Too late to bow, when the head has fallen: a case of crisis communication

Radiation – the scary enemy

Did you know that nobody died from radiation exposure after the Fukushima accident? Nevertheless, mass media focused mainly on the nuclear crisis and not on the thousands of victims of the earthquake and tsunami.

Radioactivity is one of the pollutants with bad reputation. People in general and experts disagree on how dangerous it is. Any accident that involves radioactivity in the environment makes people worried. It brings up the memories of nuclear bombs and big accidents like one on Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986. In addition to this, radioactivity is a complex topic to talk about. It is measured in a number of units, which are neither obvious nor self-explanatory.  There are multiple permitted levels for radioactivity in food, water and around us. Even experts are not always sure how those are created. How does one communicate about it?

What is crisis communication?

Crisis communication is a part of crisis management and usually happens between general population and responsible authorities and experts. When an emergency takes place, people need information on the hazards for their wellbeing, possible risks and ways to avoid them.

Most people get this information from mass media. Media are not neutral transmitters. They have the ability to influence how people see different risks. The amount of coverage a certain risk receives in media becomes linked to how dangerous people think it is.

In preparation to crisis, we as communication experts create advice for experts and authorities. A nice thick booklet explaining what do they say and when and which words they should choose. This advice applies especially for the communication to mass media. We recommend avoiding technical information like numbers. We recommend using comparisons, for example, with natural or medical radiation. But is the advice used? And is it at all good enough?

Drinking water and radioactive spinach

We studied newspapers from six European countries and looked at what they wrote about the Fukushima accident. Our main interest was information about radiation and how it was presented.

The results surprised us: advice not followed and context missing. Articles were full of numbers and letters without any explanations to what they meant. Sievert, Gray and Becquerel in milli-, micro-, kilo- portions just did not make sense. Dropping the numbers did not help either. Phrases like “significant levels what would be harmful in long term” were not particularly better. When it came to health impacts, almost half of the time newspapers talked about effects of very high doses. They had nothing to do with the real situation and were simply scary.

There was a variety of mistakes too. For instance, comparing levels of seawater contamination to the regulatory standards for drinking water, which are much stricter. And not only were the wrong standards used, they were also misinterpreted. Many organizations like Greenpeace were measuring local vegetables and making statements about the results. One of those told readers about Japanese spinach, which was contaminated well above “the official level that is considered safe”. This statement was not only vague; it also showed a lack of understanding about how the official standards for radiation levels in food are made. The legal standard does not divide food into dangerous and safe. To illustrate, let’s imagine you have spinach contaminated just above the legal limit, which makes it banned from sale and consumption. If you ate one kilogram of this spinach every day for a year, you still would not reach the annual dose limit for general population.

Did this happen because journalists did not know the topic? Or were they not able to double check the information they received? Was it authorities and experts, who were not ready to answer questions, who have never seen the advice booklet? Or could not find it on their bookshelf when it was needed? We do not know the answer. We analysed only the text of newspaper articles and cannot say anything about what happened in the backstage. But as a result, readers got confusing, misinterpreted (or not interpreted at all) information.

Do not misunderstand – preparing to handle crisis situations is an important task of any authority and it is being taken seriously on all levels. But when it comes to communication, maybe it’s time to get more pro-active?

A way to go?

Good communication is not something that appears out of the magician’s hat when one needs it. It is time to promote knowledge, to create harbours of information and make them accessible. It is time to get creative, use all the possibilities of modern world: multimedia, infographics, and social media. It is time to build a relationship between scientists and journalists in the piece time.

You need to keep watering your plant, so it grows nice and well. You need to make communication a part of your everyday life, so you are ready handle it, when crisis comes.

(the article was previously published on forksning.no)

Published 24. November 2016 - 13:56 - Updated 28. September 2018 - 15:54

Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU)

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