Risk scientist helps journalists understand decisions the public is making
Journalists are covering every aspect of the coronavirus outbreak and impact, including whether people are staying in, going out, and generally taking the precautions that health officials and their local and state governments are recommending. But how do we explain those choices and increase the likelihood that the information we provide helps keep people safe? We asked
Dr. Sweta Chakraborty
, a Risk and Behavioral Scientist and member of EcoHealth Alliance’s Leadership Council.
How can journalists help close the gap between the perception of risk & actual risk with this pandemic?
: It is essential for journalists to understand how the public perceives risk. The perception of a risk is rarely aligned to the reality of a risk, and that is unequivocally true for COVID-19. Factors that contribute to public perceptions of risk include whether the risk is new, familiar, impacting vulnerable populations, potentially endemic, likely to cause catastrophic damage, and many more. COVID-19 ticks all these boxes; it is new, unfamiliar, involuntary, potentially endemic, and impacting the elderly. For this reason, greater frequency and probability will be attributed to the risk despite any facts or reporting saying otherwise. We are universally wired this way.
For this reason, it is critical for journalists to stay on top of the facts coming from credible, trusted sources like the CDC, WHO, and individuals like Tony Fauci. It’s essential to simplify the data, but the risk of oversimplifying can result in inaccurate communications or inaccurate interpretations of the reporting. Appropriate simplification that really translates “expert speak” is essential for journalists.
Information can be simplified when it is delivered in little bits at a time and originating from trusted sources. Journalists do not necessarily like repeating information, but key issues and takeaways must be repeated to really take hold in human cognition and ultimately result in desired behavioral outcomes. For example, if we want people to stop hoarding supplies, we must repeat it.