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Mass Communication and Media Risk and Uncertainty

Risk Society and its Relationship to Modernity

Ulrich Beck, a German sociologist, is the contemporary theorist of modernity. He proposed his modernity theory in his book, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (1992). He suggests that modern society’s inherent risk would result in the foundation and development of a universal chance (Sørensen, 2017). His theory implicates the notion that there is an increase in skepticism towards knowledge and scientific rationality and further mirrors reactions to these risks.

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The risk society theory reflects how contemporary society is structured around the responses to the risks modernization presented. Beck (1992) further argues that in late risk-characterized recent institutions, naive confidence in scientific knowledge is diminishing. According to Beck (1992), the world is undergoing a new wave of modernism. Unlike the modest modernity of the industrial age, the new modernity is reflexive, marred by the novel risks that potentially impact the globe (Sørensen, 2017). Through individualization, a person may fault society then decide to detach from the community, which is likely to introduce new risks.

The media played pivotal roles in risk creation, and Beck (1992) argues that the mass media and the professionals in science and legal fields took fundamental positions socially and politically. However, risk aversion much depends on available information, and mass media plays this role of risk creation by making these risks known to the public. Risk debates and contextualization, according to the scholar, acquire such a platform from media entities. The media then indirectly create a potentially new conflict between those that define risks, like the legal professionals and the victims of those risks.

Media Reports on Migration Crisis

The ‘refugee crisis’ became one of the top news stories that dominated the European media’s headlines in 2014; over 200,000 refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean Sea to flee safety. The early months of 2015 were not much different, as April alone recorded 1300 deaths of migrants due to drowning. The complication and extent of the ‘crisis’ generated a cloud of vagueness (Heidenreich et al., 2019). The uncertainty gave a chance for mass journalism to craft the public’s understanding of what the arrival of refugees meant for them.

Despite calls from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations, the media was not united to appeal for more help from European countries. Media in Germany and Sweden overwhelmingly used the terms ‘refugee’ or ‘asylum seeker.’ At the same time, Italy and the UK press preferred the word migrant, while in Spain, the word ‘immigrant’ was used by the media.

The terms used by the reporters hugely influenced the country’s debate on the migration issue. Media theme coverage across these countries also differed, where, for instance, humanitarian themes were covered by the Italian and Swedish press compared to German and Spanish news outlets (Heidenreich et al., 2019). The journalists focused on empathetic reporting, upholding human interest in Italy, and Spanish and British reports were all characterized by threats.

Health Risk Communication

Health risk communication involves deliberate and unplanned messages about the nature, impact, and management of various health threats such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, cancer, and HIV/AIDS. The new approach to health communication emphasizes dialogue or a dynamic exchange of information between a communicator and an audience. This new model champions an approach to risk communication as a two-way traffic process between two parties. According to Joav and Marijke (2013), it is crucial to understand and take risk communication as an interactive procedure because the threat has subjective and objective qualities.

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Appraisal of the objective likelihood of health risk consequences is not the only concern in the audience’s understands of a health risk because the outcome of a subjective evaluation also matters. Unlike the new approach to health risk communication, the traditional communication model emphasized a single channel flow of health risk information to the public. The classic process involved a top-down message on health risk, majorly through top government officials and other dignitaries such as health officials from organizations (Joav & Marijke, 2013). Unlike the traditional approach, the interactive perspective focuses on how health communications can prompt diverse responses based on different factors such as who delivers the message, how it is presented, and how the audience processes the communication.

Challenges and Opportunities in Media Science

The prominent challenge to journalists is a constant threat to their life. Whereas earlier they were seen as intermediaries, they are now judged as either with us or against us. These risks are often conceived from changes in geopolitics and the alleged loss of neutrality for media personalities. Institutional threats to journalism have also surged in the past decade. Political and government players now jam the independence of journalism, public relations and advertising, and activism or propaganda, which were once separate entities with ill intentions to public interests.

Media and journalists are the public watchdogs in a state, giving the public all information affecting their daily lives. One cannot, therefore, separate a country’s democracy from the media (Heidenreich et al., 2019). This role has now been compromised due to threats that limit them from fulfilling their mandate, including physical harm. High expenses in international affairs coverage production is another challenge, whose consequences are such as under-informed democratic decisions.

Media also has many opportunities, despite a range of challenges. Audience participation and journalistic practice are now majorly simplified through social media platforms. On these platforms, individuals share news and engage in local and global debates and trends. Turner et al. (2015) argue that audience participation has offered a new ray of hope for journalism, as groups of hobbyists and civic activists using social media platforms have cropped up due to this.

Media Coverage of Risk and Science

Moral panics can be defined as a social reaction to a specific condition or an individual, considered a threat to society’s values, a response that is hostile and disproportional. Allen Stuart in the book Media, Risk, and Science, he characterizes reports on diverse literature, ranging from environmental, health, and physical science based on “moral panics” (Allan, 2002). Stanley Cohen first analyzed the term moral panic in the United Kingdom, covering media focus on Mods and Rockers around the 1960s, and found inflated reports on damage reports, statistics of youth involved, and the extent of violence preceded.

This paragraph espouses Cohen’s description of the three common characteristics of moral panics. These are diffusion, escalation and innovation. Explaining diffusion as a characteristic, he describes it as situations in some places related to the actual condition (Falkof, 2017). He explains innovation as extra powers granted to courts and the police to neutralize the threat from panics, and escalation as demands for ‘extreme’ actions to be sanctioned so that the threat is eradicated or reduced.

Other than the three main characteristics of moral panics, other scholars provided more features of the same. Ben-Yehuda and Goode (1994) who characterized moral panics included concern, hostility, consensus, disproportionality, and volatility. These features implied that an event sparks panic in public, and consequently, a person or a group of individuals are termed as ‘folk devils,’ which further give rise to a unified societal reaction.

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Falkof, N. (2020). On moral panic: Some directions for further development. Critical Sociology, 46(2), 225–239. Web.

Goode, E., & Ben-Yehuda, N. (1994). Moral Panics: Culture, Politics, and Social Construction. Annual Review Of Sociology, 20(1), 149-171. Web.

Heidenreich, T., Lind, F., Eberl, J., & Boomgaarden, H. (2019). Media framing dynamics of the European refugee crisis: A comparative topic modelling approach. Journal of Refugee Studies, 32(1), 172-182. Web.

Joav, M., & Marijke, L. (2013). Health Risk Communication. Nova Science Publishers.

Sørensen, M. (2017). Ulrich Beck: Exploring and contesting risk. Journal of Risk Research, 21(1), 6-16. Web.

Allan, S. (2002). Media, risk and science (1st ed.). Open University Press.

Beck, U. (2000). Risk society revisited: Theory, politics and research programmes. In B. Adams. Beck, & J. van Loon (Eds.), The risk society and beyond: Critical issues for social theory (pp. 211-229). SAGE Publications Ltd.

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