Media coverage often contains oversimplifications, distortions, and inaccuracies. Media coverage is also problematic in both what is contained in a story and in what is left out.
For example, traditional media reports on cancer risks often provide few statistics on general cancer rates and little information on common forms of cancer. They often fail to address public misperceptions about cancer and provide little information about detection, treatments, and other protective measures.
The inability of the media to adequately communicate risk information stems from characteristics of traditional media and the constraints reporters work under.
Five Reasons the Media Struggles to Convey Risk Information
Many reporters work under tight deadlines that limit the amount of time for research and for the pursuit of valid and reliable information.
With few exceptions, reporters do not have adequate time or space to deal with the complexities and uncertainties surrounding many risk issues.
Journalists achieve objectivity in a story by balancing opposing views. Truth in journalism is often different from truth in science. In journalism, there are only different or conflicting views and claims, to be covered as evenly as possible.
Journalists are source dependent. Under the pressure of deadlines and other constraints, reporters rely heavily on sources that are easily accessible and willing to speak out. Sources of information that are difficult to contact, hard to draw out, or reluctant to provide interesting and nonqualified statements are often left out.
Many general assignment reporters do not have the scientific background or expertise to evaluate the complex scientific data and disagreements that surround many debates about risks. Given these limitations, effective risk communication depends in part on understanding the constraints and needs of traditional media and adapting one’s behavior and information to meet these needs.
Pathway Prompt: When you’re reading a news item, ask yourself, What information about risk may be missing from this article?
Communicating Effectively When Feelings, Fears, and Facts Collide
More information about risk, high-concern, and crisis communication can be found in Dr. Covello’s video-based course Pathway to Risk, High-Concern, and Crisis Communication.
This master class introduces communicators to the tools and techniques for communicating effectively—while providing greater insight into why audiences react the way they do during times of stress.
The course comprises nine video lectures and accompanying text modules, plus supplemental materials for putting valuable lessons into practice. More information about the course, including group rates and partnering opportunities, can be found by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Vincent Covello
Dr. Vincent Covello, director of the Center for Risk Communication, is one of the world’s leading experts and practitioners on risk, high-concern, and crisis communication. He is the author of more than 150 articles in scientific journals and the author/editor of more than 20 books. Dr. Covello is a consultant, writer, and teacher. He is a frequent keynote speaker and has conducted communication skills training for thousands.