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Daily RC Article 74

Risk Communication

Paragraph 1

To many developers of technologies that affect public health or the environment, “risk communication” means persuading the public that the potential risks of such technologies are small and should be ignored. Those who communicate risks in this way seem to believe that lay people do not understand the actual nature of technological risk, and they can cite studies asserting that, although people apparently ignore mundane hazards that pose significant danger, they get upset about exotic hazards that pose little chance of death or injury. Because some risk communicators take this persuasive stance, many lay people see “risk communication” as a euphemism for brainwashing done by experts

Paragraph 2

Since, however, the goal of risk communication should be to enable people to make informed decisions about technological risks, a clear understanding about how the public perceives risk is needed. Lay people’s definitions of “risk” are more likely to reflect subjective ethical concerns than are experts’ definitions. Lay people, for example, tend to perceive a small risk to children as more significant than a larger risk to consenting adults who benefit from the riskcreating technology. However, if asked to rank hazards by the number of annual fatalities, without reference to ethical judgments, lay people provide quite reasonable estimates, demonstrating that they have substantial knowledge about many risks. Although some studies claim to demonstrate that lay people have inappropriate concerns about exotic hazards, these studies often use questionable methods, such as asking lay people to rank risks that are hard to compare. In contrast, a recent study showed that when lay people were given the necessary facts and time, they understood the specific risks of electromagnetic fields produced by highvoltage power transmission well enough to make informed decisions.

Paragraph 3

Risk communication should therefore be based on the principle that people process new information in the context of their existing beliefs. If people know nothing about a topic, they will find messages about that topic incomprehensible. If they have erroneous beliefs, they are likely to misconstrue the messages. Thus, communicators need to know the nature and extent of recipients’ knowledge and beliefs in order to design messages that will not be dismissed or misinterpreted. This need was demonstrated in a research project concerning the public’s level of knowledge about risks posed by the presence of radon in the home. Researchers used open-ended interviews and questionnaires to determine what information should be included in their brochure on radon. Subjects who read the researchers’ brochure performed significantly better in understanding radon risks than did a control group who read a brochure that was written using a different approach by a government agency. Thus, careful preparation can help risk communicators to produce balanced material that tells people what they need to know to make decisions about technological risks.

Topic and Scope:  

Risk communication; specifically, the goal of risk communication and how it can be most effectively applied to meet this goal.

Purpose and Main Idea:

The authors’ purpose is to define and explain the concept and the goal of “risk communication,” and then to propose a way in which this goal can best be met. The authors note the distinction between the “experts” and “lay people,” (nonexperts), and in the end support a people-centered approach: Since the goal of risk communication is to provide a basis for the public to make informed decisions about technological risk, risk communicators should take the knowledge and beliefs of recipients into account when developing their communications in order to ensure the successful transmission of their message.

Paragraph structure:

In Paragraph 1, the authors describe what risk communication means to many producers of potentially harmful technologies: convincing an ignorant public that the new technologies are in fact not very harmful. Because some risk communicators operate under this principle, it’s no wonder that lay people equate this notion of risk communication with “brainwashing.”

The Keywords “Since, however” in the beginning of Paragraph 2 suggest that a shift is about to take place. Indeed, the authors proceed to define the goal of risk communication, and suggest that the method of the communicators described in Paragraph 1 falls short because they don’t truly understand the public’s perception of risk. Sure, lay people think differently about the subject than experts, but under some circumstances people demonstrate substantial knowledge about risks. Sure, some studies suggest that common people worry disproportionately about certain fears compared to others, but the authors go on to question the validity of those studies. The authors firmly establish themselves in Paragraph 2 as “pro lay people”—given the right time and materials, the average person can understand enough about technological risk to make an informed decision.

Not surprisingly, the authors proceed to offer a recommendation in Paragraph 3, indicated strongly by an assertion in the first sentence of the Paragraph  regarding what risk communication should entail: It should be formulated with people’s pre-existing beliefs in mind. This will prevent miscommunication and make it less likely that the public will ignore the message because it is too difficult to understand. The radon example is offered as support for this notion, and the final sentence, featuring the always helpful Keyword “thus,” provides a nice summary of the authors’ overall point.

The Big Picture:

  • The first sentence of each Paragraph  is often a “topic sentence”—pay careful attention to how each Paragraph  begins: Here, Paragraph 1 offers a common start: “To many developers...” This kind of beginning often means that a theory or practice will be cited, one that the author or another party described by the author will evaluate or challenge. The first few words of Paragraph 2 strongly suggest that the authors here are taking the challenge route: “Since, however...” And the first few words of the final Paragraph , predictably, finish the story: “Risk communication should, therefore...” These topic sentences are very useful in nailing down the passage’s scope and structure.
  • Don’t get bogged down on seemingly complicated concepts like “electromagnetic fields” or “radon in the home.” You don’t need to know what these are, but rather what they represent in the context of the passage. Here, these are simply examples of risks that the public may not sufficiently understand, and that may, according to the authors, require some explanation before effective risk communication can take place. Good critical readers understand the limits of what they’re expected to know.
  • The authors’ main point doesn’t always appear in the beginning of the passage, so don’t tune out after Paragraph 1. If you hang in until the end, there will always be clear signs as to why the passage was written, and that is, first and foremost, what you’re trying to ascertain in your first reading of the passage.

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