Covering Risk

People’s perceptions of various risks differ greatly. How will these beliefs about risk play out in a pandemic? And what is the role of officials and journalists as they deal with both people’s strong emotions and emerging facts as they communicate with the public? Peter Sandman, an expert in risk communication explains why risk truly has two elements—hazard and outrage—and why understanding them both is crucial to crisis communication as well as pandemic journalism.

Note: Below are edited transcripts of Peter Sandman’s talks on these questions, given at the Nieman Foundation conference “The Next Big Health Crisis” in December 2006. On October 3, 2009, he sent us some additional observations about what he thinks journalists are missing in the current pandemic.

On this page...
  risk = hazard + outrage »
  Precaution advocacy »
  Outrage management »
  The relationship between information and emotion »
  Crisis communication »
  Pandemic journalism »
  Why reporters like high-outrage, low-hazard stories »
  Do journalists care or just report? »
  What journalists are getting wrong about the current pandemic »

Peter Sandman, Risk Communication Consultant, Princeton, New Jersey:

risk = hazard + outrage

The risks that kill people and the risks that upset people are completely different. If you know a risk is deadly, that tells you almost nothing about whether it’s upsetting. If you know a risk is upsetting, that tells you almost nothing about whether it’s deadly. So essentially these two variables are unrelated, and it doesn’t matter what your measure of harm is, across a wide range of hazards; the correlation between how much harm that hazard does and how upset people get about it is an absurdly low 0.2 correlation.

The key intellectual question in risk perception is “Why is this correlation so low?” The key practical question in risk communication is “How do we get it higher?” Half of the problem in getting the correlation higher is figuring out how to make people more concerned when the risk is serious; the other half of the problem is figuring out how to calm people down when the risk is trivial.

Let’s take the concept of risk and divide it in half:

Let’s consider the technical side of risk—whether it’s likely to kill you, hurt you, or damage the ecosystem. Let’s call that “hazard.”
Let’s take the other half of risk—the culture half of risk rather than the scientific half—that is, whether it’s likely to upset you, anger you, or frighten you. Let’s call that “outrage.”
This makes the formula: risk = hazard + outrage.

When experts look at a risk, they focus on the hazard and ignore the outrage. Therefore, they systematically overestimate the risk when the hazard is high and the outrage is low, and they systematically underestimate the risk when the hazard is low and the outrage is high, because all they’re doing is looking at the hazard.

The public generally focuses on the outrage and ignores the hazard. The public, therefore, overestimates the risk when the outrage is high and the hazard is low, and underestimates the risk when the outrage is low and the hazard is high.

The only real relationship between hazard and outrage is that they’re both called “risk” by different groups of people.

When we look at the high correlation between outrage and hazard perception, the question we’re asking is this: Do people get upset because they think something is dangerous, or do people think something is dangerous because they’re upset?

Precaution advocacy

Is it possible to recommend precautions without increasing outrage? Yes, it is. It’s not easy, but you can do it. The most powerful way to get people to take precautions is to mobilize and increase outrage.

Low outrage equals apathy: people are not interested, they’re not concerned, they’re not upset, they’re not angry, they’re not frightened. They’re apathetic. As a result you’re going to have to:

Keep your message short. Many people have short attention spans.
Work really hard to make your message interesting, because apathetic people are easily bored. If you’re a source, you’ve got to try to make it interesting to the reporter. If you’re a reporter, you’ve got to try to make it interesting to the editor. If you’re an editor, you’ve got to try to make it interesting for the reader or viewer.
Stay on message. If you’ve only got an eight-second sound bite, it’s got to be interesting, because people are going to tune out pretty easily. Pick your words very carefully and then stick to them.

Outrage management

When we are looking at risks that are high in outrage and low in hazard, people are very likely to get upset and not very likely to get hurt. This calls for “outrage management.” Your goal is to decrease the outrage. It’s the flip side of precaution advocacy. If the paradigm there is “Watch out,” here it is “Calm down.”

But what happens to outraged people when you say “Calm down”? Where does the outrage go? It goes up, right?

So you don’t actually say “Calm down,” but that is your goal.

Instead of an eight-second sound bite, you have an eight-hour meeting. It’s a very different situation and there’s no need to keep it short.

Should you make it interesting? Of course you should not. Your goal is to make this issue as boring as you can possibly make it. The problem is not insufficient interest. They’re already interested; in fact, they’re obsessed. In outrage management, you very much want to diminish their interest.

Outrage management is done largely with the ears; precaution advocacy is done exclusively with the mouth. Outrage management involves a lot of listening, and a very weird thing happens when you listen to people’s concerns—they become calmer. I’m not saying the outrage disappears. It’s not magic, but they get calmer. The other thing that happens is they start wanting to hear from you.

The relationship between information and emotion

The relationship between information and emotion is that strong emotion provokes biased information seeking. The stronger your emotions, the more you will learn; but it’s not neutral learning. You’re learning in order to validate what you’re already feeling. When it comes to risk, people who don’t have strong emotions usually learn very little; people with strong emotions learn a lot, but it’s biased.

You’re sending signals when you report, and precisely because most people don’t have a technical vocabulary, the signals matter significantly more than words and numbers.

The classic example is this: If you say a pandemic could kill as many as two to seven million, people will kind of shrug off the two to seven, but they’ll focus on the “as many as” as evidence that it’s a bad number. They’ll say, “Oh, it could kill as many as two to seven million people!”

If, on the other hand, you said it would only kill two to seven million people, people use “only” as their signal and say, “Oh, it’s only two to seven million people.” So the number matters less than the signals you put around the number. Those tell people whether you’re trying to freak them out or you’re trying to help them.

Crisis communication

Crisis communication is required when people are upset and they have a right to be. That’s a third paradigm, along with precaution advocacy and outrage management. With the first one, the message is “Watch out!” And with the second, it’s “Calm down.” Here the message is, “We’ll get through this together.” And this presents yet a third skill set. The things you do in crisis communication are very different from the things you do with precaution advocacy and outrage management.

Where is pandemic communication in this scenario? It depends where you are in the pandemic and where you are in the world. If there is a pandemic, particularly if there is a 1918-like rather than a 1968-like pandemic, we’ll all be working on crisis communication.

Pandemic journalism

Pandemic journalism is a different thing altogether. Reporters are not trying to increase the outrage; they are not trying to decrease the outrage; they are covering the outrage.

Reporters tend to vary their coverage in ways that are absolutely predictable. Because it’s hard to interest your readers in something that could kill them but doesn’t upset them, that coverage is dutiful and boring and very low on volume.

As the risk gets more serious, or as the reporter gets more worried, even though the editor isn’t and the audience hasn’t become worried, the coverage changes. I can look at a news story and tell if the reporter has gotten Tamiflu.

Now it’s a crisis, so the coverage gets more extensive. Interestingly enough, the coverage becomes over-reassuring. I suspect part of what’s going on is the reporter is genuinely worried and is trying to reassure him or herself by reassuring the reader.

It is noticeable that sources continue to imagine the reporters are sensationalizing, but reporters stop sensationalizing when they start thinking it’s serious. Instead they become very over-reassuring.

The Three Mile Island coverage was profoundly reassuring. Reassuring paragraphs outnumbered alarming paragraphs four to one, because reporters were scared and scared reporters write reassuring stories. Scared reporters also rely much more on official sources. At Three Mile Island, the antinuclear activists had enormous trouble—this was their moment. They’d been proven right and nobody wanted to quote them.

Why reporters like high-outrage, low-hazard stories

When the issue is not serious but people are upset, reporters have fun. High-outrage low-hazard stories are fun to write, they get a lot of attention. The editor likes them, the reader likes them.

Nothing is really at stake. Your use of sources becomes completely different. You’re still an objective reporter, but you do several things:

You cover the outrage instead of the hazard. You cover people saying, “I’m scared shitless!” instead of people saying what the hazard is.
To the extent that you cover the hazard, you cover opinions about the hazard instead of data about the hazard.

We’ve done studies in which we wrote 50 paragraph articles with all kinds of stuff and gave them to different kinds of people, and we said, “This article is too long, get rid of half the paragraphs. Don’t just cut from the bottom; pick the paragraphs to get rid of.” Reporters invariably get rid of nearly all the science. Editors invariably get rid of all the science. The public gets rid of most of the science, and the scientists get rid of anything that smacks of humanity. So there are very different visions of what the good story is.

Do journalists care or just report?

Like all professionals, journalists are profoundly ambivalent about their own norms. Any time anybody stands up in front of a roomful of journalists and says, “You ought to care. You ought to make people realize how serious obesity is!” reporters can be counted on to say, “That’s not my job, that’s your job. I just cover it.” But if somebody stands up and says, “That’s not your job, that’s my job, you just cover it,” reporters tend to say, “Well, wait a minute. I’m a person too.”

What journalists are getting wrong about the current pandemic

In an e-mail to us sent October 3, 2009, Peter Sandman writes:

Out of some combination of innumeracy and over-allegiance to their sources at CDC and elsewhere (who are intentionally stressing some themes and neglecting others), reporters are missing some key aspects of the current pandemic:

This pandemic is extremely mild so far. It is in fact milder (that is, less deadly) than the typical seasonal flu year. So if it displaces the seasonal flu (as it very well might) it will actually end up saving lives.
Though milder than the seasonal flu, the pandemic kills different people. The seasonal flu kills 90 percent people 65-and-over, a fact officials intentionally underplay when they urge everybody to get their flu shot every year. The pandemic (so far) is deadlier to people under 65 than the seasonal flu is to people under 65; the pandemic so far is MUCH less deadly to people 65-and-over than the seasonal flu is to people 65-and-over; when the two are combined, the second effect swamps the first and the pandemic is less deadly than the seasonal flu.
Flu is renowned for its unpredictability. Several pandemics (including the 1918 disaster, most experts believe) started with a mild first wave, followed by a much worse later wave. It won’t greatly surprise anyone in the know if this pandemic turns more serious, even massively more serious—including the true worst case scenario: a reassortment with H5N1 (the possible pandemic we were talking about in 2006), which has a 60 percent case fatality rate but so far hasn’t learned efficient human-to-human transmission. Officials are overstating how serious the pandemic is currently and understating how serious it could get, almost as if they were averaging the two.
Even a very mild pandemic can be very disruptive if it is pervasive enough. Assume a pandemic that sickens 30-50 percent of a city’s population at the same time. Assume they’ll all recover in a week. During that week, manufacturing, shipping, and essential services can collapse. Diabetics run out of insulin; water treatment plants run out of chlorine; hospitals run out of nurses and doctors. Our globalized just-in-time no-reserve-capacity economy is enormously less resilient than the economy was during previous pandemics. We’re counting not only on the pandemic staying mild, but also on it spacing itself out so we can keep our infrastructure functioning.

More from Peter Sandman:

3 Comments on Covering Risk
Rachel Smith says:
May 11, 2010 at 10:36pm
I particularly like the section on Outrage Management. I had not thought of the process in those terms before, but now I am looking at the issues from a different angle. "Should you make it interesting? Of course you should not." Thanks for the thought-provoking information.
Pradip Dey says:
April 29, 2010 at 1:25am
Thanks Peter Sandman for this thought provoking analysis on "Covering Risk". I would like to give following equation:
Risk = Potential + Response
What's your opinion?
Of course, this I have arrived after reading your article. If it is good, credit goes to you as well. Thank you once again.
Stephen Eubank says:
October 26, 2009 at 12:05pm
While I admire Peter Sandman's ability to clarify complicated risks, I think his statement that "The seasonal flu kills 90 percent people 65-and-over," could be horribly misinterpreted. Clearly what he meant was that 90 percent of the people seasonal flu kills are 65-and-over.
Submit a Comment
Enter the words above: * Enter the numbers you hear: *
Switch to audio Switch to image
Thank you for your comment. It will be published after it is approved by an editor.