Global Risk Reporting: Informing Citizens in an Age of Uncertainty

The reporting of risk has become a crucial function of democracy; communicating to the public about incoming threats and peril is an important business. Why then, does ‘almost everyone seem to complain about journalistic reporting of risk?’ (Hornig-Priest, 2005, p. 199).

Journalists are blamed for ‘exaggerating risk, whipping up hysteria and distorting reality’(Kitzinger, 2007, p. 55). Their role, in regard to the delicate reporting of risk, is not to hypothesize, not to spin and not to hyperbolise. Instead they must, ‘find out what has actually happened and tell it with precision and clarity’ (Herrscher, 2002, p. 280). Concerns about media coverage, and their ability to inhibit or exacerbate risk, will ‘influence how advice is framed and presented, how the resources of an organisationare expended and even the nature of research and the development of policy’ (Miller, 1998, p. 1248).

We are currently in the risk of an international pandemic; risk reporting is crucial to our understanding of the situation. Audiences, though, have become confused by the ‘dangerous mixed-messages’ (Yeager, 2020)of the media. Here, the magnitude of health professionals, given a platform by the mass media have expressed ‘confusing and often contradictory’ (Park, 2020)perspectives surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. This may ‘convey to the [public] that the experts are unable to agree and that the public should be alarmed’ (Kitzinger, 2007, p. 59). Here, it is not the titillation of the media which is scrutinised, but the confusion incited by experts and, subsequently, the media’s ‘commitment to balance and giving spurious status to unreliable views’ (Kitzinger, 2007, p. 59).

It is the platform that the media can offer, in the name of a balanced debate, which can lead to the unnecessary exacerbation of risk reporting. This is most prevalent in health risks, where ‘news coverage of health issues is seriously out of proportion with actual risks to health’ (Harrabin, et al., 2003, p. 1). One prescient example is the case of Andrew Wakefield and the MMR vaccination in 1998. His premise that the MMR vaccination could cause autism in children was absorbed widely by the public. Indeed, the now discredited doctor is ‘hailed widely by the anti-vaxxer movement’ (Omer, 2020). His article was later redacted by the prestigious Lancetafter the discovery of ‘clear evidence of falsification of data’ (Godlee, et al., 2011, p. 1). However, the paper, which had been picked up by the media, had sent shockwaves through the western world. Despite the fact that the paper was based on fraudulent data, the damage was already done, and the presentation of high risk changed people’s attitudes towards vaccinations. Again, the media were complicit in elevating health risk: ‘at the height of the media coverage, the impression was created that medical scientists were split down the middle over the vaccine’s safety’ (Dobson, 2003, p. 1).


Bibliography

Dobson, R., 2003. Media misled the public over the MMR vaccine, study says. British Medical Journal, CCCXXVI(7399), p. 1.

Godlee, F., Smith, J. & Marcovitch, H., 2011. Wakefield’s article linking MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent. British Medical Journal, CCCXLII(7788), p. 1.

Harrabin, R., Coote, A. & Allen, J., 2003. Health in the news: Risk, reporting and media influence, London: King’s Fund Publications.

Herrscher, R., 2002. A Universal Code of Journalism Ethics: Problems, Limitations, and Proposals. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, XVII(4), pp. 277-289.

Hornig-Priest, S., 2005. Risk Reporting: Why can’t they ever get it right?. In: S. Allen, ed. Journalism: Critical Issues. Maidenhead: Open University Press, pp. 199-209.

Kitzinger, J., 2007. Researching risk and the media. Health, Risk and Society, I(1), pp. 55-69.

Miller, D., 1998. Risk, science and policy: defnitional struggles, information management, the media and BSE. ocial Science & Medicine, XLIX(1), pp. 1239-1255.

Omer, S., 2020. The discredited doctor hailed by the anti-vaccine movement. [Online] 
Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02989-9
[Accessed 25 November 2020].

Park, A., 2020. Pressure on Good Science During a Pandemic Is Leading to Confusing, and Conflicting Advice on COVID-19. [Online] 
Available at: https://time.com/5851849/coronavirus-science-advice/
[Accessed 25 November 2020].

Yeager, A., 2020. Government’s Mixed Messages on Coronavirus Are Dangerous: Experts. [Online]
Available at: https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/governments-mixed-messages-on-coronavirus-are-dangerous-experts-67202
[Accessed 25 November 2020].

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