Posted: November 10, 2001
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Article SummaryThis EPA booklet has long been out-of-print. It predates my articulation of the hazard-versus-outrage distinction, but contains much of the thinking that went into that distinction. In fact every time I reread this it reminds me of principles and examples I ought to reinstate in my presentations.

Explaining Environmental Risk

TSCA Assistance Office, Office of Toxic Substances
U.S. Enivronmental Protection Agency, November 1986 (booklet)

“Important If True”

In colonial times newspaper “correspondents” were nothing more than acquaintances of the publisher, writing home from their travels. Unable to confirm or disconfirm their reports, cautious publishers often printed them under the headline “Important If True.”

“Explaining Environmental Risk” should be read in the spirit of this caution. While I have leaned heavily on the risk communication research literature where I could, many questions haven’t been thoroughly studied, and here I have relied on my experience, my sense of other people’s experience, and, frankly, my biases. If your experience and biases suggest different answers, try them. If you want to stick more closely to research findings, check the sources listed at the end.

Why are so many risk assessment and risk management people beginning to take an interest in risk communication? There are two answers, I think, one entirely admirable and the other more open to question. The good news is that experts and managers are coming to recognize that how people perceive a risk determines how they respond to it, which in turn sets the context for public policy. It is hard to have decent policies when the public ignores serious risks and recoils in terror from less serious ones. The task of risk communication, then, isn’t just conveying information, though that alone is a challenge; it is to alert people when they ought to be alerted and reassure them when they ought to be reassured. If your job is directing the cleanup at chemical spills, or running a right-to-know program, or siting new waste facilities – in fact, if your job has anything to do with setting or administering or following environmental regulations – explaining environmental risk is an important piece of your job. And it’s probably a piece for which you have had little training.

The more questionable reason for the growing interest in risk communication is the hope in some quarters that communicating about the environment can somehow replace managing it or regulating it aggressively. This is a common dilemma for communication specialists – advocates of bad policies sometimes imagine that they can get away with anything if they sell it cleverly enough, while advocates of good policies sometimes imagine that they don’t have to sell at all. At a January 1986 national conference on risk communication (co-sponsored by the Conservation Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other organizations), the sessions on how to alert people to serious risks were sparsely attended, while overflow crowds pondered ways of calming people down. People sometimes need to be calmed down – but the ultimate goal of risk communication should be rational alertness, not passive trust.

If a public that views risk with rational alertness strikes you as a desirable outcome, “Explaining Environmental Risk” should help. This is neither a theoretical treatise nor a nitty-gritty cookbook; along with the practical suggestions for effective communication, I have tried to explain why some strategies work and others fail, so that you can build on this understanding to design your own strategies.

Though I hate to admit it, risk communication is a simpler field than risk assessment or risk management. It just isn’t that hard to understand how journalists and nontechnical publics think about risk. But it is crucial to understand, and not mastering the rudiments of risk communication has led a lot of smart people to make a lot of foolish mistakes. With apologies to busy readers, I have therefore resisted the urge to produce an executive summary or a list of recommendations. Technicians can get by on cookbooks, perhaps, but decision-makers need to understand.

Much depends, in fact, on whether you think risk communication is a job that can safely be left to “technicians” (public relations staff, community affairs officers) or whether – as I am convinced – you believe it must become an integral part of risk management. Although I hope public information people will find some value in what I have to say, my main goal is for environmental protection commissioners and plant managers to read it ... not merely pass it along to the public information office.

The temptation to pass it along to the public information office – and then forget it – is almost overwhelming, I know. It’s not just that decision-makers are busy people. It’s not even that decision-makers don’t realize how greatly their success depends on dealing effectively with the media and the public. It’s more that they wish it weren’t so, that dealing with the media and the public seems in so many ways the least pleasant, least controllable, least fair part of their work. Most risk managers, I suspect, spend a good deal of time hoping the media and the public will go away and leave them to do their jobs in peace.

But since they won’t, the next best thing is to understand better why they won’t, how they are likely to react to what you have to say, and what you might want to say differently next time. I hope “Explaining Environmental Risk” will help.

Four on-going research projects have added greatly to my understanding of risk communication. They are:

  • “Environmental Risk Reporting” and “Risk Communication for Environmental News Sources” (with David B. Sachsman, Michael Greenberg, Audrey R. Gotsch, Mayme Jurkat, and Michael Gochfeld), both funded by the National Science Foundation Industry/University Cooperative Center for Research on Hazardous and Toxic Substances.
  • “Getting to Maybe: Building Toward Community–Developer Negotiations on New Hazardous Waste Facilities” (with Jim Lanard and Emilie Schmeidler), funded by the Fund for New Jersey.
  • “Manual and Conference for DEP Risk Communication” (with Caron Chess and B.J. Hance), funded by the New Jersey Spill Fund, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
  • “Radon Risk Communication Symposium and Recommendations” and “Radon Knowledge, Attitudes, and Behavior in New Jersey” (with Neil Weinstein), both funded by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

Of course my colleagues and funders on these projects are not responsible for my speculations in this report.

Several organizations have invited me to address them on strategies of risk communication, providing an opportunity to develop the ideas expressed in this report and test them on thoughtful and experienced audiences. I am grateful especially to the National Governors’ Association, the New Jersey Hazardous Waste Facilities Siting Commission, the Council of Scientific Society Presidents, the Institute for Environmental Studies of the University of North Carolina, and the Air Pollution Control Association.

Peter M. Sandman is Professor of Environmental Journalism at Cook College, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, and Director of the Environmental Communication Research Program of the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. Preparation of this report was funded by the Office of Toxic Substances of the United States Environmental Protection Agency as part of the Agency’s effort to obtain diverse views on risk communication. Publication of this document does not signify that the contents necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Agency.

Explaining Environmental Risk

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