Evaluating Risk Communication: Narrative vs. Technical Presentations of Information About Radon

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Abstract

This paper reports on an experiment to test the hypothesis that people respond better to risk communication that reflects more closely the conditions of their social and cultural lives. The experiment used the case of radon to determine whether technical or narrative forms of risk communication were more effective at drawing people's attention, imparting information, and modifying behavior. Two series of articles on radon were placed in the local newspapers of two Massachusetts communities. Homeowner attitudes, knowledge, and responses were monitored in baseline and follow-up telephone surveys. A third community was selected for comparison. The newspaper series were developed on the basis of previous research and six focus groups conducted with homeowners. The technical series presented authoritative, factual risk information, in the scientific style of the passive voice with generalized and impersonal language. The narrative series consisted of dramatized accounts of individuals making decisions about radon testing and mitigation, written in a more personal style. The findings from the focus groups confirm the results of previous studies, but the small size of the follow-up samples was a limiting factor in drawing definitive conclusions about the relative effectiveness of the two formats. The experiment demonstrates the difficulty of any risk communication effort on radon and underscores the need for good research design. The study illustrates the need for further research on the role of sociological and cultural factors in the public perception and response to risk.

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