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How the Media Report Scientific Risk and Uncertainty: A Review of the Literature

RISJ Admin

Contributing Author

Reporting risk and uncertainty is becoming a central plank of a journalist's job in the fields of health and the environment. For example, it is an essential part of covering climate change, nuclear accidents, or cancer risks.  But there are few studies on how the media report these issues.In this study, How the Media Report Scientific Risk and Uncertainty: A Review of the Literature, Dr Teresa Ashefirst considers the use of these terms and their meanings in scientific and lay discourse, recognising the dual nature of concepts like risk, which are apprehended both statistically and affectively. It identifies the key issue of whether media reporting and lay discourse accurately reflect the expert calculation of risk.
The report goes on to summarise research exploring how, when, and why scientific stories about risk and uncertainty are reported.  It outlines theoretical approaches to media reporting of environmental and health stories, the importance of 'newsworthiness' as an instance of tacit knowledge that dictates journalistic approaches, and the factors that lie behind the creation of news stories.
The study then draws on existing research to analyse the difficulties for scientists working with journalists and vice versa, summarising current advice to both parties on how to facilitate accurate, but engaging, reporting of risk and uncertainty.
It was financed by the Green Templeton College (GTC) Academic Initiatives Fund, which also provided the funds for a conference called 'Communicating Risk and Uncertainty', held in St Anne’s College, Oxford University in November 2012.  This conference, which drew together academics, journalists, and practitioners from different fields, focused on the possible lessons about communicating risk and uncertainty from different disciplines. A summary of what was presented and discussed can be found in the Appendix of this study.
The conference helped to inform the Reuters Institute (RISJ) book titled Climate Change and the Media: Reporting Risk and Uncertainty, which was published in September 2013.