What Do We Expect from Environmental Risk Communicators?

This is another in a series of blog posts from the PhD students taking my class on Public Intellectuals: Theory and Practice at USC's Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.  

What do we expect from environmental risk communicators?

by Xin Wang

A recent poll conducted by New York Times showed that although many Americans are dedicated in principle to the generic “environmentalist” agenda,  we -- as individuals -- stop short of enacting real changes in our habits and in our daily lives, changes that would help undo some of the ecological devastation we claim to be concerned about. For example, the alarm of global warming or climate change has been sounded repeatedly, but the society collectively and individually still generally turn a deaf ear partly because they assume the potential risks of sea level’s rising and glacial melting as chronic, diffuse in time and space, natural, and not dreadful in their impact. Continued exposure to more alarming facts does not lead to enhanced alertness but rather to fading interest or ecofatigue, which means we pay “lip service” to many environmental concepts engaging in the behaviors necessary to turn concepts into action, or we just become increasingly apathetic. In short, we are a society of armchair environmentalists.

The burgeoning civic discourses about environmental issues must confront this apathy. Our perspectives on environmental issues are influenced by official discourses such as public hearings and mass-mediated government accounts: we learn about environmental problems by reading reports of scientific studies in national and local newspaper; by watching the Discovery Channel and listening to NPR’s Living on Earth; by attending public hearings or events. By nature, however, these official environmental discourses tend toward a monologic framework that obscures the diversity and suppresses, rather than elicits, the dialogic potential of any utterance.

So here is our question: what kind of environmental risk communicators do we really need?

One challenge to effective environmental risk communication is that the narrative of environmental apocalypse still dominates as a standard rhetorical technique in communicating environmental problems to the public. Apocalyptic prophets continue, however, to blow the whistle on existing and developing environmental problems. Films such as The Core (2003) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004) suggest that our biggest threat is the earth itself. While scholars agree that such apocalyptic narratives can initiate public discourse about and intervention in impending ecological disaster, the overuse of fear discourse is highly controversial considering its euphemism, vagueness, and hyperbole, which often lead to procrastination and inaction. Those who are frightened, angry, and powerless will resist the information that the risk is modest; those who are optimistic and overconfident will resist the information that their risk is substantial.

Another challenge facing environmental communication results from difficulties in producing knowledge to support improved decision making. Undoubtedly, the society requires knowledge in engineering and natural sciences, yet this is apparently insufficient for producing a transition to more sustainable communities. To wit, in the traditional technocratic model where there is little or even no interaction between scientific experts and the public, scientists decide what to study and make information available to society by placing it on a “loading dock”, then waiting for society to pick up and use it. This process has largely failed to meet societal needs.

Environmental concern is a broad concept that refers to a wide range of phenomena – from awareness of environmental problems to support for environmental protection – that reflect attitudes, related cognitions, and behavioral intentions toward the environment. In this sense, public opinions and media coverage play a significant role in evicting questions, causing changes, resolving problems, making improvements, and reacting to decisions about the environment taken by local and national authorities.

On the other hand, under the social constructionist model which focuses on the flow of technical information and acknowledges the shared values, beliefs, and emotions between experts in science and the public, an interactive exchange of information takes place: it is an improved integration of invested parties, initiatives that stress co-learning and focus on negotiations and power sharing.

Trust or confidence in the risk communicator is another important factor to be taken into account where potential personal harm is concerned: if the communicator is viewed as having a compromised mandate or a lack of competence, credence in information provided tends to be weakened accordingly. Or if the particular risk has been mismanaged or neglected in the past, skepticism and distrust may greet attempts to communicate risks. Apparently, it is more difficult to create or earn trust than to destroy it. If people do not trust an organization, negative information associated with that organization reinforces their distrust, whereas positive information is discounted (Cvetkovich et al. 2002).

When the control of risk is not at the personal level, trust becomes a major and perhaps the most important variable in public acceptance of the risk management approach. The single biggest contributor to increasing trust and credibility is the organization’s ability to care or show empathy.

On the one hand, when experts refuse to provide information, a hungry public will fill the void, often with rumor, supposition, and less-than-scientific theories. Silence from experts and decision makers breeds fear and suspicion among those at risk and makes later risk communication much more difficult. On the other hand, information alone, no matter how carefully packaged and presented, will not communicate risk affectively if trust and credibility are not established first.

It is time to advocate a new environmental risk discourse as well as to develop a practical wisdom grounded in situated practice on the part of communicators. Risks and problems are socially constructed. While grave threats may  exist in the environment, the perception of such danger, rather than the reality itself, is what moves us to take actions.

Culture, social networks, and communication practices are nuanced, specific, locally based, and often highly resilient. Our objective of effective and productive environmental communication should be in democratizing the way control affects how people define risk and how they approach information about risk, and in “formulating the meaningfulness of conversational interaction to participants in terms they find resonant, important to them, and thereby opening portals into their communal standards for such action” (Carbaugh, 2005, p. Xiii).

Xin Wang, Ph.D.student at Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California. M.A. in Mass Communication and B.A. in Russian language at Peking University, China. She has eight years of working experience in professional journalism, media marketing and management at the People's Daily, a co-founder of a weekly newspaper China Energy News. Her current research interests concentrate on risk and environmental communication, nation branding, public diplomacy, and civic engagement.