Dr. Peter M. Sandman’s booklet, Explaining Environmental Risk, prepared for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1986, provides guidance for policymakers on communicating with the media about environmental risk. Part II of the booklet, “Dealing with the Media,” identified seven key and timeless ideas. By understanding the nature of journalism and how journalists operate, it is possible to make yourself a better resource and improve media coverage of environmental risk.
1) Environmental risk is not a big story.
What makes an environmental situation newsworthy is whether or not it is risky. Once the level of risk is established however, the focus of the news turns toward other matters, namely the cause of the problem, who is responsible, and how much it will cost. An assessment of the extent of riskiness, Sandman asserts, is not newsworthy and so is unlikely to be covered.
2) Politics is more newsworthy than science.
The media are disinclined to cover the science of risk, and instead focus on the politics of risk. They receive their risk information from individuals directly involved in the news event. Sources relied upon in risk coverage primarily include government, industry, individual citizens and advocacy groups. Uninvolved experts such as academics, those most likely to be both informed and unbiased, are cited the least.
- When possible, embed concepts such as the uncertainty of risk assessments, the impossibility of zero risk, and debatable assumptions in your comments on news stories.
- Try to sell a reporter on the debate over how conservative a risk assessment ought to be.
3) Reporters cover viewpoints, not “truths.”
While both journalism and science seek objectivity, the two fields define the term differently. Science defines objectivity as “tentativeness and adherence to evidence in the search for truth.” Journalism, by contrast, measures objectivity by balance. There are only conflicting claims that are to be covered as fairly as possible. Truth is for the reader to decide.
In presenting balance, journalists seek to moderate opposing viewpoints. Sandman posits a scale from 0 to 10, encompassing all possible positions on an issue. Reporters will avoid views that fall at 0, 1, 9 and 10 on this scale, as they are too extreme to be credible. Also unlikely to be covered are those at 4, 5, and 6, as these positions are too moderate or “wishy-washy” to make an interesting story. Most news therefore consists of 2’s and 3’s and 7’s and 8’s. If an issue is hot, opposing viewpoints will be presented in alternating paragraphs, and given separate coverage otherwise.
- If you have a perspective that you feel won’t be covered well, don’t wait for an interview – contact a reporter.
- Try to present a “3” or “7” viewpoint. (Be a credible proponent of an identifiable perspective.)
4) The risk story is simplified to a dichotomy.
The media assesses environmental risk as a dichotomy: either a situation is hazardous or it is safe. Causes for this dichotomy include the need for balance, the difficulty of fitting nuanced perspectives into the average-length news story, and the need for simplicity, precision, and certainty.
- The most qualified person to simplify your views is you. Decide what your main points are and stress them consistently and repetitively.
- Avoid jargon whenever possible.
5) Reporters try to personalize the risk story.
Reporters and the public work at a different level of analysis than experts and policy-makers. Reporters value questions that personalize risk, thus making tenuous connections between macro-risks, i.e. the number of deaths likely to result from a contamination incident, and micro-risks, i.e. the likelihood of impact on a particular individual.
- Be prepared with answers to personalizing questions.
6) Claims of risk are usually more newsworthy than claims of safety.
Assertions of risk receive more news coverage than denial. Sandman notes that this is not considered bias from a journalistic perspective; without the allegation of risk, there is no news story.
7) Reporters do their jobs with limited expertise and time.
In general, reporters are unlikely to have specialized background in environmental risk or strong science training. Further, given their need to meet multiple deadlines, their goal in writing a story is often not to find out all that is known, but rather just enough to write a story.
- Take some time to teach local journalists the basics of your field.
- Train yourself in dealing with the media.
The full article can be read on Sandman’s website at http://www.psandman.com/articles/explain2.htm.