News Coverage of Risk. The Scary Stuff Won't Kill You, but What's Missing Might!

            When you read a news story about a threat or danger or hazard, what do you want to know? Most likely, you want to know if it’s a risk to YOU, and how much of a risk it might be. Given that we rely on the news media for information about threats to our health and safety, it is absolutely stunning, and frightening, to see how rarely reporting about risk provides this most basic information.

            The assertion that the media don’t often report about risk may seem to contradict the obvious. In every medium, the news is awash in alarming coverage of the latest danger du jour...frightening alerts about this chemical or that product, or the latest study that finds that  (__fill in the blank__) causes (__fill in the blank__). Indeed, the news media can sometimes seem like Chicken Little, squawking incessantly that in some way or other “The Sky Is Falling!” But while the news is certainly full of alarm, it is woefully short on what you and I need to know to assess whether, for any given threat, we are personally actually in danger risk, and if so, how much.

      As alarmist as the media can be, playing up the scary aspects of things and playing down – or leaving out – the neutral or qualifying or reassuring facts, critical basic information about one or both of two key components of risk is often missing from stories about these issues. Those components are Hazard and Exposure. For something to actually put you at risk, you need both. Think of a poisonous snake in a glass case. It’s hazardous, but it’s not a risk to you, because you’re not exposed. Now imagine a non-poisonous snake, IN YOUR LAP! Yes, now you’re exposed, but it poses no risk (except for the risk of heart attack if you are ophidiophobic) because the snake isn’t hazardous. ‘Hazard X Exposure’ is the standard scientific formula for risk assessment. Citizens trying to figure out whether they are in danger need to know about both.

            But many stories don’t include basic information about one or the other. And rarely do they offer the critical details about each.

            For HAZARD you need to know;

  • At what dose is it hazardous? (Most things are bad for you, but only if you’re exposed to enough of it.) 
  • Just what does the hazard do to you? (Is the poisonous snake potentially lethal or does it’s bite just leave you with a snake hickey?)
  • Who is it hazardous to? (Most hazards are riskier to some sub populations than others, and often not risky at all to most of us.)
  • For EXPOSURE you need to know;

  • By what route are you exposed? (Hazardousness depends on whether you breath it in, or ingest it, or just get it on your skin.)
  • For how long are you exposed? (One exposure is often not a risk at all, or less of a risk than repeated exposures.)
  • At what age are you exposed? (Some things are risky for kids but not adults.)
  •      These are “Who, What, When, Where, Why, How” details about risk, the Reporting 101 basics that reporters are supposed to answer about any story. Yet in so many stories about dangers and threats, they are never addressed. The coverage usually includes the part of the risk formula that sounds most dramatic, either that there is a hazard (“XXX is a suspected carcinogen.”)  or exposure  (“Toxic chemicals are in your shampoo.”). But the story doesn’t tell you whether you are actually being exposed to that suspected carcinogen, or the dose at which that toxic chemical is hazardous. These are the ABCs of any risk story, yet some of those basic letters are almost always missing.

         Why? In part, it’s because reporters want their stories to get attention, and editors want to sell tomorrow’s paper or newscast or up their website visitor count, so the drama gets played up and details that might suggest the danger isn’t all that great get played down, or left out. Mostly, however, it’s because reporters aren’t trained in these details. They just don’t know to ask about them. I was an award-winning environmental reporter in Boston for 22 years and discovered a lot of this stuff only after I left daily reporting and took a job at the Harvard School of Public Health. Mea Culpa.

        But this isn’t just an issue for journalists. It matters to you and me because the news media are the basic way we find out about these issues. Without the basic details that help inform us about the risk, we don’t know what we need to know to make informed healthy choices, for ourselves, for our family, or as citizens in society. Alarmist coverage that plays up the scary and plays down (or leaves out) the neutral or reassuring leaves us more afraid of some things than the evidence says we need to be, and not as afraid of some things as the evidence suggests we ought to be, what I call The Perception Gap. The Perception Gap adds all sorts of new risks to an already risky world, and the news media are partly responsible for this threat.

          What’s needed is a new basic approach to risk reporting, a ‘risk-based’ approach that thinks about answering the questions readers really want answered, the hazard and exposure details that can help us figure out whether something is dangerous to us, and if so, how much. It’s what people want, and would sell, and benefit the health of an industry  struggling to reinvent itself in the online world. More importantly for you and me, it would benefit public health by helping us make wiser, safer choices. The alternative is more journalism-as-usual, and that is a risk all by itself.

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