Risk communication discourse among ecological risk assessment professionals and its implications for communication with nonexperts


To whom correspondence may be addressed: hunka@ruc.dk


Risk communication, especially to the general public and end users of plant protection products, is an important challenge. Currently, much of the risk communication the general public receives is via the popular press, and risk managers face the challenge of presenting their decisions and their scientific basis to the general public in an understandable way. Therefore, we decided to explore the obstacles in risk communication, as done by expert risk assessors and managers. Using the discourse analysis framework and readability tests, we studied perspectives of 3 stakeholder groups—regulators, industry representatives, and academics across Europe. We conducted 30 confidential interviews (10 participants in each group), with part of the interview guide focused on communication of pesticide risk to the general public and the ideas experts in the field of risk assessment and management hold of the public perception of pesticides. We used the key informant approach in recruiting our participants. They were first identified as key stakeholders in ecological risk assessment of pesticides and then sampled by means of a snowball sampling technique. In the analysis, first we identified main motifs (themes) in each group, and then we moved to studying length of the sentences and grammar and to uncovering discourses present in the text data. We also used the Flesch Reading Ease test to determine the comprehension difficulty of transcribed interviews. The test is commonly used as a standard for estimating the readability of technical documents. Our results highlight 3 main obstacles standing in the way of effective communication with wider audiences. First of all, ecological risk assessment as a highly technical procedure uses the specific language of ecological risk assessment, which is also highly specialized and might be difficult to comprehend by nonexperts. Second, the idea of existing “expert–lay discrepancy,” a phenomenon described in risk perception studies is visibly present in the experts' opinions. Finally, the communication flow among stakeholders was perceived as flawed, e.g., our participants did not consider themselves fully included in the communication process, despite taking part in many networks. Interestingly, both studies on the role of trust in risk perception, and research on links between daily choices and perceived risk, show that the public is more likely to rely on experts they can trust, than the experts in our study were inclined to think. Integr Environ Assess Manag 2013;9:616–622. © 2013 SETAC