Risk in the media

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

understandinguncertainty.org 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.

Why risk in the media?

headlines from newspaperNo-one can be an expert in every subject. We may have left formal science teaching behind at school, or have continued through university. We may keep up to date by reading scientific periodicals and websites - or just wish we had the time to do so! But as news breaks of yet another scientific discovery, we all start with what the media have made of the story, and how they present it to us.

Many stories involve the concept of 'risk', whether it's our diet, the environment, or some aspect of our behaviour that is currently causing someone anxiety.

In this section we explore how the science migrates from the scientific publication to the press release, from there to the papers, and then eventually to us. Scientists often complain that the media distorts their message (sometimes even deliberately). Is this really the case? And if so, how can we tell?

Evaluating what we read about risk becomes more than an exercise in assessing the scientific evidence, even if we were competent to do so. Often risk stories lead on from the numerical assessments of risk to social, moral or policy related points that do not always follow automatically from the evidence. The media often has the difficult task to juggle all these issues in a way that is understandable to laypeople, encourages them to read the story, but does not come across as patronising. A tough job.

In this section

Here we look at some recent news stories about risk, and how the media have taken and presented them.

We introduce each story with a brief commentary and then give a structured summary of the main issues, and finally go in more depth into the way the story developed in the media.

Alcohol during pregnancy

Introduction and commentary
The issues
Media narrative

Bacon sandwiches and cancer

Introduction and commentary
The issues