Conceptualizing Risk Or, Does Risk Equal News?

Katherine E. Rowan, Ph.D.
Professor of Communication, GMU, Presentation for a

National Press Foundation Webinar
Washington, DC January 2013

In General
• Men view risks as less harmful than women do • Regardless of the risk
• • • • Nuclear power Climate change Cancer Handguns

• White males see all as less harmful than men of color and women do
Source: Finacune and associates

Who is Right?
• Are white males more likely than other groups to be well educated?
• In general, yes.

• Is that the whole story? • Risk = uncertain danger • Many factors shape the ways we view danger, especially uncertain danger.


• Tale of two oil spills:
• The British Petroleum Gulf spill in 2010 • Guadalupe Dunes, 170 miles north of LA

• We perceive immediate risks differently than we do slow-onset, gradually worsening hazards.
• Risk = hazards, physical or financial.


Immediate Risk, Imminent Danger
• We see, hear, taste, or feel it. • Seeing fire, hearing an alarm, or tasting something foul evokes immediate response. • But what happens when a hazard is less immediate? Not in our house? Across the street? • Suppose we encounter ONE small child in distress? Suppose we encounter TWO?
Source: Paul Slovic

Processing Immediate Risk


„Distant‟ Risk in the United States
Risk Stories:
• Over 50 % U. S. population lives near coastlines
• Sea levels are rising, land levels subsiding, storms severe.

• The U. S. national debt will exceed its output (Gross National Product) in a matter of decades. • Cancer incidence increases with age; people live longer. • Crumbling infrastructure (sewers, roads, bridges) • The number of U.S. residents educated in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) is low.

Sewers, Flooding, Illness Nation-wide


Data: EPA, CDC Graphic: Washington Post

Consider Distant Risk
• The more distant a harm—emotionally and experientially—the harder it is to detect, care about, and address. • Hazards like the growing national debt are hard to experience emotionally—at least for those fortunate to have money now. • Slowly worsening hazards are hard to detect: Only experts see.

Newsworthiness and Risk
• Immediate vs. Chronic
• Newtown vs. suicides throughout 2012

• High Moral Outrage vs. Low Moral Outrage
• Children vs. everyone else
Source: Peter Sandman

• Local vs. National, Global
• Our county sewers vs. sewers nationwide

• News = upsetting if true?

Risk Perception Research
• Scholars such as Paul Slovic, Peter Sandman, Elke Weber, and many others have shown that the risks that upset us most are often not those most likely to kill us:
• • • • •

Concrete vs. abstract hazards Imposed vs. chosen hazards Unfair vs. fair hazards Man-made vs. natural hazards Immediate, acute vs. chronic, slow onset, in future.

Risk Perception and Reporting
Example: • Why less coverage of suicides by gun than homicides by gun? • Suicides by gun outnumber homicides by gun in most years since at least 1920.
Sources: Neyfakh, 2013; Wintemute, 1987


Good Reporting
• Evokes the brain‟s executive and primitive functions • Taps emotion, immediate risk to get attention
• Amygdala

• Deepens understanding by providing context, depth, range of perspectives
• Cortex

• Read reporters who explore this research:
• Amanda Ripley.

„Risk Communication Theories‟
• Public education is the key. • Looking at number killed, hurt, ill tells the whole story. • The media sensationalize risk. • The public won‟t understand complexities.


Incomplete Ideas  Poor Communication
• Officials assume they must educate the media and the public. • Without intending to do so, they can seem arrogant. • The public assumes officials are not competent or do not care about them. • The public may seem uncooperative, apathetic, suspicious.


Instead …….

• • •

Use the “CAUSE” model
to explore multiple perspectives to provide thorough coverage to explain why some solutions may work, others may not


“CAUSE” Model of Risk Communication
• • • • • Lack of Confidence (in communicators) Lack of Awareness (of danger) Lack of Understanding (of danger) Lack of Satisfaction (with solutions) Lack of Enactment (of safety steps)

Five letters like the 5 W’s to promote thoroughness. Source: Rowan.

Logic Underlying “CAUSE”
• Risk communication situations beset by the five tensions “CAUSE” indexes • Good risk communicators explore these tensions • Often confidence must be earned and relationships developed before other goals can be achieved
Source: Rowan

How to use “CAUSE”
• Think about why groups respond to risk news differently:
• Lack of Confidence in sources? • Lack of Awareness of danger, of warnings?

• Lack of Understanding of danger?
• Lack of Satisfaction with solutions? • Lack of Enactment, action?


The C in CAUSE
• C in CAUSE = confidence in communicators • WHO is communicating about rising sea levels and dwindling wetlands in my coastal community? Do local leaders trust these communicators? • Publics have a right to know their choices for managing a risk and a right to make choices consistent with their values (Botan).

Earning Confidence: Range of Sources
• Key Obstacles: • Selective suspicion of officials‟, business‟, nonprofits‟ motives • Selective doubts about competence • Solution for reporters: cover risk through many lenses:
• • • •

Affected parties, victims Managers, officials Business, nonprofits Researchers, other nations, states

Earning Confidence: Sunday Piece
• Before crises occur . . .

• Write a “Sunday piece” about slow onset-hazards, high harm hazards on your beat:
• • • • Suicide rates in your state Flooding and illness Flooding and costs for county Crumbling bridges


Earning Confidence: Enhance Monitoring
• Report to increase monitoring of hazards. • Report to encourage management to be accessible. • Report local implications of hazards for better emotional appeal and relevance.


The A in CAUSE
• A = awareness of hazard, the warning • Do they see its local, personal relevance? • Most people engage in “confirmatory” or verification behavior when they hear a warning
• Few simply obey media messages • Most try to confirm or interpret first • Do media support verification efforts?


Awareness Challenge, 1
• July 21, 2005 : what was being done in SW Louisiana, prior to Hurricane Katrina • Emergency directors distributing pamphlets on evacuation • Emergency directors giving talks to Lions Clubs, civic associations about evacuation • August 29: 80 percent DID evacuate • Those who did not: mostly low income.


Awareness Challenge, 2


Source: Rogers, Wendy, et al., 2000.

Awareness Solution, 1


Source: Gina Eosco, American Meteorological Society

Create Awareness, Solution, 2
Create Awareness with

•Simple •Unexpected •Concrete •Credible •Emotional •Stories
• Make slow-onset risk as concrete, precise, and emotional as possible.


In Summary, Webinar 1
• Does risk equal news? Not always, but . . . • Risk stories, or stories about uncertain danger, demand thoroughness. • Use CAUSE to identify likely tensions • Explore risk from a range of perspectives • Deepen understanding by explaining the risk. • Read top risk reporters‟ work:
• Leon Neyfakh, Andrew Revkin, Amanda Ripley.

Awareness versus Understanding
• Awareness differs from understanding • Awareness = recognize, recall • Understanding = explain, use to solve problems


The U in CAUSE
Why is this risk or hazard hard to understand?
• Familiar concepts not well understood: cancer, risk, debt vs. deficit, climate change, storm surge.

Complexities hard to envision: cancer incidence increases with age; how cancers develop; why carbon dioxide levels affect temperature; risk of death from flu; risk of homicide vs. suicide. Hard-to-understand because counter-intuitive: that cancer need not be a death sentence; that many minorities less likely to get certain cancers but more apt to die when cancer not caught soon enough.
Source: Rowan, 1999, 2003


Deepen Understanding, Explain Complexities
Jim Gandy WLTX Columbia, SC


Deepen Understanding: Key Terms
• Say what a word does NOT mean
• Radiation does NOT equal danger. Danger depends on the type and amount of radiation. • “Strong familial risk” is NOT the same as the risk connected to a hereditary “syndrome”

• Say what it DOES mean
• Radiation refers to energy moving through space.

• “Strong familial risk” means more likely to develop breast cancer than those with no family risk but less likely than those with hereditary syndrome

Key Terms, 2
• Give a RANGE of examples, not just one.
• People experience radiation from many sources including light bulbs, the sun, radios, x-rays, cosmic rays, and nuclear weapons. The harmfulness of radiation has to do with its type and amount of exposure. When a doctor prescribes an x-ray, the benefit of a clear image to help detect some problem usually outweighs the risk of exposure to x-ray radiation.


Key Terms, 3
• Discuss “false examples” to clarify a key term.
• Eating lots of “fiber” helps protect you from cancer. Fiber is plant material that passes undigested, so apples, wheat bran, and salads all have fiber. Meat does not, even “tough meat.” Dietary fiber is plant material.
Source: Rowan, 1999


Deepen Understanding: Visuals
Try presenting risk as frequencies rather than as probabilities
Sources: Danziger, 2000; also Schwartz et al., 1999


Deepen Understanding: Context
Detroit Free Press
“About 100 children die of flu each year” (Mike Stobbe, AP) • What does that mean? • Total number of deaths from flu for all ages • Total number of children in United States = 74 million • Absolute Risk = 1 in 740,000 • Most deaths among those not vaccinated

Boston Globe
“The gun toll we’re ignoring: Suicide” (Leon Neyfakh) • What does that mean? • “In 2010, number of gun deaths by suicide outnumbered homicides: • 19,392 suicide • 11,078 homicides • “Pattern the same since 1920.”

Deepen Understanding: Address Lay Theories
• People have “lay theories” about familiar aspects of life: disease, sex, etc. • Research on lay theories began in physics education • Examples of erroneous lay theories:
• Since I‟m not sexually active, I‟m not at risk for cervical cancer. • If I feel good, I do not have cancer. • If I get prostate cancer, I will die right away. • There‟s no cancer in my family so I won‟t get it.

Address Lay Theories, 2
• State the lay theory and acknowledge its apparent reasonableness
• It seems reasonable to assume that if there are no people in your family who have cancer, your chances of getting cancer are low.

• Create dissatisfaction with the lay theory
• Family history is one source of cancer risk, but there are other sources. Lifestyle factors like obesity and smoking are connected to cancer.

• Explain the orthodox science
• Cancer is often prevented if caught early. Since early cancers may not cause symptoms, and since even people with no family history of cancer are at risk, have frequent check ups so problems can be caught and treated.
Sources: Rowan, 1999, 2000, 2003

The S in CAUSE
• S (satisfaction with solutions):
• Sample questions: Do communities see this problem as severe? Do they believe the problem affects them and see themselves as capable of solving it? • Answers: Support communities in coming to their own consensus about their priorities. Tap research on community consensus building.
Source: McComas


Gaining Satisfaction
• Research says people are satisfied when
• • • • They believe the hazard is SEVERE They believe the hazard affects THEM They believe they CAN OVERCOME the hazard They believe the recommended action will WORK
Source: Witte


The E in CAUSE
• E stand for enactment • Make action easy
• Cut 100 calories a day, not lose 10 pounds.

• Make action simple
• Fill out this postcard and we will call you.

• Give deadline, Reduce cost • Routinize the solution, “embed the behavior”

• Make reducing the debt automatic. • Make increasing coastal wetlands annual requirement.

Motivating Enactment, 1
• Reporters can include “how I protect myself” information
• Mention pre-packaged survival kits at stores • Cover neighborhoods that promote preparedness • Cover research on overcoming bad habits


Motivating Enactment, 2
• Research shows gain-framed messages most effective for prevention behavior
• “Using sun screen keeps your skin healthy.” • “Eating lots of fiber prevents many diseases.” • “Transferring money to savings automatically prevents going into debt.”

• Research shows loss-framed messages most effective for detection behavior
• “By not getting a mammogram, you are failing to take advantage of the best step available for detecting breast cancer.”
Sources: Banks, 1995; Salovey, 2002

In Summary, Webinar 2
• Does risk equal news? Not always, but . . . • Risk stories, or stories about uncertain danger, demand thoroughness. • Use CAUSE to identify likely tensions. • Explore risk from a range of perspectives, especially local ones. • Deepen understanding by explaining the risk. • Read top risk reporters‟ work:
• Leon Neyfakh, Andrew Revkin, Amanda Ripley.


Aging Infrastructure [ASCE] American Society of Civil Engineers (2005). Report card on America’s infrastructure. CAUSE Model, Risk Communication, Science Communication Akerlof, K. L., Rowan, K. E., Fitzgerald, D., & Cedeno, A. Y. (2012). Communicating climate projections in U. S. media: Politicization of model uncertainty. Nature Climate Change, 2, 648-654. Graduate Programs in Science Communication at Mason: Rowan, K. E., et al. (2009). Risk communication education for local emergency managers. In R. Heath & D. O‟Hair (Eds.), Handbook of Risk and Crisis Communication. NY: Taylor & Francis. Rowan, K. E. (2003). Informing and explaining skills: Theory and research on informative communication. In J. O. Greene & B. R. Burleson (Eds.), The Handbook of Communication and Social Interaction Skills. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. Rowan, K. E. (1999). Effective explanation of uncertain and complex science. In S. Friedman, S. Dunwoody, & C. L. Rogers (Eds.), Communicating New and Uncertain Science (pp. 201-223). Mahwah, NJ. Erlbaum.


Climate Change, Risk Communication, and Communicating Climate Change Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. Director: Dr. Edward Maibach. Maibach, E. W., Roser-Renouf, C., & Leiserowitz, A. (2008). Communication and marketing as climate change—Intervention assets. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 35, 488-500. [IOM] Institute of Medicine (2008). Global climate change and extreme weather events: Understanding the Contributions to Infectious Disease Management. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. Lydersen, K. (2008, Oct. 20). Risk of disease rises with water temperatures. Washington Post, A08. Map, graphic use EPA, American Journal of Public Health, & CDC data. [NOAA] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (2005, March). Population Trends along the Coastal United States:1980-2008. Rogers, W. et al. (2000). Safety symbol comprehension. Human Factors, 46. Slovic, P., Finucane, M. L., Peters, E., & MacGregor, D. G. (2004). Risk as analysis and risk as feelings: Some thoughts about affect, reason, risk, and rationality. Risk Analysis, 24, 311-322 Weber, E. U. (2007). Experience-based and description-based perceptions of long-term risk: Why global warming does not scare us yet. Climate Change, 77, 103-120.

Communication and Health Psychology Bandura, A. (2005). Health promotion by social cognitive means. Health, Education, and Behavior, 31, 143-164. Booth-Butterfield, M. (2003). Embedded health behaviors from adolescence to adulthood. Health Communication, 15. Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2007). Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. New York: Random House. Witte, K., et al. (2001). Effective Health Risk Messages. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Public Relations, Listening, Deliberating with Publics about Priorities, Preparedness Besley, J. & McComas, K. (2005). Framing justice. Communication Theory, 15, 414-436. Botan, C. (2006). Grand strategy, strategy and tactics in public relations. In C. Botan & V. Hazleton (Eds.), Public Relations Theory II. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. McComas, K. A., Arvai, J., & Besley, J. C. (2009). Linking public perception and decision making through risk communication. In R. Heath & D. O‟Hair (Eds.), Handbook of Risk and Crisis Communication. New York: Routledge.


Health Risk Communication Banks, S., et al. (1995). The effects of message framing on mammography utilization. Health Psychology, 14, 178-184. Booth-Butterfield, M. (2003). Embedded health behaviors from adolescence to adulthood. Health Communication, 15. Danziger, K. (2000). How are breast and ovarian cancer inherited? From Genetic Health, Rowan, K. E. (2000). Mass media explanations of illness. In B. Whaley (Ed.), Explaining illness. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. Rowan, K. E. et al. (2003). The CAUSE model, Health Communication, 15, 241-254. Salovey, P. et al. (2002). Message framing in the prevention and early detection of disease. In J. Dillard & M. Pfau (Eds.), The persuasion handbook. Thousand Oaks, CA. Schwartz, L. M., Woloshin, S., & Welch, H. G. (1999). Risk communication in clinical practice. Journal of the National Cancer Institute Monographs, No. 25, 124-133 Stobbe, M. (2013, Jan. 16). Risk to all ages: About 100 children die of flu each year. Detroit Free Press. Witte, K. et al. (2001). Effective health risk messages: A step-by-step guide. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage


Firearms and Risk Neyfakh, L. (2013, Jan. 20). The gun toll we are ignoring: Suicide. Boston Globe. Slovic, P. (2000). Trust, emotion, sex, politics, and science: Surveying the risk-assessment battlefield. IIFET 2000 Proceedings. Wintemute, G. J. (1987). Firearms as a cause of death in the United States, 1920-1982. Journal of Trauma, 27,532-536. Risk Communication: Approaches and Overviews Finucane, M. L. Slovic, P., Mertz, C. K., Flynn, J., & Satterfield, T. A. (2000). Gender, race, and perceived risk: The „white male‟ effect. Health, Risk & Society, 2. Pidgeon, N., Kasperson, R. E., & P. Slovic (Eds.), The Social Amplification of Risk. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge. Ripley, A. (2008). The Unthinkable. New York: Crown. Rowan, K. E. (2010), Risk, an overview. In S. H. Priest (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Science and Technology Communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Sandman, P. (1993). Responding to Community Outrage. Fairfax, VA: American Industrial Hygiene Association.

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