As the Bushfire Royal Commission continues, the ABC has released independent research that shows Australians turned to the national broadcaster in record numbers during the recent bushfire crisis.
The research shows that the ABC was the most trusted information source during the fires and that lives were saved as a result of people acting on information the ABC provided.
At the height of the bushfire crisis (31 December-14 January) ABC Sydney and ABC NSW local radio produced 296 hours of rolling/continuous fire coverage, ABC Gippsland 134 hours, and ABC Melbourne 83 hours.
The Bushfire Impact Research was conducted by strategic market research and planning agency Ruby Cha Cha, between 17-27 March 2020. It found that the ABC was the most used and most trusted broadcast network during the crisis (click chart to enlarge).
In an analysis of trust, the ABC Emergency website was the most trusted source of information during the fires (74%), closely followed by ABC Local Radio (72%) then ABC TV News (71%). Social media was the least trusted of all media. Many respondents considered social media to be the fastest medium, but trust was low because the information on socials was not always accurate.
During the crisis period, the ABC undertook emergency broadcasting for over 200 emergency events across the country. Emergency Services apps were well regarded, although they were not always available when power or cell towers were down. When digital services and telecommunications failed, ABC Local Radio was the only way to access timely information, according to findings in the survey.
While trust and use of ABC Local Radio was high overall, the research found that awareness of how to listen to ABC Local stations on free to air broadcast radio was low with those under 50 years of age. The research report recommended: “The ABC needs to build awareness of the ABC Local Radio and educate the community on how to listen (i.e. station frequencies) in the event of an emergency. The awareness program should focus on those under 50 years who are less likely to use ABC Local Radio.” It also recommended that radio announcers should also talk more about wind speed and direction when reporting progress of fires.
As the crisis hit affected areas and other services went down, the research found that battery powered radios and word of mouth were the only main sources of information remaining (click to enlarge)
The researchers asked participants ‘what if there was no ABC?’ Answers included:
“We would lose the voice that cares the most.” David, Narooma
“Without the ABC there would be a level of disquiet, bordering on social unrest.” Lyndsay, Evacuation Centre, Narooma
“It would be a strategic nightmare – we would lack the most important information to help us in a time of need.” Shanna, Narooma
Half (50%) of the Australian adult population reported to have been impacted by the bush fire crisis, with one in ten surveyed (10%) directly impacted by the fires. 54% of those surveyed were evacuated or experienced personal loss during the fires, 44% of respondents reported effects on their health and 28% had to change or cancel travel plans.
At least one in four (28%) Australians claim to have acted on information from the ABC in some way to ensure the personal safety or safety of others. ABC News Online was the most trusted news website.
Seven out of ten (73%) Australians nationally acted on ABC information as a result of hearing an emergency broadcast or from anything else they saw on the ABC. Action was higher among the bushfire affected.
Survey respondents also identified ways the ABC could improve its emergency coverage, including listing the towns affected, more localised coverage, more exact fire locations, better knowledge of Australian geography and town pronunciations. It confirmed the view that “ABC Local Radio should be the lead emergency platform.”
The research highlighted the importance of raising awareness of the ABC’s emergency broadcast channels and digital services and the need for improved information on radio frequencies to enable people to source ABC Local Radio as it provides the most up to date and reliable information. The ABC intends to work with all levels of government and the emergency services to inform the community about these services.
ABC Radio’s reliance on signal and transmission towers also means it is critical that this infrastructure is funded, maintained and operational during a bushfire crisis.
The research consisted of a15-minute quantitative survey involving 1630 respondents from a nationally representative sample of Australia’s adult population (aged 18-75 years). An additional quantitative survey involving 373 respondents was conducted in parallel among Australians living in postcodes affected by the bushfires during December 2019/January 2020 with a small qualitative sample of 16 bushfire affected residents interviewed in a mix of face-to-face and zoom technology formats.
The ABC’s research has been submitted to the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements.