The government and scientists have lost their authority to give the information due to the rise of the information society. People become more aware about debates in the scientific community and more skeptical towards government policy. There is a greater need to understand how risk communicators should communicate risk under such circumstances.
The risk communication process is based on a 3-tier model: micro, process and macro levels. The risk message is designed at micro level. At this level, risk communicators aim to demystify complicated information to ease of the comprehensibility of the using language. The process level focuses on identifying channels that are most appropriate to communicate. At this stage new information is attached to old information to match the message content to the needs of target audience. At the third macro level, risk communicators concerned how the public perceive the source of the information, and trust and credibility plays a crucial role in it. For government it is crucial to identify the public understanding of risk. Much research has been conducted to investigate the public perceptions on individual and social levels.The aim of this essay is to review the contemporary risk research including theoretical positions on individual and social levels, and provide advice to the public policy makers on how to make risk communication more effective.
The definition of risk is a debatable issue. Differences on defining risk come from various theoretical positions and paradigms. At one extreme is the realist position. According to their exponents risk is an objective property of an event. On the other hand, the constructivism paradigm view risk as a social construct and defined risk as “subjective perceptions of culture and social structure”(Wynne, 1992 cited in Rosa, 2003) However, those two extreme positions taken separately provide incomplete models of reality. Social amplification of risk frameworks integrated two paradigms and suggested that: “risk is a situation or an event where something of human value (including humans themselves) is at stake and the where outcome is uncertain.” (Rosa, 2003) This definition conceptualised risk as an objective property of event and as a social construct. It captures the notion that certain states can be defined as the risk and it has no meaning without actual human activities.
The current scientific community and communicators tend to blame the communication failure of many risk education programmes on a public that is perceived as not intelligent enough to articulate risk messages. However, recent research shows that communicators do not put enough effort into understanding the public’s perception. (Morgan et al. 2002). Contemporary research approaches study risk perceptions using psychometric and mental models, which focus on individual level and social amplification, which reflects social level.
Theoretical perspectives on risk perception
Psychometric approach is developed to investigate the variables that determine the public judgments of risk. According to research ranges of constructs were identified: dread, unknown, and number of exposed, control and voluntariness. The core constructs help to counter or allay public anxiety. People’s reactions are influenced by how they view intrinsic risk. The risk is inherently subjective. The main drawback of this approach is the small sample and lack of representativeness.
According to the mental model approach, risk understanding can be formed from diverse sources that have different impacts on perception. This approach consists of insight from both natural and social science. Firstly, scientists and technology experts’ perception of risk issues are identified. In this stage many different variables are considered and heightened and lay models of risks are explored. Communicators gain an insight of how the public understands and reacts to risk. Finally, public perception is compared to experts and the congruence and non-congruence between them is identified (Morgan et al 2002).
Consequently, the risk communicators are capable of constructing effective message content, identifying appropriate channels and ensuring the delivery process. The main criticism indicated the incompleteness and inappropriateness of the mental model approach. This approach can be used only when the consequences are obvious and the social amplification is limited (Breakwell, 2001).
The policy makers have to withstand the barriers of the risk communication. The main problem is that people use mental shortcuts-heuristics. As a result people make biased judgments and use inappropriate amounts of information to make decisions. Furthermore, people can be apathetic to risk issues and do not participate in engagement processes. Finally, the social and psychological determinants such as voluntariness, controllability, familiarity, uncertainty and dread influence how people handle risk information and make judgments about actual risk magnitude.
The social amplification of risks framework (SARF) was constructed to help understand the failure of risk communication over time. The SARF is concerned with social processes that amplify public concerns over some hazards and events that experts judge as a low. (Kaperson et al. 2003) For example, the public is more concerned about food risks that scientific community consider less likely to occur. People often attribute high risk to food products when they do not know about chemical and technological processes involved in food production (McCartney, 2007) The experts in the UK judge microbiological hazards as the main risk, whereas consumers are more concerned about the farm production and food processing hazards. (Lobb, 2005) According to SARF the risk communication process involves risk signals, which attenuates or amplifies perceptions of risk. (Breakwell, 2003) According to Alexandra Lobb (2005) the consumer perception of risk is “asymmetric” and has a temporal effect. The perception of risk is highly influenced by the station of amplification that includes media, social and education institutions. Although the media plays an important role in educating and engaging people, actually public responses towards risk are more rational. People are more influenced by media when the hazard is unknown and the risk decisions are complex. (Murdock et al, 2003) The bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) crisis is the best illustration of social amplification, how consumers make sense of information on food risks and how far media attention to the safety of food affects the decision-making process. (Breakweal et al, 2003)
The BSE crisis was one of the biggest public policy crises in the United Kingdom, causing the slaughter of 3.3 million cattle and economic losses of 3.7 billion pounds. In 1985 the first case of a cow developing the degenerative brain disease was registered (Beck et al, 2005). The following year other cases were identified and the disease was called bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Throughout the BSE crisis the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) was responsible for conducting scientific research and advising the government. MAFF commissioned an inquiry, the Southwood Report, into the epidemic and its implications for human health. (Gregory and Miller, 1998) Scientists stated the BSE posed no danger for humans, and the source of infection was caused by increasing use of feeds derived from sheep offal, together with the modification of feed production. In the 1980s BSE was not mentioned widely in the media, it was only published as scientists reports. However, media interest began to grow by the discovery of cats developing feline spongiform encephalopathy. Scientists suspected that BSE could be passed to other species. This caused public suspicion about government ministers who insisted there was no risk to humans. For reassuring public belief in British beef safety, agriculture minister John Gummer urged his 4-year-old daughter to eat a beef burger with him in front of the press. MAFF’s endeavours to re-establish public confidence in British beef looked less and less credible (Gregory and Miller, 1998) The crisis achieved its culmination after the announcement by scientists that Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a rare fatal neurodegenerative human disease, may be related to BSE. Consequently, the British beef market collapsed and the European Union banned exports of British beef. Media coverage soared. The newspaper reported that “mad cow” disease kills people. (Beck et al, 2005) People were left in ambiguity to determine their own decisions, as trust in the government was gone. The public policy of “no risk” messages failed because government underestimated the public’s ability to deal with risk. (Powell, 2001) Government risk communication policy did not succeed in handling uncertainties about threats to food safety and difficulties integrating diverse scientific opinion. The BSE crisis shows that trust in the authorities responsible for providing information plays a crucial role in public decisions about risk.
Across a large range of disciplines trust is defined differently. Morrow el at. (2003) define trust as “the extent to which one believes that others will not act to exploit one’s vulnerabilities.” (Cited in Lobb, 2005). This definition indicated that trust depends on past experience and integrates rational thinking and feelings.
Trust building is a long and slow process, however, destroying trust can be matter of a single mistake. Trust destroying factors have more weight compared to trust building, as they are more visible – such as media sensationalism. (Powell, 2002) According to Lofstedt (2006) the main reason for the lack of success of risk communication programmes is often elicited by public distrust of authority due to “credibility problems, past history or social alienation.” Within the food area, risk communication research primarily focused on public trust in food authorities or sources of information regarding to food safety issues. Trust in the government and other regulators are a crucial factor in how people understand risk and their acceptance of potential food hazards (McCartney et at, 2007). The most trusted sources of information on food are consumer and environment organisations, doctors and scientists working for environmental organisations. The national government and scientists working for them are seen as the least trusted sources. (Lobb, 2005) Therefore, the risk communication should be based on reliable and authoritative sources to ensure effective communication; otherwise the outcome could be blurred. (Morgan et al, 2002)
The developers of risk communication have to ensure that public perceives the message as it was determined. On the other hand, if communication failed it can cause a lot of controversy and conflicts. Effective communication requires a good understanding of the perceptions; preferences and values of people and stakeholders in the risk debate. The engagement with people and stakeholders could be a solution for better communication.
Policy makers could help people to understand risks regulation, and educate and advise how to deal with risk they cannot control. Public policy should become more transparent to enhance the level of trust. Public should have access to all information about policy considerations via the Internet or other sources. Furthermore, scientists have to be encouraged to show science in action publicly, because the public is concerned that science is carried out behind closed doors.
On the other hand, stakeholders and the public engagement process are not problem free. Due to the fact that people tend to be apolitical and not participate in the policymaking process, the number of people engaged in policy may not reflect the whole population opinion. That implies that the majority of people are silent and communication processes become more complicated (Losftedt, 2006). Besides, the implementation of public and stakeholder involvement could raise a lot of bureaucratic procedures, which may slow the process. Transparency also has a negative aspect as it gives the opportunity for establishing scientific pluralism, which may cause adverse effects and lead to a rise of public distrust.
The media plays a crucial role in informing and engaging people. The government should aim to meet the needs of media and examine strategies for providing material to media by preparing positive key messages and providing background material of the hazard.
Finally, a lot of crises were based on the risk communicators’ incompetence. Government should focus more on education and development of risk communicators. Developers of risk communication have to be well trained and educated to understand the complexity and diversity of the risk communication process.
Risk communication seeks to provide people with information that they need to make informed decisions about risk. Risk communicators should identify the knowledge gaps within public understanding of risk. Instead of asking for expert opinion about what should be exposed to public, the systematic analysis of the public’s understanding and beliefs about risk issues has to be conducted. For effective communication government needs to gain and maintain public trust by engaging people and stakeholders in risk debate. Finally, risk communicators should be open and accessible to the media as it is the primary transmitter of information to public.
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