Expert round: Dr. Lorenz, Prof. Peters, Dr. Illinger, Dr. Kappner, Dr. Bernhard (Photo: Ulla Baumgart)
Exchange of Information (Photo: Ulla Baumgart)

Pollutant of the month syndrome and the self-styled experts – The role of politicians and media in the risk debate

The fifth dialogue forum in the series “The risks of living in Munich – Perceived and actual” at the Bavarian State Library on 28 November 2006

The fifth and last debate in the 2006 series of dialogue forums focused not on the risks themselves but on our attitude towards them. The discussion was chaired by Patrick Illinger, Science Editor of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, who made the point that, since humans are not rational beings, the thinking behind that attitude was not always immediately apparent. Indeed, the risks we worry about most are not necessarily the ones that pose the greatest threat.

Furthermore, experts and media do not share the same perception of risk and, even among experts, the discussions are marked by uncertainty and controversy. The different risk assessments colour risk management at the relevant institutions and distort the public perception of risk. The guests on the panel cited instances where scientists had evidently failed to hit the right note and the media had consequently treated risk-related issues in a way that had not been intended. “When you read some of the headlines, you just have to shake your head,” Joachim Lorenz, Head of the City of Munich’s Department of Health and Environment, commented.

Media impact is no guide to real risk

Dr. Otmar Bernhard, State Secretary in the Bavarian State Ministry of the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Protection, knows from past experience that the wide gap between media reports, individual risk assessments and scientific findings causes a breakdown in communications. Dr. Bernhard appealed to those involved to be as realistic and responsible as possible.

In practice irrelevant risks are often found to have a higher media profile than they actually deserve. The conclusion Prof. Hans Peter Peters of the Research Centre Jülich drew from this was that “the amount of media coverage is not a true indication of the dimensions of the risk. Public feeling runs especially high where children are involved.” But relations between scientists and media can also be problematic when there are conflicting views. Prof. Peters called on the scientific press to explain and to question. At the same time, science should be seen not as the fount of all knowledge but rather as a process of investigation. Once this is understood, the public will appreciate that experts hold differing opinions.

In the risk debate, we should not lose sight of the extent to which our perception of risk is influenced by the media. Dr. Joachim Käppner, local editor of the “Süddeutsche Zeitung”, noted in connection with the fine dust issue in Munich that the threatened ban on vintage cars had caused greater furore in some quarters than the health risks themselves. “In those circumstances, it is difficult to bring the health risks to the fore.” On the other hand, there is a danger that the competition waged with other media will lead to unwarranted exaggeration of the risks.

How might risk communication be improved?

As well as providing accurate information, the media also constitute an arena for public debate. The panel agreed that politicians, media and scientists are the players in that arena who need to ensure that the public stays on track in the risk debate. For scientists, this means communicating with the media in language that can be clearly understood. Politicians would be well advised not to use risk situations to score party political points and to assess risks responsibly. The audience proposal to set up a council of scientific advisers that would present the facts and make it easier for people to assess risks might also help.

In his closing address, Thomas Loster, the Chairman of the Munich Re Foundation, expressed his appreciation to the participants for a full and competent discussion and thanked the GSF – National Research Center for Environment and Health, co-sponsors of the series, for their valuable support. He announced that the dialogue forums would continue in 2007.