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5 Common Misconceptions About Risk Communication Some of the more important misconceptions about risk commu- nication, including unrealistic expectations about what it can accom- plish, are discussed in this chapter. Once these misconceptions are dispelled, the real problems of risk communication can be addressed. We have taken care to distinguish between risk communication and risk management and between risk communication and risk mes- sages. The primary goal of risk communication is to inform the par- ticipants in decisions about risks. Neither successful communication nor successful execution of the political process guarantees that risk management decisions will maximize welfare in terms of reducing exposure to hazards. Yet many people judge risk communication by the quality of the relevant risk management decisions. We take political constraints as given and attempt to find ways within them to inform debates about risk. A well-informed decision process is likely to yield better decisions than an uninformed process. If all participants are adequately informed, the ultimate decision is more likely to improve conditions for all involved than a decision made by experts alone. It is important, however, to realize that because risk commu- nication usually involves multiple messages from many sources, and because these messages contain difficult and complex ideas, there is no simple way of making risk communication easy. Risk messages necessarily compress technical information, which 94
COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT RISK COMMUNICATION 95 can lead to misunderstanding, confusion, and distrust. Preparing risk messages can involve choosing between a message that is so extensive and complex that only experts can understand it and a message that is more easily understood by nonexperts but that is selective and thus subject to challenge as being inaccurate or manipulative. Since it is a reasonable precaution to assume that the compres- sion in risk messages may introduce intentional or unintentional bias, it is natural to treat risk messages as reflecting political as well as scientific elements. Because people view risk messages as incorporat- ing both scientific and political elements, appeals to scientific quality and veracity alone on the part of the risk communicator may not always sway the skeptic. EXPECTATIONS REGARDING RISE COMMUNICATION Many peopic including some scientists, decision makers, and members of the public have unrealistic expectations about what can be accomplished by risk communication. It is mistaken to expect improved risk communication to always reduce conflict and smooth risk management. In addition, risk comparisons alone cannot estab- lish levels of acceptable risk or ensure systematic minunization of risk, although they can help people comprehend unfamiliar magnitudes. Communication, Conflict, and Management Many people, especially decision makers, seem to think that well-crafted messages or communication campaigns can eliminate or reduce conflicts in risk issues. These individuals believe that the conflicts are based on lack of information, that if all the parties were made aware of the facts, they would agree. This overlooks the possibility that conflicts are based on factors such as distribution of risks and benefits (e.g., do both fall equally on the same people?), different values (e.g., are the participants risk averse as opposed to risk seeking?), and different goals (e.g., is it better to avoid food additives or to enhance preservation and length of storage for food stuffs?. Communication may reduce conflict about risks in some in- stances. However, when the underlying knowledge is uncertain, when people disagree about the meaning of existing data, when there is disagreement about the acceptable level of risk-in other words, in most cases of conflict about risk informative risk messages might make the issues, and thus the conflict, clearer and more obvious.
96 IMPROVING RISK COMMUNICATION t In the Introduction we discussed the desire to develop effective alternatives to regulatory control as one of the reasons for interest in risk communication. But not all people see this as a positive de- velopment. The possibility of diverting attention from the risks and their control with careful information campaigns is sufficient to make some observers chary of risk communication. Ellen Silbergeld, senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, expressed ambiva- lence about the large attendance (approximately 500) at the National Conference on Risk Communication in 1986. She viewed increased interest in the topic as a result of the destruction of consensus on en- vironmental and other risk areas and described risk communication as a "shield for inaction" (Silbergeld, 1987a). Comparing Risks Another mistaken expectation is that risk comparisons can be used to determine acceptable levels of risk and help minimize overall exposures. Comparing different risks can help people comprehend the uncommon magnitudes involved and understand the level, or mag- nitude, of risk associated with a particular hazard. But comparison with other risks cannot itself establish the acceptability of the risk in question. To realize, for example, that the chance of death from a previously unknown risk is about the same as that from a known risk does not necessarily imply that the two risks are equally acceptable. Generally, comparing risks along a single dimension is not helpful when the risks are widely perceived as qualitatively different. Risk messages commonly convey quantitative information that is unfamiliar and difficult to comprehend. These magnitudes and risk estimates are not easily understood without benchmarks or points of reference, and providing careful comparisons can help people un- derstand this information. Risk magnitudes are difficult enough to understand when referring to a single consequence, such as death. But comparison of different consequences, such as injury, disability, or chronic disease, is even more difficult. An interesting approach is the use of risk ladders, for which a range of probabilities is presented for a single class of risks. Although this technique can help people understand the magnitudes, it is not without problems. Figure 5.1 shows two examples of risk ladders. We consider the first weaker because of the several deficiencies listed. The second is considered stronger because it involves fewer deficiencies. The two risk ladders illustrate both the potential of the approach and the difficulty of using comparison. (Note: Not all attributes of
COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT RISK COMMUNICATION 97 the two risk ladders have been empirically tested, so it is not possible to state with certainty how people will react to them. The principal weaknesses listed are based on the existing literature. Each practical use of risk comparison should be carefully pretested if possible.) Use of multiple comparisons helps counteract the possibility that people may severely misestimate a particular risk, even though it is familiar to them. It also reduces the danger of arousing the scien- tific disputes that can often arise when only two risk estimates are compared, one or both of which are subject to scientific debate. One difficulty in risk comparison is that it is often difficult to find risks that are sufficiently similar to make the comparison meaningful. The easiest way to avoid comparing apples and oranges is to compare the risk associated with the same hazard at different times or risks associated with different options for achieving the same purpose. These comparisons are the least problematic because they address the same hazards and consequences with variation in the mechanisms for controlling or reducing the risk in question. When such direct comparisons are not possible, it is important to recognize that various risks have different qualitative characteristics and that these can affect the way comparisons are viewed (Fischhoff et al., 1981a; SIovic, 1987; SIovic et al., 1980~. Two that have been shown to have considerable impact are composite indices derived from factor analysis. The first, labeled "dread," is associated with perceived lack of control, dread, catastrophic potential, and fatal consequences. The second, called "unknown," is associated with the degree to which the risk is perceived to be unobserved, unknown, new, and with delayed manifestations of harm (SIovic, 1987~. Hazards whose quantitative risks are estimated to be the same or sirn~lar may result in quite different responses if their qualitative characteristics are sufficiently different. Care must be taken that the risks compared exhibit qualitative characteristics that are reasonably similar. Another pitfall of risk comparison is the appearance of selecting risks for comparison that minimize or otherwise trivialize the risk in question (Covello et al., 1988~. Compendiums of risks, or risk ladders placing various risks along a spectrum from Tower to higher, may give this appearance when the risk in question is much lower than other risks and when there are few risks presented with comparable levels. If, however, the comparison presents risks that clearly relate to the risk in question and relate or position its level or magnitude, the appearance of trivialization can probably be avoided.
98 ANNUAL NUMBER OF DEATHS PER MILLION PEOPLE Smoking 1 Pack of Cigarettes per Day [A Riding a Motorcycle Fighting a Fire 1 Driving a Car LO Pedestrian Hit by a Car Drinking 1 Diet Soda per Day (Saccharin Based) Taking X-rays for Diagnoisis Being Hit by Lightning or a Tornado IMPROVING RISK COMMUNICATION l 10,000 1,000 100 1 . / \/ PRINCIPAL WEAKNESSES: (1) Estimated levels of risk are presented on a log scale; some people will likely fail to realize that distances of the same length between different points on the scale in fact represent different magnitudes. (2) Ali risks are presented as point estimates; uncertainties are not indicated. (3) Periods of exposure are not defined. (4) Exposure base is not defined (total population or number exposed), and yet risks are compared directly. (5) Risks with very different qualitative attributes are included. FIGURE 5.1a A poor risk comparison. SOURCE: Schultz et al., 1986, as cited in Costello et al., 1988. Reprinted with permission of the Chemical Manufacturers Association. It is sometimes assumed that once they are told about risks peo- ple will systematically minimize their exposures and disregard truly small risks when they understand how little they are. This encour- ages comparing the risk in question to other risks that are familiar to most people with the intent of claiming that the level of the risk under examination is acceptable. The logic of using risk compari- son to determine acceptable risk usually runs as follows: since you
COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT RISK COMMUNICATION 99 RADON RISK CHART Lifetime exposure (picocuries per liter) Lifetime risk of dying from radon* (out of 1,000) Comparable risks of fatal lung cancer (lifetime or entire working life) 75 40 20 10 4 2 1 0.2 2 1 4-Ss4 1 20-380 60-210 7-30 1 -3 ~ ~ - ~: :~: I, ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ . ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ :~ ~ ~ ~ ~:~: 1 .~ .~: ~ :~ ~ ~ 1 : ~ -: :~ :~ ~ ~ :~.~: :~ ~: ~,~.~ ~ ~ :~ :~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 1 .~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~U ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ t ~ ~ ~ ~ W ~ 1 PRINCIPAL WEAKNESSES: (1) Exposure not defined (e.g., amount of time spent indoors). (2) It is not known whether most people accurately perceived the anchors (i.e., asbestos, smoking, X-rays). (3) The original uses colors that may be misleading. (4) Does not use a linear scale. (5) Uses anchor risks (i.e., asbestos, smoking, X-rays) with different qualitative attributes. FIGURE 5.1b A better risk comparison. SOURCE: Smith et al., 1987, as cited in Costello et al., 1988. Reprinted with permission of the Chemical Manufacturers Association. accept the risk of driving an automobile, which is about 240 annual fatalities per million persons (total population), you also ought to accept the risk of exposure to X (whatever hazard the communicator supports), which is, say, 10 annual fatalities per million. This logic is faulty (Fischhoff et al., 1981a). A homeowner, for example, should not neglect the potential fire hazard of electrical appliances or gas stoves and furnaces just because the risk of annual fatality due to
100 IMPROVING RISK COMMUNICATION fire is about one tenth as large as that due to driving an automobile. Rather, reasonable precautions should be considered with regard to risks deriving from all the hazards over which one has control. The level of risk is only one among several factors that deterrn~ne accept- ability (Fischhoffet al., 1981a; Gould et al., 1988; Slavic, 1987; SIovic et al., 1980), and the information requirements for an informed de- cision by private individuals or public officials will generally include more than the level of risk alone. BELIEFS ABOUT THE FUNCTIONING OF THE PROCESS Many problems for risk communication derive from mistaken beliefs about the nature of the risk assessment, risk management, and risk communication processes.) It is mistaken to expect scien- tific information to resolve all important risk issues. In addition, even when valid scientific data are available, experts are unlikely to agree completely about the meaning of the data for risk management decisions. Finally, it is unrealistic to expect easy identification and understanding of the values, preferences, and information needs of the intended recipients of risk messages. Adequacy of the Scientific Formation Base As is clear from the discussion in Chapter 2, it is unrealistic to expect complete information about all the various aspects of a hazard and the risk of exposure to it. But even if the scientific risk information were perfect, it might not resolve all the issues involved. The best technical analysis cannot reveal what ought to be done. Analysis can only estimate the consequences and, in some situations, the way those expected outcomes compare to other related outcomes. The adequacy of the information base is an important considera- tion not only because some statutes as well as current interpretation of the Administrative Procedures Act require regulatory decisions to be based on reasoned consideration of the evidence, but also because risk management decisions should be based on the best available information rather than arbitrary or unfounded beliefs and assumptions. It could thus be argued that the information base for a risk management decision would be inadequate if additional scien- tific data could provide at reasonable cost a more detailed or more complete understanding of the phenomena giving rise to the risk in question. Of course, more scientific data always would be of positive
COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT RISK COMMUNICATION 101 value under such a criterion, and the difficulty lies in determining how many resources should be allocated to this particular problem and how long the decision should be delayed in order to obtain more data. Agreement as to the Meaning of Existing Information There is seldom definitive scientific data about important risk issues. Science continually develops new, more sophisticated testing methodologies. Even with the most recent additions it is doubtful that any substance or product has been, or can be, so thoroughly tested as to preclude further scientific question. The numbers usually can only give an estimation of the consequences and, in some situ- ations, the way those expected outcomes compare to other related outcomes. Very often regulatory and other risk control decisions must be taken before all the scientific questions are fully resolved. In these cases the decision maker will be faced with choosing from among conflicting, sometimes contradictory interpretations of the data. These issues are important because they can strongly affect the determination of risk concerning a particular substance or activity. Whether a linear or multistage mode! is used for extrapolation, or whether a restricted or generalized model is used to compute doses, estimation of the no observed effect level (NOEL), or the safety factors used to allow for various kinds of uncertainty, can have sig- nificant impact on the characterization of risk. Such issues can be at the center of a controversy and can dominate debate about them and the related risk messages. Interpretation of Public Attitudes and Information Needs Because of the public's ability to make itself heard on risk is- sues, public opinion does influence the introduction and application of modern technology. But it is usually a relatively small part of the general public that makes its views known about a particular issue. It is therefore useful to distinguish between the passive public (largely unaware of the issue), the attentive public (aware of the issue and its ramifications), and the active public (seeking to make its views known or to affect decisions in other more direct ways). Depending on the nature of the issue, the source of a risk message may need to understand the attitudes and information needs of each of these
102 IMPROVING RISK COMMUNICATION different types of potential recipients of risk messages. Both the dif- ferences among these types of potential recipients and the respective ease or difficulty of establishing contact with them and determining their views and information needs contribute to the complexity of the task. A few years ago several of the large groups of government and industry risk managers began seeking out the advice of social scien- tists because of opposition to their programs in the public (Fischhoff, 1985a). Risk managers typically made confident statements about public opinion on the basis of anecdotal observation, in contrast to practicing social scientists, who usually venture carefully qualified statements only after extensive investigation. Risk managers also made confident statements about the information the public wants and uses in particular situations. For the most part both types of statements were based on a view of "the public" that did not dif- ferentiate among the general public, the attentive public, and the active public or among people with different personal values, levels of exposure, or sensitivities to the hazards in question. Not only does the level of interest in specific topics vary among different people, but so also does the way they think about the is- sues involved. During the last decade researchers have examined the opinions people express when asked, in a variety of ways, to evaluate hazardous activities, substances, and technologies (SIovic, 1987~. Psychological research suggests that people's perceptions and attitudes are not determined solely by the sort of unidimensional statistics used to describe the magnitude of risks. To many peo- ple, statements such as, "the annual risk from living near a nuclear power plant is equivalent to the risk of riding an extra 3 miles in an automobile," give inadequate consideration to important differences in the nature of the risks from these two technologies. As noted in Chapter 3, risk is only one facet of these conflicts (see also Douglas and Wildavsky, 1982; Short, 1984~. Risk concerns may provide a rationale for actions taken on other grounds or they may be a surro- gate for other social or ideological concerns. When this is the case, communication about risk is off the mark. STEREOTYPES ABOUT INTERMEDIARIES AND RECIPIENTS Some risk communication problems d erive from misconceptions about the way intermediaries and recipients react to risk messages. It
COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT RISK COMMUNICATION 103 is mistaken to view journalists and the media always as significant, independent causes of problems in risk communication. It is mistaken, as well, to expect people only to want simple, cut-and-dried answers in every case. Journalists and the News Media Many people who are disgruntled with the slowness and appar- ent incoherence of decision making about risk control or with the outcomes attribute many of these problems to the news media and journalists. Some claim, for example, that public concern is "driven by media coverage rather than by rational scientific analysis" or that "the media has driven the public insane" (Cohen, 1987~. These critics claim, for example, that the news media are basically in the entertainment business and that the only thing that matters is the ability of a story to attract attention because this sells newspapers and attracts viewers. It is true that newspapers, radio and television stations, and the networks are businesses. And it is true that they must Day attention to income and profits. 21 ~e , ~ · ~11 ~ But the direct effect on subscriptions or ac~verr~s~ng Income Is not lively to be In the minds of reporters as they prepare stories nor in the minds of editors or producers as they make story assignments, edit copy, or determine the placement of various stories in that day's newspaper or newscast. In selecting sync] preparing stories, the reporter is much more likely to be motivated by events, by what other reporters are paying attention to, by information provided on a regular basis by sources he or she has cultivated, by deadlines, and by what interests him or her as a citizen. The editor or producer will be concerned about the appeal and impact of the issue or program as a whole. Both, for their different reasons, will be concerned about the importance of the stories, their impact, and their drama. The attractiveness of stories with such appeal will be strong whenever censorship is absent and there is free and open access to information sources. It is mistaken to attribute the way the media defines "newswc~rthin~" in nr~t.ir to crass ecc~nomi~. m~t.i~r-~ elan" --- rig Because of their involvement in selecting and preparing stories, journalists may have a better perception of the audience and its in- terests than do editors or producers. But that perception is probably also based on the "convenience sample" with which that journalist happens to have contact. Journalists and the media play important
104 IMPROVING RISK COMMUNICATION roles in revealing conflicts and sometimes in their resolution. The media may nurture the development of controversy by serving as a channel for debate among the major actors in a conflict, and they can play crucial roles in providing information to citizens during conflicts (Tichenor et al., 1980~. This latter can be especially impor- tant since significant portions of the public may never attend to risk information unless such a conflict attracts their attention. For the most part, what can be called the national press (the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and comparable news organi- zations) treats risk issues with considerable care and understanding. But this is not always true, especially at the regional or local level. The performance of the press in the reporting of risk issues is not always up to the standards found in other topic areas. Most news organizations would not tolerate sports or business reporting by re- porters who do not understand the subject and are unable to correctly frame those topics. The same is not always true of the reporting of the technical and social dimensions of risk messages. Some criticism of the news media emerges from a failure to ex- amine the structure of the media industry or how journalists work. It would be more fruitful for risk communicators to try to understand the pressures and constraints on news gathering than to curse the sometimes disappointing results. The structure of the industry ?~.n<:3 the incentives and influences that affect the way it works are part of our social and political system. What is needed are ways to im- prove risk communication by helping scientists and decision makers understand how and why journalists do their work and by helping journalists understand how scientists and decision makers think and interact. There are, for example, differences between the structure and incentives affecting the broadcast media and those affecting the print media. Material with visual impact will be especially appearing for television. There also will be differences within segments of the different media. The focus and approach of science magazines, for example, differ from those of straight news magazines. National newspapers differ from regional or local newspapers. Despite these differences, however, the overall impact of the incentives and influ- ences on reporters, editors, producers, and so on is more similar in the various media than different. Another characteristic of the press worth understanding is that most reporters dealwith news, not education (Sandman, 1986~. It is usually the events that make something newsworthy, not the issues
COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS ABO UT RISK COMMUNICATION 105 or principles involved. News reporters seldom want to know the ins- and-outs of risk assessment, how sure the experts are, or how they found out. They want to know about the number of people affected; the gravity of the consequences; and the cost of damage, repairs, or remedies. They pay attention to the vividness with which these can be presented. Feature stories, such as those found in Sunday editions or special broadcasts, can go into much greater depth and offer more complex treatments. Specialist reporters also pay attention to newsworthi- ness, imagery, and so forth, but they tend to go into greater depth in laying out the background and some of the underlying factors that bear upon the events. Most journalists care about accuracy and objectivity. Often the only operational definition of objectivity for journalists is balance (Sandman, 1986~. They are seldom experts in the topics they cover. They cannot, as a result, determine for themselves what is true. They can only try to present the conflicting claims fairly. And because their job generally is reporting events rather than issues, they get most of their information from people who are directly involved in the event and only occasionally seek out uninvolved experts for advice. Some journalists, especially at the regional and local levels, also emphasize the reactions of ordinary people. They present the events of concern, the consequences and their importance, any conflict about outcomes or responsibilities, and the response of "the man on the street." This helps people interpret the news in terms of themselves, their families and their neighbors. Journalists may seek out those with conflicting claims about the events in the news. In striving for a balanced coverage, they often attempt to identify extreme positions about the events or issues. Not being able to assess which positions have been given greater credence among the community of experts, they attempt to discover the range of views. Although they may not present the most extreme positions-the ones and sevens on a range from one to seven they will typically Took for individuals expressing we0-defined positions that bracket the middle of the range of relevant views the twos and threes and the fives and sixes. Positions that clearly differ in this way are attractive to the journalist because they define the range and because their juxtaposition sharpens the drama and heightens interest. To be sure, there have been instances in which media coverage has favored one extreme, such as the television network that showed
106 IMPROVING RISK COMMUNICATION a skull and crossed bones in the background whenever a reporter spoke about ethylene dibromide (EDB) (Sharlin, 1987~. But there is also some evidence that even in events with massive attention and media coverage, the news media seek balance. An extensive content analysis of media coverage of the nuclear industry accident at Three Mile Island found the balance between supportive and negative statements to be, if anything, more reassuring than alarming (Report of the Public's Right to Information Task Force, 1979; Stephens and Edison, 1982~. The Attraction of Decisive Answers The public often appears to want decisive, clear-cut determi- nations of risk and descriptions of the appropriate control mea- sures, especially when the choices they face appear to be simple dichotomies a product can be used or not used, an incinerator built or not built. This response is based on fundamental psychological mechanisms. Most people prefer simplicity to complexity in matters outside their own field of expertise. In addition, most people are too busy to spend much time on any particular topic, and some find it hard to understand why information about risk cannot be put in concise, decisive terms. Unfortunately, one seldom knows how often or in what mixes these various situations obtain. Sometimes, however, people prefer to have the options laid out for them and to be given the choice of selecting the one they prefer. This is most common when the risk control measures require action by the individual. Examples include using seat belts, choosing among medical treatments, and changing sexual practices to curb the spread of contagious diseases such as hepatitis or AIDS. Several things may influence people's preference for decisive or ambiguous information: the degree to which they as individuals ex- ercise control over exposure or remediation, the importance they attach to the issue, and their tendency to be risk averse or risk seek- ing. That different segments of the population may prefer decisive or equivocal information about a particular risk can make the job of the risk communicator more difficult. It may even be that individuals prefer different types of information at different times during the course of discovery, analysis, and control of a hazard. This chapter has discussed some of the more important mis- conceptions about risk communication. The next chapter addresses
COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT RISK COMMUNICATION 107 directly what we believe to be the most important problems con- fronting the practice of risk communication. NOTE 1. These and other relevant terms are defined in a list given in Appendix E.