The SAGE Handbook of Risk Communication


Hyunyi Cho, Torsten Reimer & Katherine A. McComas

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  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Copyright


    The editors wish to thank the following reviewers of the book's proposal and chapters.

    Linda Aldoory, University of Maryland

    Amanda D. Boyd, Washington State University

    Noel Brewer, University of North Carolina

    Wändi Bruine de Bruin, University of Leeds and Carnegie Mellon University

    Nick Carcioppolo, University of Miami

    Michael F. Dahlstrom, Iowa State University

    James Dillard, Pennsylvania State University

    Edna Einsiedel, University of Calgary

    Danielle Endres, University of Utah

    Amelia Greiner, Johns Hopkins University

    Jakob D. Jensen, University of Utah

    Se-Hoon Jeong, Korea University

    William J. Kinsella, North Carolina State University

    Erin K. Maloney, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

    Xiaoli Nan, University of Maryland

    Bryan H. Reber, University of Georgia

    Sandi Smith, Michigan State University

    Brian Southwell, RTI International and University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

    Teresa L. Thompson, University of Dayton

    Daniëlle Timmermans, VU University Medical Center, Amsterdam

  • Glossary

    Accuracy goal

    The communication purpose in which the intent of the sender is to convey accurate information for the receiver.

    Accuracy motivation

    A person's drive to learn and process information to gain sufficient confidence that his/her judgments are accurate.

    Action efficacy

    The belief in the effectiveness and efficiency of certain behavior in reducing the risk under consideration.

    Adherence goal

    The communication purpose in which the intent of the sender is to move the receiver's attitudes and actions in the direction desired by the sender.

    Collective efficacy

    Individuals’ belief that the larger group, organization, or community that they belong to is capable of carrying out a chosen course of action.

    Crisis communication

    A specific, unexpected, and nonroutine organizationally based event or series of events that create high levels of uncertainty and threat or perceived threat to an organization's high priority goals.

    Cultivation theory

    The theory of cultivation, proposed by George Gerbner, focuses on the role that television plays in shaping viewer's perceptions of social reality. The theory predicts that those who spend more time watching television will be more likely to view reality in terms of the very images that television portrays.

    Decision from description

    Choices between risky options that are based on symbolic and complete descriptions of options and their probabilities (e.g., graphical representations, numerical representations).

    Decision from experience

    Choices between uncertain options that are based on various sources of experience about possible outcomes and their probabilities (e.g., on-line samples from the options, samples of relevant experience from memory, and samples of relevant vicarious experience).

    Deliberative democracy

    A body of political theory that focuses on the role of public dialogue in decision making about public issues and on which risk communication scholars have drawn insight when designing public engagement mechanisms.

    Deliberative risk delineation

    A procedure for identifying and constructing risk that works from the claim that risk is best delineated in any given case when it is the product of participatory democracy and deliberative decision making.

    Discourse of renewal

    A means by which organizations, after experiencing a crisis, recognize fallacious assumptions or unforeseen vulnerabilities while reestablishing core values.


    High-risk activities undertaken voluntarily that involve a clearly observable threat to one's physical or mental well-being or one's sense of an ordered existence.

    Edgework communities

    Networks of risk takers who assist one another in skill development, build group structures for assessing individual member readiness for high-risk behavior, set controls for less skilled members, and inculcate the value of learning from small failures so that future harms are avoided.


    Coming from the Greek word ethos, which means character, ethics addresses morality questions such as right and wrong or good and evil. Ethical issues in risk communication often entail fair distribution of risks and benefits, empowerment of recipients of risk communication messages, and adequate disclosure of information that enables informed decision making.


    The process whereby social movement actors assign meaning to events and circumstances with the intent of mobilizing possible supporters, acquiring the sympathy of bystanders, and demobilizing opponents.

    Fuzzy-trace theory

    A theory that integrates reasoning and decision making in a new way to explain numeracy by distinguishing between meaning-based gist representations, which support fuzzy (yet advanced) intuition, and superficial verbatim representations of information, which support precise analysis.

    Genetic counseling

    The professional provision of assistance and guidance in resolving human problems associated with a genetic disorder or the heightened risk of a genetic disorder in an individual or family.

    Graphical displays of risk information

    Data-driven visual message elements featuring numerical information, such as risk ratios, hazard ratios, and other probabilities; frequency comparisons; and multivariate projections of mortality and morbidity.

    Group polarization

    The tendency of a group to move toward a more extreme position compared with the average individual group member. The direction of the shift is determined by the majority of the members’ predeliberation preferences.

    Illustrative displays of risk information

    Visual messages and visual message features conveying information related to threats, hazards, or risk avoidance that are not numerical in nature, such as pictures of people alongside textual information to influence perceptions of risk susceptibility, grotesque images that convey risk severity, as well as sequential images that provide instructions about how someone might reduce his or her risk by taking safety precautions (e.g., airplane safety guides) and other visual representations of risk that are nonnumeric and have indexical qualities.

    Impression involvement

    The extent to which one is concerned with other people's impression of his or her publicly expressed attitude.

    Information dissemination

    The relative reach, rapidity, and timeliness of information sharing. Social media can provide a means of distributing information about risk to large audiences in a quick and timely manner.

    Information processing

    The mental process of manipulating, storing, and retrieving information. The process may or may not integrate information into existing mental models already maintained by the individual.

    Information seeking

    An effort—usually conscious—to acquire information in response to a need or gap in knowledge.

    Information subsidy

    Information provided to journalists, without any investment of money or effort on the journalists’ part, in the hope of influencing what they cover and how they cover it; press releases distributed by public relations staff fall into this category.

    Informed decision making

    Primarily discussed in health care settings, informed decision making aims at increasing individuals’ participation in decision making at a level they desire. Supported by adequate information, informed decision making promotes decisions that are consistent with individuals’ values and preferences.

    Institutional efficacy

    Belief that large societal institutions are fair, just, and reliable.


    The degree to which stakeholders in an organization can communicate directly with one another. Interactivity is an affordance of social media that can be used by organizations or governments to communicate with their audience(s) in a two-way fashion that allows for information exchange.

    Media framing

    Involves the process of selectively emphasizing one aspect or dimension of a complex subject over another. Media “frames” set a specific train of thought in motion, communicating why an issue might be a problem or pose a threat, who or what might be responsible, and what should be done.

    Media priming

    The issues or events at any given moment that are receiving the greatest amount of media attention often serve as the criteria by which the public evaluate the performance and credibility of a political leader, government agency, scientific organization, or corporation.

    Media routines

    The set of professional practices typical of day-to-day journalistic work by which journalists and editors choose news topics, create narrative stories framed in particular ways out of “raw” information, and select sources and statements to include in those stories.


    Stories that connect actions and events involving characters with thematic and temporal sequences.


    The ability to understand and use numbers.

    Outcome involvement

    The extent to which the issue under consideration is important to one's goals.

    Personal risk perception

    Judgments that one is facing a threat.

    Probability neglect

    The idea that probabilities are ignored when judging consequences of decisions. Affect-rich presentations of risk can evoke probability neglect in risk perception.

    Public engagement

    A broad area of study focused on the procedures through which decision makers and other actors communicate around current or potential policy question. Health and environmental risks are common topics for public engagement.

    Reference class

    When determining the probability of a negative event or outcome, as a first step, a risk communicator must begin by choosing a reference class. The reference class determines which numbers will be presented. For example, the frequencies of plane crashes can be computed by month, year, or decade; air company; category of distance traveled; or plane size. All these categories specify different reference classes. Often, misunderstandings about the meaning of a particular risk message can be attributed to confusion about the identity of the reference class.

    Rhetoric of risk

    A subfield of scholarship grounded in the assumption that risk is, to some extent, discursively constructed and dedicated to exploring the symbolic constitution of risk over time and in specific historical moments.


    Defined as the probability and the magnitude of harm, where harm refers to threats to humans and things they value. Risks are generally measurable, that is, outcomes and their probabilities are known.

    Risk as feeling

    The hypothesis that risks are experienced affectively. These feelings intuitively influence how dangerous risks are perceived.

    Risk perception

    Refers to the subjective assessment of the probability and the magnitude of harm. Risk perceptions include people's beliefs, attitudes, and judgments regarding risky events. Theories of risk perception acknowledge that the interdependence of the individual with societal and cultural contexts may amplify or attenuate individual perception.

    Risky shift phenomenon

    The tendency of groups to form riskier decisions than their average group member.

    Shared and unshared information

    Shared information refers to information items that are known to several group members prior to group deliberation. Unshared information refers to items that are only known to individual group members.

    Societal risk perception

    Judgments that the society or collective at large is facing a threat.

    Societal risk reduction action

    Behaviors to reduce the threat faced by the larger society by changing the conditions and contexts surrounding the threat, such as willingness to support changes in policies regarding risk; to voice opposition or support for social changes; to donate time, money, and other resources that can be utilized in efforts to facilitate changes; and to lower barriers to changes in social, political, and economic environments.

    Spiral of silence

    The spiral of silence, authored by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, is a communication theory describing the process by which a point of view can become dominant in society. The theory posits that the willingness of an individual to express his or her opinion is a function of how he or she perceives the climate of opinion. Out of an innate fear of isolation, people tend to remain silent when they believe that their views are in the minority, but they are more vocal when they believe that their opinions are similar to those of the majority.

    Survival rate

    The proportion of patients who are alive after a fixed period (e.g., 5 or 10 years) after they have been diagnosed with a disease. Survival rates are misleading as a measure of how well screenings work. Survival rates will increase whenever cancers are diagnosed earlier, even if the time of death is not postponed.

    Transactional communication

    In interpersonal communication, each individual simultaneously influences and is influenced by the other. It is within this mutually constructed context that the individuals relate to each other.


    In contrast to risk, uncertainty is not measureable as either the probabilities of outcomes and/or the outcomes are unknown. A more relaxed definition allows for a quantification of uncertainty in form of confidence intervals, ranges, or expert confidence ratings.

    Uncertainty management theory

    Uncertainty theories focus on how individuals assess, manage, and cope with ambiguous and complex situations inherent in risk communication. Uncertainty management theory is one of the most widely used uncertainty theories, and it posits that uncertainty engenders other emotions besides anxiety and that people are not always motivated to decrease their uncertainty.

    Value involvement

    The extent to which the issue under consideration is related to one's perspective on how the world should operate.

    Author Index

    Note: In page references, t indicates table.

    About the Editors

    Hyunyi Cho is a professor of communication at Purdue University. Her program of research focuses on risk communication and health communication. Her current research investigates effects of communication on judgments and actions relevant to environmental risk and health risk and the role of messages and the media in social change and behavior change processes.

    Torsten Reimer is an associate professor of communication and psychology at Purdue University. His research focuses on the role of communication in decision making. His research program has the overarching goal to explore how communication principles facilitate decision making by guiding information processing and reducing information overload.

    Katherine A. McComas is a professor of communication at Cornell University. Her research program examines how people communicate about health, science, and environmental risks. Her current projects examine ways to develop risk messages about infectious and zoonotic disease that promote awareness of the interconnectedness of public, animal, and environmental health.

    About the Contributors

    Shannon Elizabeth Bell is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Kentucky. Her research falls at the intersection of environmental sociology, gender, and social movements, with a particular focus on understanding the ways in which environmentally destructive industries acquire and maintain their power and discovering strategies for increasing the political participation of communities most affected by environmental injustices.

    John C. Besley is the Ellis N. Brandt Chair in public relations at Michigan State University. His program of research focuses on how perceptions about decision-making processes shape views about science and risk. His current research explores how scientists’ views about the public and public engagement affect willingness to engage.

    Andrew R. Binder is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at North Carolina State University. He conducts research on controversial science topics, including how information about those topics is communicated through various communication channels and what impact that communication has on risk perception and public understanding of science.

    Nicolai Bodemer is a visiting researcher at the Harding Center for Risk Literacy at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. His research focuses on the transparent and intuitive communication of (health) risks and uncertainty.

    Hilary Schaffer Boudet is an assistant professor of climate change and energy in the School of Public Policy at Oregon State University. Her research interests include the environmental and social impacts associated with energy development, public participation in environmental and energy decision making, and sustainable behavior change.

    Dominique Brossard is a professor and chair in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her research program concentrates on the intersection between science, media, and policy.

    Steven R. Brunner is a doctoral student of communication at the University of Arizona. His research focuses on the implications of new communication technologies on interpersonal relationships.

    Priscila G. Brust-Renck is a PhD student in developmental psychology at Cornell University, working in the Laboratory for Rational Decision Making. Her research focuses on judgment and decision making and numerical cognition with implications for health risk communication and development.

    Adam Burgess is currently reader in social risk research at the University of Kent, specializing in sociological studies of “risk behaviors” and anxieties, and the role of media and institutions like public inquiries in the making of social risk perceptions and controversies. His main current research project is a historical account of the rise of a more probabilistic way of making sense of uncertainty and misfortune, and the corresponding decline of a moral one.

    Carma L. Bylund is associate director, medical education at Hamad Medical Corporation and associate professor of communication studies, Weill Cornell Medical College-Qatar, Doha, Qatar. Her research focuses on health care communication, with an emphasis on physician and nurse communication skills training.

    Michael A. Cacciatore is an assistant professor in the Department of Advertising & Public Relations at the University of Georgia. His research focuses on risk communication with an emphasis on media coverage of risk and opinion formation for risk topics.

    Jonathan C. Corbin is a PhD candidate in the Department of Human Development at Cornell University. He currently works in Dr. Valerie Reyna's Laboratory for Rational Decision-Making. His research interests include cognitive development and the relationships between human memory, decision making, and individual differences in cognition.

    Stephan Dickert is an assistant professor of marketing at the WU Vienna University of Economics and Business in Austria. He currently also holds a visiting professorship at the Psychology Department at Linköping University, Sweden. His research focuses on affective information processing in judgment and decision making.

    Sharon Dunwoody is Evjue-Bascom Professor Emerita of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She studies both the construction and impacts of mediated science and environmental messages, with particular focus on how individuals use risk information to make judgments and to act.

    Renato Frey is a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin. His research focuses on experience-based risky choice and on investigating learning and decision processes using computational models of cognition.

    L. Brooke Friley is a PhD candidate in communication at Purdue University. Her research focus is on health communication with areas of interest related to health campaign message design and patient decision making. Current research investigates patient disclosure to providers and factors influencing patients’ treatment decision-making processes.

    Wolfgang Gaissmaier is a full professor of social psychology and decision sciences at the University of Konstanz, Germany. His research focuses on how people make decisions under risk and uncertainty and how risks can be communicated more effectively to help people make better decisions, particularly in the domain of health.

    Robert J. Griffin is professor of communication at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His research program focuses on the ways in which individuals seek and process information about risks to health and to the natural environment, as well as the antecedents and outcomes of those activities.

    Ralph Hertwig is director at the Max Planck Institute of Human Development, Berlin. He has written widely on the topic of bounded and social rationality, experience-based and description-based decision making under risk and uncertainty and the experimental practices of the social sciences.

    Robin E. Jensen is an associate professor of communication at the University of Utah. She studies historical and contemporary discourses concerning health, science, and gender. Her research program investigates how technical, popular, and vernacular arguments interact in the formation of narratives related to sex education policy, HIV/AIDS prevention, and fertility awareness.

    Christina Jones is an assistant professor of communication at University of Wisconsin, Whitewater. Her research focuses on health disparities, culture-centered approaches to health communication, and community-based health interventions. Her current studies evaluate health communication campaigns and the effectiveness of behavioral health theories in health promotion.

    Andy J. King is an assistant professor of public relations at Texas Tech University. His research examines visual information and messaging in health and risk contexts. Current projects investigate visual information about cancer prevention, public campaign effectiveness in promoting organ donation, and visual framing influence on environmental message processing.

    Kai Kuang is a PhD candidate in communication at Purdue University. Her research interest includes risk and health communication and communication campaigns. Her current research focuses on risk amplification and attenuation process and the effects of narrative evidence in health and risk communication.

    Stephen Lyng is a professor of sociology at Carthage College. His current research examines the connections between risk and reflexivity in late modernity, especially the influence of voluntary risk-taking practices on self-reflexivity. This line of inquiry is part of an ongoing program to expand the theory of edgework.

    Erin Maloney is the research director in the Tobacco Center of Regulatory Science at the University of Pennsylvania. Her program of research focuses on identifying and applying social influence techniques to design effective health and risk communication messages. Her current research examines positive and negative effects of electronic cigarette advertising and use of narrative and testimonial communication styles to combat misinformation about tobacco products.

    Robert Mauro is a research scientist at Decision Research and an associate professor of psychology at the University of Oregon. He conducts basic and applied research in decision making, risk perception, and human emotion. He has also worked on the development of risk assessment tools for use in high-risk environments.

    G. H. Morris is a professor of communication at California State University, San Marcos. A discourse analyst, his research explores accounts, narratives, and practices of positive organizational communication.

    Matthew C. Nisbet is an associate professor of communication studies, public policy, and urban affairs at Northeastern University. His current research focuses on two broad questions: (1) How are urban areas and coastal communities debating actions that would make themselves more resilient, sustainable, and secure places to live? and (2) How do publics living in “innovation” cities understand and make sense of advances in fields like biomedicine, genetics, and information technology?

    Kyle Oman is co-owner and operator of Armory Pacific social media consultants.

    Emily B. Peterson is a doctoral candidate in communication at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. Her research focuses on the design of effective messages for public communication campaigns, patient–provider communication, and maternal and child health.

    Susanna Priest is presently a visiting scholar at the University of Washington. She has held tenured positions at Texas A&M University, the University of South Carolina, and the University of Nevada. Her research focuses on public responses to emerging technologies and science-related controversies, and she edits the international journal Science Communication: Linking Theory and Practice.

    Stephen A. Rains is an associate professor of communication at the University of Arizona. His research examines the implications of new communication technologies for health communication.

    Valerie F. Reyna, director of the Human Neuroscience Institute and co-director of the Center for Behavioral Economics and Decision Research at Cornell University, is a developer of fuzzy-trace theory, applied in law, medicine, and public health. Her recent work has focused on numeracy, medical decision making, risk communication, risk taking, neurobiological development, and neurocognitive impairment.

    Caisa E. Royer is a PhD/JD student in the Department of Human Development at Cornell University. Her research interests focus on the communication of information and how that information influences decisions made in legal contexts, including the influence of suggestive information, false memories, and legal expertise.

    Tillman Russell is a doctoral student in the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University. His research explores the relationship between communication and cognition, specifically the role of semantic networks in persuasion and decision making. His research also examines the connection between group communication, shared mental models, and heuristic information processing.

    Dietram A. Scheufele is the John E. Ross Professor in Science Communication at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and honorary professor at the Technische Universität Dresden, Germany. He is currently also serving as co–principal investigator of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University. His research deals with the interface of media, policy, and public opinion.

    Timothy L. Sellnow is professor of communication and risk science in the College of Communication and Information at the University of Kentucky. His research focuses on bioterrorism, precrisis planning, and communication strategies for risk management and mitigation in organizational and health settings.

    Christine Skubisz is an assistant professor of Communication at Emerson College. Her research focuses on message design and effects in health contexts. Her current projects investigate how individuals process and use information to make health-related decisions and how to present health information to facilitate comprehension and use.

    Paul Slovic is founder and president of Decision Research. He studies human judgment, decision making, and risk analysis. He and his colleagues worldwide have developed methods to describe risk perceptions and measure their impacts on individuals, industry, and society. He also serves as a consultant to industry and government.

    Daniel Västfjäll is a research scientist at Decision Research and professor of cognitive psychology at Linköping University in Sweden. His research focuses on the role of affect, and especially mood, in judgment and decision making, perception, and psychophysics.

    Rebecca B. Weldon is a postdoctoral associate at Cornell University, working with Dr. Valerie Reyna in the Human Neuroscience Institute. Her current research investigates risky decision making in brain and behavior. She is interested in the motivational, developmental, and cognitive factors that contribute to decision making.

    Thomas Workman is the principal communication researcher in the Health and Human Development Program of the American Institutes for Research. His research and practice focuses on stakeholder-driven health and health care and environmental approaches to behavioral health. He has extensive experience in the area of substance abuse in higher education.

    Z. Janet Yang is an assistant professor of communication at University at Buffalo. Her program of research focuses on the communication of risk information in science, environmental, and health contexts. Her current research investigates the impact of climate change communication on public support for environmental adaptation and mitigation.

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