possibility that such biases influence the interpretation and presentation of scientific evidence.
Considerations for Communicating with Journalists
The statement of task asks the committee if there are specific communication techniques that could improve understanding of uncertainty among journalists. This is an important question, as most members of the public get their information about risks from the media. Journalists and the media help to identify conflicts about risk, and they can be channels of information during the resolution of those conflicts (NRC, 1989). Journalists do generally care about news accuracy and objectivity (NRC, 1989; Sandman, 1986) and about balance in representation of opinions, but journalists vary widely in their backgrounds, technical expertise, and ability to accurately report and explain environmental decisions. Even those who cover environmental policy making will not necessarily be familiar with the details of risk assessment and its inherent uncertainties, making it challenging to convey the rationale for decisions based, in part, on those assessments.
Uncertainty is not unique to reporting on environmental health risks, of course. Studies of how the U.S. news media handle uncertainty in science in general have found that journalists tend to make science appear more certain and solid than it is (see Fahnestock, 1986; Singer and Endreny, 1993; Weiss et al., 1988). In a quantitative content analysis, for example, Singer and Endreny (1993) found that the media tended to minimize uncertainties of the risks associated with natural and manmade hazards. The issue of which factors might contribute to this tendency to minimize uncertainties has not yet been studied, but the tendency could be related to journalists’ understanding of uncertain information versus their incentive to develop attention-grabbing stories that omit or downplay uncertainties. It should be expected that journalists, just like most other people, will tend to interpret risk messages based on their existing beliefs. The reporting of risk and uncertainty information in the media will be influenced accordingly.
Because the journalists and the media are a major avenue for framing risk information and its inherent uncertainty, efforts are needed to ensure that they are well informed of what is known about risks and risk-management options, including the sources and magnitude of uncertainty and its implications; a particularly useful approach would be to provide journalists with short, concise summaries about those implications. Although such summaries can be a challenge to develop, it can be done. For example, as discussed in Chapter 2, the summary of the regulatory impact analysis for the CAIR (EPA, 2005) contains a summary discussion of the uncertainty analysis. Those who are most familiar with the risk and uncertainties should provide the perspective that the journalists seek and should