The following text is based on my MSc project Risk Communication on Electromagnetic Fields. The text can be understood as a case study of the topic.
Risk communication plays a major role in risk management. That is why it is important to be aware what people think about certain risks and how they are informed. Risk communication is defined as the purposeful exchange of information about the existence, nature, form, severity, or acceptability of risks. The risks are not accepted according strictly to their hazardous potential. People’s cultural background and presumed advantages have a great impact on the acceptability of risks. The media that communicates the message to the public has a great influence on people’s risk perception. Some previous studies showed that is more like public outrage than a risk per se that describes the content of articles.
Our aim was to study risk communication in press. We have studied Finnish newspapers over a seven years period. Our case was adverse health effects of electromagnetic fields. We also intended to sketch the major players and their role in public risk communication on EMF health issues.
The articles collected for the study were divided in three categories according to their title: 1) there is a risk, 2) neutral and 3) there is no risk. It was 40% of the titles that asserted a risk while only one fourth denied it. The rest, 35%, adopted a neutral position. The articles in full muddied the waters. Many of them represented different viewpoints avoiding thus an image of bias but we can still say that the proportions above hold.
Our case study shows that risk communication in Finnish press was mostly carried out by scientific terms. More than half of the sample articles had a direct reference to scientific studies. However, this does not mean that the articles in Finnish newspapers correspond precisely with the scientific understanding of the day on the topic. But the logic of media must be kept in mind. “Further research is needed” is hardly interesting news.
An interesting question was who were major players involving in public risk communication and what was their proportion of comments in press. The study shows that it was the scientific community who got the greatest proportion of press coverage. The scientists were commentators in more than half of the articles. They were followed by citizens and industry with 21,4% and 17% proportions respectively. The people who had affiliation with the electrosensitive were active. They consisted two thirds of citizens who got their say in newspapers.