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Rationality and Context: Antidotes for Anthrax Anecdotes
Unformatted Document Text:  4 increased exposure to this violent world may promote generalized fear and mistrust of others (Gerbner & Gross, 1976); however, there is considerable debate about the strength of these relationships (Hirsch, 1980, 1981; Morgan & Shanahan, 1997). Those interested in how the media present risk information to the public and how that information is interpreted have also suggested that these media depictions may promote unrealistically skewed risk perceptions (Dunwoody, 1999; Griffin, 1999; Hadden, 1989; Slovic, 1987). Some have noted that because the degree to which many hazards pose a risk to the public is uncertain within the scientific community, journalists and scientists have difficulty communicating with each other about the nature of risk (Dunwoody, 1999; Hadden, 1989; Science in the Streets, 1984). Dunwoody (1999), however, has observed that scientific uncertainty about risks may itself become grist for the journalistic community’s controversy mill. Dueling studies and the sharp disagreements they precipitate may make for "compelling" news stories (Crossen, 1994). There are at least two ways that mass media information depicting threat may promote distorted risk perceptions and misplaced apprehension. First, by presenting stories and anecdotes about individual cases that are themselves nonrepresentative, the media may promote distorted estimates of the prevalence of a particular threat. In characterizing the use of exemplars in news reports, Zillmann & Brosius (2000) observed, "The focus is mostly on extraordinary rather than on typical cases…The likely result of this partial, nonrepresentative accounting is the inaccurate perception, if not the plain misperception, of the projected phenomenon" (p. viii). The media’s proclivity to produce and disseminate such nonrepresentative stories, combined with information processors’ twin tendencies to base prevalence judgments on instances that are highly available and

Authors: Berger, Charles., Johnson, Joel. and Lee, Eun-Ju.
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increased exposure to this violent world may promote generalized fear and mistrust of
others (Gerbner & Gross, 1976); however, there is considerable debate about the strength
of these relationships (Hirsch, 1980, 1981; Morgan & Shanahan, 1997).
Those interested in how the media present risk information to the public and how
that information is interpreted have also suggested that these media depictions may
promote unrealistically skewed risk perceptions (Dunwoody, 1999; Griffin, 1999;
Hadden, 1989; Slovic, 1987). Some have noted that because the degree to which many
hazards pose a risk to the public is uncertain within the scientific community, journalists
and scientists have difficulty communicating with each other about the nature of risk
(Dunwoody, 1999; Hadden, 1989; Science in the Streets, 1984). Dunwoody (1999),
however, has observed that scientific uncertainty about risks may itself become grist for
the journalistic community’s controversy mill. Dueling studies and the sharp
disagreements they precipitate may make for "compelling" news stories (Crossen, 1994).
There are at least two ways that mass media information depicting threat may
promote distorted risk perceptions and misplaced apprehension. First, by presenting
stories and anecdotes about individual cases that are themselves nonrepresentative, the
media may promote distorted estimates of the prevalence of a particular threat. In
characterizing the use of exemplars in news reports, Zillmann & Brosius (2000) observed,
"The focus is mostly on extraordinary rather than on typical cases…The likely result of
this partial, nonrepresentative accounting is the inaccurate perception, if not the plain
misperception, of the projected phenomenon" (p. viii). The media’s proclivity to produce
and disseminate such nonrepresentative stories, combined with information processors’
twin tendencies to base prevalence judgments on instances that are highly available and


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