Risk in the media

As of the 23rd May 2022 this website is archived and will receive no further updates.

was produced by the Winton programme for the public understanding of risk based in the Statistical Laboratory in the University of Cambridge. The aim was to help improve the way that uncertainty and risk are discussed in society, and show how probability and statistics can be both useful and entertaining.

Many of the animations were produced using Flash and will no longer work.

One of our aims is to look at how the mass media portray risk stories, and what we might learn from that experience. The only way most people (including us) hear about potential risks is through the media, and understanding how they are reported may give us a better understanding of risk and uncertainty.

The section we added yesterday (4/06/08) is not a how-to-read-a-newspaper manual (as it is doubtful that such a thing would work anyway), but represents our first attempt at getting a better understanding of the media by performing our own qualitative analysis of some fairly recent risk stories. All these stories had a small, but in many ways interesting, impact on the national discussion for a while – before it moved on to new things. We will present a more academic version of our findings from these case studies at the International Sociological Association conference in Barcelona this September, so this section also represents an experiment in popularising and blogging academic research as it happens – though the presentation will focus on particular aspects, and include a different case study.

In the content added yesterday, we look at a controversy that received some news space in October 2007 concerning the apparently conflicting advice from two government agencies on drinking alcohol during pregnancy (though following the outcry following this story, that contradiction has now been resolved by NICE changing its draft guidelines). In this story we want to highlight the fact that policy and health advice that emerges from scientific evidence is as much influenced by our expectations of proper behaviour, moral values and the putative effectiveness of risk communication strategies (in this case the often maligned “precautionary principle”), than it is by the science.

Another case study concerns the WCRF (World Cancer Research Fund) report on the effects of nutrition and exercise on the development of various cancers, again from October 2007. This achieved media coverage as “scientists say bacon is bad for you”. This headline hardly represents a 500+ page report which has been very carefully worded and researched and which, despite some of the coverage it received, does not tell us to stop eating bacon. We will argue, however, that much of the blame for the distortion of the report's message does not lie with the media, who on the whole tried to report the story responsibly. As with most things in life, the real story is much more complicated.

In this case our project featured in the coverage itself, as some of the journalists involved wanted to get the opinion of the newly appointed professor of the public understanding of risk, our very own David Spiegelhalter. See what you think of the coverage in the Sun on the original story and when it re-emerged a couple of months later.

Hauke R