Most stories on environmental issues involve risk. What’s the hazard of a particular toxin? How many people might die because of a chemical spill? Will emissions from that proposed new factory increase cancer in the neighborhood around it?

Reporters who cover such stories know public fear of these risks often exceeds what neutral experts contend is the actual danger. Of course, the fears are usually prominently featured in coverage: Intimations of danger and quotes packed with passion enliven any story. Less prominent, or missing altogether, is a recognition of the gap between fear and fact. Rarer still is an explanation of why such a gap exists.

For 20 years, I reported on environment issues as a daily TV journalist. My reporting would have been a lot better if I knew then what I know now about a well-established body of science that explains why people are so afraid of some relatively low risks and so unafraid of some relatively big ones.

“Understanding Factors of Risk Perception”
– David Ropeik
Risk perception research, pioneered by Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon, Baruch Fischoff of Carnegie Mellon University, and others, has found that people tend to misperceive similar risks, for similar reasons. And the researchers have identified those reasons. It turns out that risks have certain characteristics that, regardless of age, race, gender, location, culture, or other demographic differences, drive our fears up or down.

For reporters, understanding these risk perception factors can empower more intelligent coverage of risk-related stories. They can interview people who are upset and frightened more insightfully. They can gather facts with greater perspective. They can write their stories with more balance. (And a story that explains why people overreact or underreact to a risk, such as West Nile virus, can be an interesting story, too.) Understanding these factors can also help journalists avoid the seduction of playing up stories about minimal risks—stories that evoke a lot of fear—and ignoring stories about major risks that don’t.

The same risk perception factors that trigger fear in those who consume the news trigger interest in the people who report it. For reporters, these “fear factors” are characteristics of a story that has a better chance of making the front page or the top of a news broadcast. For editors and producers hungry to increase the number of readers or viewers, these factors identify stories that might grab more attention.

Imagine a story about a human-made risk that’s imposed on people, affects kids, involves a dreadful way to die and a government agency or officials that nobody trusts. To most journalists, those are the elements of a great news story, even if the actual risk involved is insignificant. The danger is that journalists can be so seduced by these subconscious risk perception fear factors that they play them up while failing to qualify how big or small, certain or not, the actual risk is.

Environmental journalism is rife with examples. I definitely plead guilty. I did this more times than I’d like to recall. The Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) is a classic example. Each year the Environmental Protection Agency reports the amounts of hazardous substances being emitted by major sources. I covered the TRI story many times, reporting with great drama (and plenty of sound bites from scared neighbors) that significant quantities of hazard X, Y or Z were coming from a smoke stack or sewage pipe. But I never gave equal attention in my reporting to the fact that because something is emitted doesn’t automatically make it hazardous. Indeed, the exposure data suggested that by the time people were exposed to these hazards, the levels almost always met safety standards.

Consider the risk perception factors behind the common fear of chemicals:

  • They are human-made.
  • The risk involves a dreadful outcome—such as cancer.
  • The risk is imposed on people.
  • It comes from a source—industry— that people don’t trust.

Those are all risk perception factors that make people more fearful. And, as a reporter, they made me more likely to play up those dramatic aspects of the story. They also made my work less balanced than it should have been.

Risk perception not only explains why people’s perceptions of risk often don’t match the facts, but also why the emotional aspects of risk stories are so appealing to journalists, too often at the expense of caution and balance.

David Ropeik is director of risk communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis and lead author of “Risk, A Practical Guide for Deciding What’s Really Safe and What’s Really Dangerous in the World Around You.” He is a former TV environment reporter in Boston and served for nine years as a board member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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