The News Media and Risk. How to Protect Yourself From Being Freaked Out!
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
The news is full of scary stories about threats to our health; from industrial chemicals, or the newest unfamiliar disease, or from the seemingly mundane things in life that the latest study suggests might be dangerous…bread, coffee, over-the-counter pain medication. The ominous drumbeat of potential bogeymen is ceaseless, and small wonder, since we are likely to pay attention to any warning of danger, and attention is the news media’s lifeblood.
The problem with these stories is not their omnipresence, nor that they overemphasize the scary parts. Yes, being warned so constantly and dramatically does make us feel that the world is scarier than it actually is, but warnings also help us stay safe. The larger problem with a lot of news coverage about risk is that it doesn’t tell us what the risk really is. It leaves out huge chunks of basic information, without which we can’t tell whether the danger is big or small, whether it threatens us or only somebody else, or even whether the risk du jour is actually a risk at all. More than just overdoing the scary parts of the news, reporting on risk stumbles because it just fails to include basic facts.
For a risk to exist at all, you have to have both a Hazard and Exposure. Is the supposedly risky sounding thing actually harmful (the chemical dihydrogen oxide sounds scary, but it’s only water), and are you exposed to it? Without both, there is no actual risk. There are countless news stories about some possible peril that simply don’t include information on one or the other of these required elements.
The details of hazard and exposure also matter.
There are critical details about exposure that go unreported as well.
Reading the news can feel like you’re in that fable about Chicken Little, in which Henny Penny and Turkey Lurkey and several other creatures follow Chicken Little around yelling “The Sky Is Falling, the Sky is Falling” – after an acorn fell on Chicken Little’s head. To a news media hungry for hit counts and eyeballs and attention, every little acorn gets turned into an alarm. Some of are well-warranted, and some aren’t. But we can’t tell which is which if basic facts about the risk are missing.
So before you freak out at the next risk headline, dig into the story for those basic facts. (And find the good journalists who provide them, and support that quality news coverage with your attention and subscription money.) Or if the basic facts are missing, just look things up yourself before you jump to fearful uninformed conclusions. You’ll be more informed, and healthier, for the effort.