Risk communication of terrorist acts, natural disasters, and criminal violence: Comparing the processes of understanding and responding

Kirk Heilbrun, Melinda Wolbransky, Sanjay Shah, Rebecca Kelly
2010 Behavioral sciences & the law  
Risk communication is an important vehicle for the scientific understanding of the perception of and response to various kinds of threats. The present study provides apparently the first empirical attempt to compare perceptions, decision-making, and anticipated action in response to threats of three kinds: natural disaster, violent crime, and terrorism. A total of 258 college undergraduates were surveyed using a vignettebased, 2 Â 2 Â 3 between-subjects design that systematically manipulated
more » ... eat imminence (high vs. low), risk level (high vs. low), and nature of the threat (natural disaster vs. crime vs. terrorism). There were substantial differences in participants' perceptions and reported actions in response to natural disaster, relative to the other domains of risk, under conditions of high risk. The risk of natural disaster was more likely to lead participants to report that they would change their daily activities and to relocate. It was also more likely than terrorism to lead to action securing the home. It appears that the mechanisms for perception, decision-making, and action in response to threats cannot be generalized in a straightforward way across these domains of threat. There have been efforts to review the findings of risk communication across different areas. For instance, Glik (2007) reviewed the research in four areas of risk communication: (a) environmental risk communication, (b) disaster management, (c) health promotion and communication, and (d) media and communication studies. She concluded that despite considerable progress in the incorporation and dissemination of communication principles into public health practice, the field of risk communication still lacks research on the effectiveness of event-specific crisis risk communication efforts. She did not comment on the broad applicability of principles or mechanisms across different kinds of risk communication. To what extent are risk communication findings from certain domains generalizable to those in others? Such generalizability is important because its presence would: (a) suggest broad human mechanisms of action in understanding responding to risk; and (b) allow the development of theory and empirical foundation of risk communication in new areas by using evidence from other, more established domains. In this article, we first summarize the relevant evidence in the areas of natural disaster, violent crime, and terrorism. Next, we describe the results of a survey designed to assess respondents' perceptions and reported likelihood of responding to risk communication relevant to all three -apparently the first empirical attempt at such integration. Finally, we discuss the implications of these findings for the generalization of empirical findings in one area to questions in the other domains. Risk communication Procedure Participants completed both questionnaires (the demographic questionnaire and the risk communication survey) on the secure website. Software-specific procedures allowed us to employ a double-blind procedure in which neither the researchers nor the participant knew which version of the survey was administered to that participant. Participants provided no identifying information, so there was no link between a participant's identity and the responses to the survey. within the next 6 months. If this organization succeeds in carrying out this threat, the resulting harm is expected to be minimal. 2. High probability, high imminence, high severity. You are at home watching the local news when a reporter states that a well known terrorist organization has made a threat to demonstrate their power by infecting the water supply with a chemical that makes those who drink the infected water very sick, and may be fatal. Experts predict that there is a 90% likelihood that the terrorist organization will carry out this threat within the next day. If this organization succeeds in carrying out this threat, the resulting harm is expected to be severe and, in some cases, fatal.
doi:10.1002/bsl.940 pmid:21110391 fatcat:3hwp4psrb5e5rhltmwgoda2mhu