phenomenon (Kreps, 1984; Quarantelli, 1984). According to sociology, a disaster is a social phenomenon with broad sociological and psychological consequences that creates severe damage and disrupts all or some of the essential functions of the society (Fritz, 1961). It is “a potentially traumatic event that is collectively experienced, has an acute onset, and is time delineated; disasters may be attributed to natural, technological or human causes” (McFarlane & Norris, 2006, p. 4). Disasters are typically conceptualized as a function of some general hazard, usually in the form of physical agents like earthquakes, tornadoes, or hurricanes or technological factors that threaten a community or region and require a community-based response (see Perry, 2007). The distinctions between a disaster and a crisis are largely ones of emphasis: a crisis is often contained in its scope and impact, and a disaster is more often described as a community- or society-wide event.

Whether described as a crisis, disaster, calamity, or catastrophe, these events have profound social, economic, and political impact. They often create fundamental changes in social and governmental structures, beliefs about risk, and the social norms associated with risk management. The associated crisis stories can take on mythic status, as with the Titanic disaster. They encode fundamental social truths, such as the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Crises also influence and frame basic understandings regarding risks, such as followed the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.


This exploration conceptualizes crisis as a deeply disruptive and abnormal event with largely, although not exclusively, negative outcomes. Crisis creates a narrative space, a communication vacuum, or a meaning deficit that will be filled by stories told by those who experienced the crisis, crisis managers, journalists, and observers. These stories create a complex, always incomplete, and often conflicting set of frames for making sense of these events. These narratives come from particular physical, political, and philosophical places such that the standpoint of the narrator influences the story. Beyond seeking to make sense of a complex and confusing event, crisis narratives serve a variety of other purposes. They fulfill a rhetorical function advocating for specific social, economic, and political changes. Crisis narratives encode larger lessons regarding risk, its management, and its manifestation. Among the most important functions is to assess and affix blame and responsibility. These narratives also serve an important psychological function, creating a kind of communicative catharsis for those who have experienced the crisis. In addition, cognitive processes often favor a narrative structure. Narrative-based comprehension is among the earliest cognitive capacity to develop in children and the most universal form of cognition for organizing human experience (Bruner, 1991).

The analysis of crisis narratives outlined in this book is based on the identification of recurring themes and characteristics such that general narrative types are evident. The crisis account, for example, is a narrative designed to sort out what exactly happened to cause the crisis. A crisis is always associated with many factors or causes and is subject to interpretation. The account is also used to determine blame and responsibility and ultimately fix accountability. The blame narrative is a ubiquitous feature of many postcrisis contexts. The rhetorical goal is to repair or restore the image of those who may be responsible. In contrast, the renewal narrative privileges plans for future recovery, growth, and restoration over questions of who is to blame for the crisis. Renewal is therefore prospective rather than retrospective and draws heavily on the reservoir of goodwill that may develop following a crisis. As such, these narratives construct the crisis as the starting point for a compelling vision of the future. Almost all crises create harm to individuals, groups, communities, and organizations. Those harmed are usually referred to as victims, although this term carries political meaning and implications that are stigmatizing and may actually compound the harm. Stories told by victims are among the most compelling narratives following a crisis and are usually widely reported. They may include stories of struggle, hardship, and loss, as well as recovery. Closely related to the victim narrative is the hero narrative. The hero character in the crisis story usually makes some personal sacrifice or takes some personal risk in response to the crisis. The hero may be an individual, an everyman who steps up in the face of the crisis; a leader who is tasked with managing the crisis; or a group such as firefighters or first responders. Hero stories carry unique political and rhetorical significance and may position the central character for much wider notoriety.

Together the various narratives create a larger network of meaning around a crisis event, sometimes in separate texts and sometimes within the same text. These narratives compete in the public space for dominance and general social acceptance. It is through this process that crises and disasters fundamentally shape culture, beliefs, norms, policies, and institutions. By understanding the shape, form, and function of these narratives, we can more accurately anticipate the postcrisis meaning-creation process and the social changes that follow.


A crisis story may be told in many different ways. Epic poems such as Beowulf provide accounts of heroic responses to threats. The biblical story of Noah and the Great Flood recounts a response to an anticipated risk. Newspapers have provided detailed journalistic accounts of disasters almost since their development, and film provided a way to record events as they developed. On May 6, 1937, the explosion of the German passenger airship Hindenburg was captured on film. Television and radio have been particularly useful as systems for distributing contemporaneous information about risks, including warnings, evacuations, and shelter-in-place notices. The initial broadcast alert system, CONELRAD (Control of Electromagnetic Radiation), was established in 1951 as part of larger preparation for possible nuclear attack. It was replaced in 1963 with the Emergency Broadcasting System. The development of the twenty-four-hour news channel associated with the development of cable news created more news space, which forced journalists to increase their coverage of crises, even those that were more local. Digital technology has expanded crisis coverage even more with live updates through platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. These channels and technologies of communication have all expanded the opportunities to tell the stories of crises.

Many different narrators may tell the story of a single crisis from their own perspectives. Those who experience the crisis directly, the victims and community members, have direct, albeit often limited, views of the crisis. Journalists and first responders bring a particular set of professional frames to a crisis story. Politicians and community, business, religious, and cultural leaders also have specific perspectives and standpoints regarding these events. Significantly, crises often become the subject of official reports and legal proceedings and eventually become the subject of historical accounts. Some crises, such as the Great Flood, take on mythic proportions. In some cases, a crisis is picked up in popular literature or film, where the stories are retold with the addition of artistic license. At a more personal level, crises often become the stuff of family stories, passed on from generation to generation. Sometimes the narratives of crisis complement one another, and sometimes they compete. Taken together, these narratives can provide rich insight into how individuals, groups, and society respond to the high levels of crisis-induced uncertainty, threat, and short response time.


Crises happen and will continue to happen with more frequency and greater levels of harm as society becomes increasingly complex and dynamic. They have profound impacts and are forces of individual and social change. Individuals who survive a major crisis often report that their outlook and sense of meaning have been forever altered. In many cases, these events fundamentally alter how people see themselves and the world. Crises change geography, disrupt economies, and influence larger understandings of risk. The stories told about crisis encompass both individual and larger social understandings of these events.

Despite the increasing frequency of these events and their power as forces of change, comparatively little effort has been directed toward understating the crisis story. Rather, crises are usually seen as events to be managed through the allocation of resources—human, technological, and informational—and through appropriate human vigilance. The stories of crisis, however, determine the larger meaning of crises and ultimately the lessons learned and the larger institutional and social and responses.