Can disaster coverage create more health complaints than the disaster itself? Media, health complaints and the amplification of risk in the aftermath of a disasterIn 1992 an El Al 747 Jumbo freighter crashed into two apartment buildings in the Bijlmermeer (Amsterdam), killing 43 people, including the crew. Although the cause of the disaster was established quite quickly (the plane lost two engines because of metal fatigue), the Bijlmer disaster developed into a huge risk issue in which the presumed toxic cargo and the depleted uranium, used as counterweight, played a central role. Lack of information from the Dutch government about the exploded cargo of the plane, combined with an initial denial of any risks for people in the area of the disaster, caused a long aftermath, ending in a formal Parliamentary Enquiry in 1999. No link was found between the disaster and the many reported health problems of the 'Bijlmer victims.' Nevertheless, between 1992 and 1999 the number of people who attributed their health complaints to the disaster rose from a few hundred people to more than 6000 after the Enquiry. Some 25 percent of the cases turned out to be related to some kind of 'post traumatic stress disorder', the rest proved to be very general and diffuse complaints, endemic for any 'normal' population. This article explores the role of the media, and especially the role of so called 'media-hypes' (intense media generated news waves) in the social amplification of this risk issue. On the basis of a content analysis of the coverage in the Dutch national daily newspapers (1998,1999) and an analysis of the health complaints of the 'Bijlmer victims' the conclusion states that this coverage played a key role in the social attribution process. Important factors are the specific 'frame' used in the news ('there must be a cover-up about some toxic agent causing all health complaints') and the chain of media-hypes, following the discovery of new 'disturbing' but 'controversial' facts.' After each media-hype, new groups of'Bijlmer victims' came forward demanding a health test. Not only this time lag indicates media influence, but also the many references to the media the patients make when they describe their problems. In the end, the news on the disaster seemed to have caused more (stress related) health complaints than the disaster itself.

Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision
Tijdschrift voor Mediageschiedenis

Vasterman, Peter, & IJzermans, Joris. (2002). Ziek van de ramp of van het nieuws óver de ramp?. Tijdschrift voor Mediageschiedenis, 5(2), 88–109. doi:10.18146/tmg.526