Reading risk: Public response to print media accounts of technological risk

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Two clearly defined positions on the evaluation of technological risks have emerged in the scholarly literature in a variety of disciplines: a `rationalist' perspective and a `subjectivist' perspective. This paper argues from a subjectivist position that differences between scientific and lay responses to risk information (as presented in media accounts) are not necessarily generally attributable to `misinterpretations' by nonscientific readers, and that the process through which lay publics interpret mass media accounts of risk is worthy of more study. Data are presented from twenty focus group discussions, involving 114 student respondents, of a range of print media articles about risky technologies. The results suggest that lay publics work with an `expanded vocabulary of risk' that takes into account a variety of issues having to do with information, implementation, regulation, and ethical considerations, as well as the cost and benefit factors traditionally weighed by risk assessors. The scientific community needs to recognize that the public expects this kind of broader accountability, and media accounts need to be written to respond to needs in these areas.


Danger perception; Persons; Mass media; Public opinion; Science news; Technology – Risk assessment


Communication | Journalism Studies | Mass Communication | Science and Technology Studies

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