response to its charge, when discussing audience characteristics, the committee paid special attention to communicating with the media.
The science of risk communication and the idea of what is good and appropriate risk communication have evolved over the past decades (Fischhoff, 1995; Leiss, 1996). For example, Fischhoff (1995) described the first three stages in that evolution in terms of how communicators think about the process: “All we have to do is get the numbers right,” “All we have to do is tell them the numbers,” and “All we have to do is explain what we mean by the numbers” (p. 138). With the realization that those factors alone would not lead stakeholders to accept decisions about risks, Fischhoff writes, communication experts changed strategies to include the ideas that “All we have to do is show them that they’ve accepted similar risks in the past,” “All we have to do is show them that it’s a good deal for them,” and “All we have to do is treat them nice” (p. 138). Those approaches eventually evolved to include the current strategy, “All we have to do is make them partners” (p. 138). That most recent strategy includes both the two-way communication and the stakeholder engagement that today are considered hallmarks of good risk communication. In the context of EPA’s decisions, stakeholders include the decision makers at the agency, the industries potentially affected by a regulatory decision, and individuals or groups affected by the decision, including local community members for local issues or all the public for issues of national significance.
Improving Risk Communication (NRC, 1989) emphasized the importance of such two-way communication for agencies such as EPA, defining risk communication as “an interactive process of exchange of information and opinion among individuals, groups, and institutions. It involves multiple messages about the nature of risk and other messages, not strictly about risk, that express concerns, opinions, or reactions to risk messages or to legal and institutional arrangements for risk management” (p. 21). That report noted that risk estimates always have inherent uncertainties and that scientists often disagree about the appropriate estimates of risk. It recommended not minimizing the existence of uncertainty, disclosing scientific disagreements, and communicating “some indication of the level of confidence of estimates and the significance of scientific uncertainty” (p. 170). Other reports have also emphasized the need for engagement of stakeholders in the decision-making process (NRC, 1996, 2009).
Documenting the type and magnitude of uncertainty in a decision is not only important at the time of the decision, as discussed by Bazelon (1974), but it is also important when a decision might be revisited or evaluated in the future.