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Rationality and Context: Antidotes for Anthrax Anecdotes
Unformatted Document Text:  5 accessible in memory and to underutilize available base-rate information, conspire to promote skewed risk judgments and misplaced apprehension (Bar-Hillel, 1980; Hogarth, 1980; Nisbett & Ross, 1980). Moreover, when specific exemplars are presented with relevant statistical data, the more diagnostic but pallid statistical data are frequently swamped by anecdotes that are themselves highly atypical (Baesler, 1991; Baesler & Burgoon, 1994; Brosius, 1993; Brosius & Bathelt, 1994; Gibson & Zillmann, 1994; Zillmann, Gibson, Ordman, & Aust, 1994; Zillmann, Perkins, & Sundar, 1992). Second, even when news stories focus solely on potentially more diagnostic statistical data, they may present the data in ways that potentiate unrealistic risk perceptions (Berger, 2001; Paulos, 1995). For example, when presenting quantitative data purported to illustrate the behavior of threatening trends over time, news reports do not always use appropriate rate data. Instead, they may use raw frequency data that fail to reflect changes in the size of the population on which the frequency data are based. This error is more frequent when the depicted trend is growing worse (Berger, 2001). Large increases in frequencies over time might be rendered considerably less dramatic if they were presented in rate form. In fact, substantial increases in population size might reduce rates over time, even in the face of increasing frequencies. The fact that frequency data may be more dramatic than rate data may explain why they are inappropriately used to characterize worsening trends. Thus, in spite of the fact that precision journalism advocates and others have urged journalists to pay greater attention to how they present quantitative data (Demers & Nichols, 1987; Griffin, 1999; Meyer, 1979), evidence suggests that their admonitions have not always been heeded by reporters and editors.

Authors: Berger, Charles., Johnson, Joel. and Lee, Eun-Ju.
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accessible in memory and to underutilize available base-rate information, conspire to
promote skewed risk judgments and misplaced apprehension (Bar-Hillel, 1980; Hogarth,
1980; Nisbett & Ross, 1980). Moreover, when specific exemplars are presented with
relevant statistical data, the more diagnostic but pallid statistical data are frequently
swamped by anecdotes that are themselves highly atypical (Baesler, 1991; Baesler &
Burgoon, 1994; Brosius, 1993; Brosius & Bathelt, 1994; Gibson & Zillmann, 1994;
Zillmann, Gibson, Ordman, & Aust, 1994; Zillmann, Perkins, & Sundar, 1992).
Second, even when news stories focus solely on potentially more diagnostic
statistical data, they may present the data in ways that potentiate unrealistic risk
perceptions (Berger, 2001; Paulos, 1995). For example, when presenting quantitative data
purported to illustrate the behavior of threatening trends over time, news reports do not
always use appropriate rate data. Instead, they may use raw frequency data that fail to
reflect changes in the size of the population on which the frequency data are based. This
error is more frequent when the depicted trend is growing worse (Berger, 2001). Large
increases in frequencies over time might be rendered considerably less dramatic if they
were presented in rate form. In fact, substantial increases in population size might reduce
rates over time, even in the face of increasing frequencies. The fact that frequency data
may be more dramatic than rate data may explain why they are inappropriately used to
characterize worsening trends. Thus, in spite of the fact that precision journalism
advocates and others have urged journalists to pay greater attention to how they present
quantitative data (Demers & Nichols, 1987; Griffin, 1999; Meyer, 1979), evidence
suggests that their admonitions have not always been heeded by reporters and editors.


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