15
Risk reporting

Why can't they ever get it right?
Susanna Hornig Priest
What should journalists report about risks?
Is it better to ignore an uncertain risk and avoid panic, or to report it anyway?
If scientists can't figure out a risk, how can journalists?

Almost everyone seems to complain about journalistic reporting of risks. Scientific experts complain that the science is inaccurate or incomplete, or else that it is presented as being more certain than it is. Public officials complain that unnecessary panic is being created, or else that people are not being warned adequately. Advocacy groups complain that particular issues or problems in which they have an interest are not getting enough attention; corporations complain that their technologies and products are represented as being too risky–and are getting too much attention. Media consumers complain that they cannot figure out what they should and should not be concerned about, and that frequent reversals in interpretation of the scientific evidence confuse them even more. Journalism scholars complain that media coverage is too dependent on 'official sources' for their views, and that science journalism in particular is obsessed with immediate 'breakthroughs' in science at the expense of longer-term trends and developments.

Risk is not only a technical concept, it is also a social concept. In fact, some social theorists (see, for example, Beck 1992) have proposed that postindustrial societies can be reconceptualized as 'risk societies' in which fundamental problems of daily survival having been, for many people, already addressed–avoidance of risk is the new organizing principle. Risks come from many elements unique to such societies–from the technologies of modernization (in manufacturing, energy production, transportation); from associated environmental contamination; from mechanized, large-scale agricultural production; from changing diets and lifestyles in the face of our vastly improved but still incomplete knowledge of heredity and nutrition;

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