The stuff of great notions
In November, 2011, I received an email from John Meisel, LLD’96, Professor Emeritus in Political Studies, gently chiding me for never having told him that it was his graduate class at Queen’s in 1960-61 that led me into what had become more than 40 years of research into human and organizational behaviour in crisis and disaster.
His email stated: “As a fellow prof you know how rewarding it is to hear that one has been of some use to a student. You should have told me earlier.”
He was correct, of course. I wonder how many of us can trace the start of a career or a life-long interest to a specific class or professor and whether we have ever bothered to let the person who inspired us know that?
The reason John sent me the email was because I had seen him when he spoke about Flora MacDonald, LLD’81, when she was given the Agnes Benidickson award by the Ottawa Branch of the QUAA. I first met Flora in 1957 when she was at Conservative headquarters and she once came to Carleton and gave a class for me. I was delighted to be on hand when Queen’s honoured her. When I saw John there, I wandered over to say hello. He said, “I always wondered what happened to you?” So I told him.
I left Queen’s in 1960 having turned down a McLaughlin fellowship (the offer came directly from Dr. Corry) to work as a journalist serving the Toronto Star both in Washington and Ottawa and spending some time at CBC-TV News (The National). I also had a brief fling at politics. I was Judy LaMarsh’s executive assistance when she was the Minister of National Health and Welfare and John Turner’s PR man in the 1968 Liberal leadership convention.
However, in 1965 I joined the full-time faculty at Carleton and a year later became Director of the Carleton School of Journalism. That meant I finally had time to follow up some things that had intrigued me when I studied Political Science at Queen’s. (My journalism career kept me from finishing my Master’s thesis, and so I actually graduated from Queen’s in 1964.)
In John Meisel’s class we had learned about voting behaviour and I was particularly intrigued (given my background as a journalist) by a U.S. study which showed that people are not influenced directly by the mass media but by other people – opinion leaders – and it is these people who get their information from the media. I started to read more about opinion leaders or – as some other scholars called them – “influentials”. I also became curious about how information is transmitted from one person to another, a process some scholars called the “flow of news”. The U.S. study did not deal with that.
After reviewing the work of a number of scholars and getting to know many of them – I met one of the most important, Elihu Katz who co-authored (with Paul Lazarfeld) the 1955 book Personal Influence – after a symphony concert in Jerusalem, I became familiar with and met Bradley Greenberg at Michigan State. He had co-edited a book on the Kennedy assassination – it included a chapter on how news of it spread – and he had also stated in an article that it would be difficult to impossible to trace the flow of news from person to person. I felt he was wrong.
In the autumn of 1970, I convinced a fourth-year seminar of Journalism students that it would be fun – if the opportunity arose – to trace the flow of news about a dramatic event through a community. (The incident could be a local one or a one with broader impact but we would stick to one community.) They agreed they would drop everything and do that, but I would have to convince two of the 12 members of that class that the incident was dramatic enough to get people talking.
That class was held on a Monday night and by chance it was during the October crisis when a British trade commissioner, James Cross was kidnapped and then a Quebec cabinet minister, Pierre Laporte was kidnapped and murdered by radical members of the Front de libération du Québec. Three days after that class, James Cross was discovered alive, and the news of that discovery spread like wildfire.
My students and I and a colleague (Brian Taylor) set off that afternoon for Kingston partly because it was a fairly small city, partly because I felt at home in Kingston, and partly because the Whig-Standard offered us use of its newsroom. (It had cooperated with Carleton Journalism on previous occasions.) We created a very short questionnaire, selected a small sample and started phoning people and asking, “Did you hear the news about James Cross?” Well everyone had and more important everyone remembered how he or she had heard.
Women who had been at home for example often learned when their children called them to say something was wrong with the TV. Sesame Street had been replaced with a news bulletin. (If someone said they first learned from another person we located that person and kept going until we found the original source.)
We thought of the research as a news study – we assumed eventually all interpersonal news chains would link to radio or TV. Some persons at the Operations Research Establishment at the Defence Research Board saw it differently. They saw it as a way of tracing leaks. They funded us and we began to study the flow of news after all kinds of incidents and learned that our funding agency was correct. After the murder of a policeman we found eight eyewitnesses, one of them 10 interpersonal links from the person in the sample.
After a prison hostage taking we traced how the news leaked out of the prison. Our most dramatic study was in the mill town of Port Alice, B.C., which was largely evacuated because of a mud slide. There were no media in Port Alice so the entire warning system was by word of mouth. But it didn’t stop there.
Many of the events which triggered news flows were what might be called disasters – snow emergencies, wind storms, floods, tornadoes, floods, an earthquake, and forest fires. I became more and more interested in them and in 1987-88 I decided to spend a year at the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware studying Sociology of Disaster with the two most eminent scholars in the field, Russell Dynes and Henry Quarantelli. After that I moved on from the study of news flows to the study of how people and organizations perform in untoward incidents.
One of my recent studies funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation was of the overseas response to the handling of the dead after the Indian Ocean tsunami. An even more recent study was of disease and death during the 1918 influenza pandemic and one of the communities we studied was Kingston which meant we needed and got help from the Queen’s library and the Queen’s archives. (One of my researchers on that study, Casey Hurrell, MA’11, is now a doctoral candidate in History at Queen’s.)
One of my current projects is a study of folk songs about death and disaster. Some of my colleagues have argued that the media, movies and novels distort what happens in disasters, but that folk songs get it right. Meisel told me that it was this research that fascinated him the most because it showed, as my colleagues would have predicted, that folk songs do get it right – they portray ordinary people performing well in disasters. They don’t become dazed and confused, they don’t panic and they don’t abandon others. Miners, for example, risked their lives to save colleagues trapped in a mine and the musicians on Titanic remained on board until the ship sank – all died – playing light music to help passengers remain calm. Strangely even that research has a Queen’s connection.
My first-ever visit to Queen’s was when I came with the U of T band for a Toronto-Queen’s football game. Since I lived in the Campus Co-op at U of T, I visited the Queen’s co-op where I heard the students singing, “Oh, it was sad when the good ship went down,” a song I remembered and studied when we researched 43 folk songs about Titanic in seven different languages.
All that – and it is a winding trail – may seem a long way from the study of voting behaviour at John Meisel’s home in Kingston on a Saturday morning in 1960-61, but it was there that it all started.
“I can always tell a good teacher. All I have to do is speak to [that person] of some transforming
idea and then watch him [or her] light up just as an electric bulb does when the current is connected.”
– REV. M.M. COADY, an educator who was one of the founders of the Antigonish Movement in Nova Scotia in the 1920s.
Joseph Scanlon is Professor Emeritus and Director of the Emergency Communications Research Unit (ECRU) at Carleton University. He has published roughly 200 book chapters, monographs, articles in peer-reviewed and professional journals and reports on various aspects of disasters. In 2002, he received the Charles Fritz Award from the International Research Committee on Disasters for a lifetime contribution to Sociology of Disaster.