Effects on risk perception of media coverage of a black bear-related human fatality

Authors

  • Meredith L. Gore,

    Corresponding author
      Human Dimensions Research Unit, Department of Natural Resources, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA; e-mail for Gore: mlg35@cornell.edu
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    • Meredith L. Gore (photo) is a Ph.D. candidate with the Human Dimensions Research Unit in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University. Meredith earned an M.A. in environmental policy from George Washington University and a B.A. in anthropology and environmental studies from Brandeis University. Her research focuses on evaluating educational efforts to reduce human-wildlife conflict and wildlife-related risk communication.

  • William F. Siemer,

    Corresponding author
      Human Dimensions Research Unit, Department of Natural Resources, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA; e-mail for Gore: mlg35@cornell.edu
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    • William F. (Bill) Siemer is a research specialist and Ph.D. candidate with the Human Dimensions Research Unit at Cornell University. His research interests include wildlife-related activity involvement, wildlife-related attitudes, stakeholder engagement, and wildlife-issue education. He earned a B.S. degree in wildlife management from the University of Missouri and an M.S. degree from Michigan State University. He is a Certified Wildlife Biologist and a co-editor of The Wildlife Society book Human Dimensions of Wildlife Management in North America.

  • James E. Shanahan,

    Corresponding author
      Department of Communication, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA.
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    • James (Jim) Shanahan is an associate professor in the Cornel University Communication Department. Jim earned a Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; an M.S from Boston University; and a B.A. from Tufts. His research interests include mass media effects on attitudes toward natural resources.

  • Dietram Schuefele,

    Corresponding author
      School of Jouornalism and Communication, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
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    • Dietram A. Scheufele is a professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dietram earned his Ph.D. from Wisconsin-Madison. His research focuses on the interplay between media and politics and their impact on public opinion.

  • Daniel J. Decker

    Corresponding author
      Human Dimensions Research Unit, Department of Natural Resources, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA; e-mail for Gore: mlg35@cornell.edu
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    • Daniel J. (Dan) Decker is Associate Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, director of the Cornell University Agriculture Experiment Station, professor in the Department of Natural Resources, and co-leader of the Human Dimensions Research Unit. He served as President of The Wildlife Society in 2003–2004. His research interests include discovery and integration of human dimensions insights into wildlife policy, management, and professional practice. Dan earned B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. degrees from Cornell, where he has been involved in studies of the human dimensions of wildlife management for more than 25 years.


Human Dimensions Research Unit, Department of Natural Resources, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA; e-mail for Gore: mlg35@cornell.edu

Department of Communication, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA.

School of Jouornalism and Communication, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Abstract

On 19 August 2002 an infant was fatally injured by a black bear (Ursus americanus) in Fallsburg, New York. Based on the social amplification of risk theory, we anticipated that media coverage of the incident would affect perceived bear-related risk among residents in New York's black bear range. We compared results from a pre-incident mail survey (March 2002; n = 3,000) and a post-incident telephone survey (September 2002; n = 302) of New York residents in the same geographic regions to determine whether perception of personal risk (i.e., the perceived probability of experiencing a threatening encounter with a black bear) had changed as a result of the infant death. Additionally, we performed content analysis of news stories published between 19 August and 19 September 2002 (n = 45) referencing the incident. The proportion of respondents who believed the risk of being threatened by a bear was acceptably low increased after the incident (81% pre-incident vs. 87% post-incident), corresponding with an increase in print media coverage of black bears during the month following the incident. The majority of media coverage noted the rarity of human fatalities caused by black bears. Stability in risk perception may have been reinforced by media coverage that uniformly characterized the risk of a bear attack as extremely low. Alternatively, existing perceptions of black bear-related risk may have been reinforced by the short-term nature of media coverage after the incident. The fatality did not serve as a focus event that motivated stakeholder groups to promote change in wildlife management policy. Additional bear-related fatalities, however, could create the impetus for a change in risk perception via a social amplification of risk. Wildlife managers should be aware of potential media effects on risk perception and recognize the potential for risk communication to improve the congruence between actual and perceived risk.

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