By James Painter
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Extra resources for Climate Change in the Media: Reporting Risk and Uncertainty
One of the problems with risk is that it is a slippery concept, meaning different things to different people. For example, for the general public, even the use of the word ‘risk’ can often convey the sense of a practically negligible ‘low probability event’. The phrase ‘there’s a risk it might rain tomorrow’ could be interpreted as meaning that there is a low chance of it raining, even though no numerical probabilities have been assigned to it (CRED, 2009: section 5). ’ to the serious risks associated with a major operation to cure an illness.
From Norway, Guro Tarjem, a reporter for Ekko, a science programme on NRK Radio, believes that ‘the risk concept does a better job of communicating the science to the listener than “uncertainty”, but uncertainty cannot be ignored. ’ Fiona Harvey, formerly of the Financial Times and now the Guardian, says no metaphor is perfect but the comparison with insurance is helpful as people are familiar with it; in taking out a policy, you have to act as if something will happen. However, she is not a strong advocate of risk language in general as it is often inadequate and can be easily misunderstood.
But the possible advantages of the risk metaphor and language are not clear-cut. indd 33 33 24/07/2013 13:19 climate change in the media for caution in its use. He argues that a clear distinction should be made between the use of the metaphor in the debate about the need for action (where the metaphor can be misleading) and its use in the debate about the degree of action that is needed or about what the impacts will be and what should be done to adapt (where the metaphor is helpful). This is how he explains it: Consider the risk of crossing the road or climbing a mountain.