Risk communication is a field of communications research that is used by a variety of professionals, including public relations and other professionals involved in purposive communications in government and the private sector. Risk communication can be defined as a process that increases the selectivity of the perception and communication of decision consequences. The decision consequences experienced by the decision-maker are based on “uncertainty” (Otway & Wynne 1989), a situation where actions have to be taken under conditions of incomplete information. The prominent theoretical concepts of risk communications are based on the sociology of risk (Luhmann 2005), as well as journalism research (Wilkins & Patterson 1991; Görke & Ruhrmann 2003).
Dimensions of Risk Communication
There are at least three dimensions to risk communication: (1) issue, (2) communicator, and (3) audience. First, risk communication is contingent upon the actual issue that is assessed and perceived as being risky. A “risk” (R) is the product of the probability (P) of damage and the seriousness of this damage (S), that is R = P × S (Rowe 1977). Risk can be differentiated between specific intensities, as well as between specific types of potential damages (Slovic 1987). Types of potential damage include accidents (e.g., an explosion at a chemical factory), natural catastrophes (e.g., a tsunami), or terror attacks (e.g., the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the USA). When considering “the issue,” one must be mindful that, in everyday life and in the scientific world, uncertainty is communicated differently (Lindell & Perry 2004; Barnett et al. 2005; Goldstein 2005). In everyday life, possible damages and the probability that the damages or risky events will come to fruition are well known. In science, however, both well-defined risks as well as complex, sometimes still unknown, risks – for example in the field of nuclear energy or genetic engineering – exist side by side.
A second dimension is how risk is communicated. The communicators, e.g., the spokesperson of an agency or the journalist who reports the risk, represent a contingent selection. They are able to report about a risk, but may choose to remain silent. Catastrophes are reported immediately. However, it is also possible that a risk is not communicated, because it is not yet realized, one does not know enough about it yet, or it is not reasonable to talk about it. For example, one may choose not to disclose information in case of a terror risk, for security reasons. In the case of imminent catastrophes (or catastrophes that failed to appear), the information or lack of information in an announcement can predict how effective or successful further communication is accepted and perceived. The following questions should be asked when assessing the effectiveness of how the risk was communicated: (1) How do risk experts respond to questions? (2) How do sources, i.e., the spokespersons of the agencies and journalists, phrase a statement? What does this statement suggest? Trust in agencies and journalists can be operationalized by asking the following questions: (1) Are the issues selected correctly? (2) Are the underlying facts correct? (3) Are they depicted correctly? (4) Are they appropriate to journalistic judgments? (5) Are they trustworthy? (Kohring 2004).
Finally, the audience plays an important role in the selectivity of communication of risk, as there are audience members who may or may not pay attention to the news, or may or may not understand it, and may accept or reject it. The audience is able to perceive or ignore statements on risks. Risk perception is influenced considerably by attitudes about science, technology, and culture. Experts and decision-makers orient themselves in a worldview based on science. They have an understanding of the scientific methods and explanations, which normally result in provable or probabilistic statements. Lay people, however, base their experiences on their everyday life and that of their particular reference group. Hence, the reported risks are personalized with regard to their own fears. They calculate the probability and the amount of damages of the crisis according to their subjective certainty.
Risk Communication, Conflict, and Catastrophes
Conflicts can be seen as a cause and a consequence of risk communication. They can escalate due to dramatized press coverage, for example. Conflicts clarify who is “pro” and who is “against” specific decisions. They also show who is keen to discuss a risk and who prefers to avoid the argument. This explicit “two-point formation” allows for an exclusion of complex alternatives, which cannot be decided upon immediately. Conflicts can be characterized by typical communication dimensions and structures.
On a factual level, arguments about the accuracy of statements and facts are relevant. This can also complicate the conflict; for example, if conflicting positions are repeatedly supported with new arguments, the conflict may be extended. Another concern in terms of accuracy occurs when experts deny each other the correct use of a technical language. In this context, “rationalization” can be understood as an attempt to explain threatening, uncertain, or ambiguous events and developments (hypothetical risks). These explanations could include scientific, political, or economic information. The role of rationalization is to assess, calculate, and legitimize incomprehensible risks.
On the social level, conflicts become apparent when “winners” and “losers” are identified and the actions and decisions of both groups become based on this construct; for example, when the risk perception of someone else is called “irrational.” Dramatized press coverage can result in an excited dispute, where controversial statements are expressed in an emotional way. This can lead to a further intensification of the conflict. In addition, calculated violations of rules can be exploited to intensify the “emotional climate.” It is essential to communicate each group’s points of views without emotional content in order to temper any conflicts that arise.
On the temporal level, a restructuring of the time horizon takes place, where past risk communications are reinterpreted. In the present, where one knows more about the risk, the statements of the past could be understood as a pretense of fake risk assumptions. At the same time, the future is observed and experienced threateningly. One expects that current and future decisions of the rival will restrict one’s own options (Coombs 2007).
Risks can not only be seen as damaging events that can be calculated probabilistically, managed technically, or regulated by the insurance industry, but also as political conflict situations (Lindell & Perry 2004). There are no attributions for natural catastrophes, which follow the principle that the party responsible is liable for the damages. However, it can be assumed that, in western industrialized countries and in less developed countries, the mass media will increasingly describe natural catastrophes as social catastrophes and, therefore, as risks. Security is seen as socially constructed (Luhmann 2005). For example, deaths from catastrophes such as floods or earthquakes can ultimately be traced back to human actions, for example, due to building in flood-prone areas. Natural catastrophes are normally “mere” coping crises.
Difficulties in acceptance only occur if the responsible officials can be blamed for inefficient coping actions. Failure to render assistance, insufficient precautions, inability to make decisions, and insufficient information delivery often are mentioned by experts and commissions if risk management and communication are evaluated (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2002). Failures of this kind escalate into serious crises of communication and acceptance, especially if national communication is incapable of admitting failures and learning from these experiences.
Risk Communication and Acceptance
Acceptance is the outcome of a selective processing of the scientific, economic, political, and cultural information in risk perception, risk assessment, and risk communication (Lindell & Perry 2004). Acceptance is normally described as a positive attitude toward single statements. In addition, acceptability describes the communicated reasons and circumstances of acceptance. In case of crisis or incident, there is limited time for communication (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2002). To determine the potential for acceptance, five assumptions that complicate the communication must be distinguished.
- One cannot infer general future acceptance from the present behavior of the persons affected. Due to intensified public relations and advertising, there is a significant difference between expressed (what people say) and shown (what people really accept) preferences.
- In view of the ignorance of possible long-term effects and consequences, the passive acceptance of risks or of disputed decisions cannot be evaluated as acceptance.
- Absent collective protest and the absence or breakdown of social movements that are against risky decisions and developments do not inevitably indicate acceptance.
- Tacit risk acceptance by specific sub-groups of the population, which might be influenced by public relations, does not mean the acceptance or the willingness of other groups.
- Attitudes and interests can become manifest in different role demands. Thus, acceptability and acceptance could individually contradict each other. The reason for this is also that sometimes risk communication is misinterpreted as advertising (Ulmer et al. 2007).
Acceptance of risk communication only occurs long-term on the basis of acceptability of premises. Acceptance can be obtained by effective, goal-oriented communication.
Need for Research
More research is called for in at least seven areas. (1) Issues: communication researchers, as well as other social scientists, should have basic knowledge about the relevant topics, e.g., scientific, technical, and ecological developments, their effects, and consequences. (2) Experts: they should be observed under stress in public, in crisis management groups, and in television editorial offices. (3) Sample strategies: systematic comparative analyses are necessary to describe and explain sample strategies in form and content. Which risk definitions and concepts of probability result in specific risk evaluations by different scientific, technical, and political actors? (4) Communicators: the communicators and the causes, which make sure that catastrophes and terrorism with a latent history become an issue, should be analyzed further (Greenberg & Thomson 2002). This applies not only to information programs, but also to entertainment programs, which increasingly have a higher circulation and stronger effects. It could become apparent how specific events and issues are dramatized and are able to establish themselves in the public awareness (Görke & Ruhrmann 2003). (5) Journalists: the basic conditions under which journalists and editors work should be analyzed in detail. Analyses of risk perception and risk description by journalists are necessary as well. (6) Media/content: long-term verbal and visual content and issue analyses of the description and visual presentation of risks, catastrophes, and terrorism should be carried out (Mythen & Walklate 2006). This should also include the Internet and feature films. Audience: adequate methods are necessary to measure cognitive and affective reception modalities and schemes of the audience and its sub-groups.
Such analyses should be carried out using multi-methods. This allows researchers to compare media statements with the content that the audience recalls. An integrated research approach is necessary to understand risk communication internationally and interculturally.
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