Reporting on Risk

Reporting on Risk: How the Mass Media Portray Accidents, Diseases, Other Hazards

Eleanor Singer
Phyllis M. Endreny
Copyright Date: 1993
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Reporting on Risk
    Book Description:

    After acts of airline terrorism, air travel tends to drop dramatically-yet Americans routinely pursue the far riskier business of driving cards, where accidents resulting in death or injury are much more likely to occur.Reporting on Riskargues that this selective concern with danger is powerfully shaped by the media, whose coverage of potentially hazardous events is governed more by a need to excite the public than to inform it.

    Singer and Endreny survey a wide range of print and electronic media to provide an unprecedented look at how hundreds of different hazards are presented to the public-from toxic waste and food poisoning to cigarette smoking, from transportation accidents to famine, and from experimental surgery to communicable diseases. Their investigations raise thought-provoking questions about what the media tell us about modern risks, which hazards are covered and which ignored, and how the media determine when hazards should be considered risky. Are natural hazards reported differently than man-made hazards? Is greater emphasis placed on the potential benefits or the potential drawbacks of complex new technologies? Are journalists more concerned with reporting on unproven cures or informing the public about preventative measures? Do newspapers differ from magazines and television in their risk reporting practices?

    Reporting on Riskinvestigates how the media place blame for disasters, and looks at how the reporting of risks has changed in the past twenty-five years as such hazards as nuclear power, birth control methods, and industrial by-products have grown in national prominence. The authors demonstrate that the media often fail to report on risks until energized by the occurrence of some disastrous or dramatic event-the Union Carbide pesticide leak in Bhopal, the Challenger explosion, the outbreak of famine in Somalia, or the failed transplant of a baboon heart to "Baby Fae." Sustained attention to these hazards depends less on whether the underlying issues have been resolved than on whether they continue to unfold in newsworthy events.

    Reporting on Riskexamines the accuracy and the amount of information we receive about our environment. It offers a critical perspective on how our perceptions of risk, as shaped by the media, may contribute to misguided individual and public choices for action and prevention in an increasingly complex world. The authors' probing assessment of how the media report a vast array of risks offers insights useful to journalists, policy analysts, risk specialists, legislators, and concerned citizens.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-504-7
    Subjects: Business, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
    Eleanor Singer and Phyllis M. Endreny
  4. 1 Why Look at the Reporting of Risk?
    (pp. 1-20)

    On April 2, 1986, when a suspected terrorist bomb exploded inside a TWA jet over Greece, killing four Americans, theNew York Timesprinted a front-page story by Ralph Blumenthal titled, “On Terrorism and Tourism: Americans Alter Travel Plans.” In it, Blumenthal reported on the decline in American travel to several countries in Europe and the Middle East. Four paragraphs into the story, he noted the decline in the value of the dollar and, in the following paragraph, commented: “It is difficult to measure the relative impact of terrorism against the declining dollar. But the reports make clear that terrorism...

  5. 2 The Natural History of Hazard Reporting
    (pp. 21-41)

    The function of the news media is to report on events, not to anticipate them and not, with rare exceptions, to investigate the reasons for their occurrence. Although Tuchman (1978), Altheide (1976, 1985), and other authors (e.g., Epstein, 1973) of now classic works contend that the media construct reality instead of merely reflecting it, what they mean by this is that the media select, emphasize, and arrange. They do not question the fact that, ordinarily, the news media react to events rather than initiating coverage of an issue.

    To say this is not to disparage or criticize the performance of...

  6. 3 Which Hazards Do the Media Feature, and Which Do They Ignore?
    (pp. 42-64)

    On December 2, 1984, a woman named Caroline Isenberg was stabbed to death while resisting a rapist on a Manhattan rooftop. Her death was page 1 news when it happened and continued as a major story for almost two weeks in the city’s newspapers, on radio, and on television.

    Writing on the Op-Ed page of theNew York Timeson December 11, 1984, Sydney Schanberg pointed out that there are about 1,500 murders a year in New York City, an average of more than 4 a day, and that as a result very few are given either prominent or sustained...

  7. 4 The Effect of Geographic Location on the Coverage of Hazards
    (pp. 65-81)

    In this chapter we pursue the question of media bias, asking specifically whether the media devote too much or too little attention to hazards occurring in different parts of the world.

    Two truisms pervade discussions of U.S. reporting of news from the Third World. The first contends that what gets reported is overwhelmingly bad news—nothing but “coups and earthquakes,” in Rosenblum’s phrase (1981). The second is captured by the adage which states, “One dead fireman in Brooklyn is worth five English bobbies, who are worth 50 Arabs, who are worth 500 Africans” (Boyer, 1985:18–21). The first implies that...

  8. 5 Information About Hazards: Their Benefits and Costs
    (pp. 82-102)

    In the preceding chapters we tried to answer questions of selection and emphasis—what sorts of hazards the media feature, which they ignore, and what determines the amount of coverage hazards get once a decision has been made to cover them at all. In this chapter, we turn to a different set of questions, asking what kind of information the mass media include in news stories about hazards.

    The media, we found, select for emphasis hazards that are relatively serious and relatively rare. It is the combination that gives them their punch. But by singling them out for attention, the...

  9. 6 Blame
    (pp. 103-126)

    What does it mean to assign blame? Philosophers and psychologists have tried to understand and explain the complex assumptions and processes entailed in ordinary attributions of blame.¹ Cultural anthropologists have tried to discern the role of culture in determining which hazards we attend to and how we ascribe responsibility for them (see Douglas and Wildavsky, 1982; Jasanoff, 1986). Sociologists such as Nelkin see social and political conditions as decisive: “Concern about risk may depend less on the nature of the danger than on the observers’ political and cultural biases. It is the social system, the world view, the ideological premises...

  10. 7 The Use of Sources in the Reporting of Hazards
    (pp. 127-138)

    Journalists are the public’s eyes on the world, but journalists themselves are rarely eyewitnesses. Even when they are eyewitnesses, convention dictates that they tell the story primarily through sources rather than through their own observations. And so one point all analysts agree upon is the indispensable role of people as sources for the journalistic enterprise.

    Journalists need to be keen observers, but they need even more to be keen identifiers, selectors, and cultivators of people as sources. A reporter who had prepared a standard news story, relying entirely on his own, even astute eyewitness description, would almost certainly be asked,...

  11. 8 How Accurately Do the Media Report on Risk?
    (pp. 139-158)

    We have argued earlier that for certain classes of hazards, especially those that are both serious and rare, the media are the most likely source of information for most people. Furthermore, the media in question are not science or technical journals but the mass media, which draw on these other more specialized sources (e.g., theNew England Journal of Medicine or Environmental Hazards) for newsworthy material for their audiences.

    As a result, what the mass media report about hazards—which ones they select for emphasis and what information they present about them—becomes crucial in shaping public perceptions of hazards...

  12. 9 Looking Back and Looking Forward
    (pp. 159-174)

    Whether we like it or not, most of the information we have about risks comes to us by way of the mass media. But it does not, for the most part, come as explicit reporting about risk. In fact, a search through the 1990New York Times Indexand the 1990Vanderbilt Television Indexturned up not a single entry under the heading of “risk.” Instead, most of what we have in this book construed as reporting about hazards and their associated risks comes in the guise of news and feature stories about accidents, illnesses, natural disasters, and scientific breakthroughs....

  13. References
    (pp. 175-182)
  14. Appendix A: Categories of Hazard and Selection Rules
    (pp. 183-194)
  15. Appendix B: Examples of Coding Forms
    (pp. 195-218)
  16. Appendix C: News Stories and Scientific Articles on Which Accuracy Analysis Is Based
    (pp. 219-228)
  17. Index
    (pp. 229-244)