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Risk communication and the discourse of fear

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Risk communication is emerging as a subformat within institutional formats, including official agency reports (e.g. FBI) and news formats. The latter may draw on the former, while the former virtually never draw on the latter. Claimsmakers may draw on both. The format of risk communication shapes the organization, presentation, emphasis and interpretation of information. And like all formats, risk communication carries with it a context of assumed audience experiences and expectations. The prevailing context of risk communication is fear, or something to be dreaded, avoided and even intervened against in order to keep us safe. Moreover, the information models of risk assessment are built on quantitative platforms with measurable results. This means that they are also built on official information bases that have been constructed by agencies with rather narrow agendas, much of which are self-serving and reflective of their own institutional narratives about efficiency, reliability and validity. Ultimately, then, risk assessment models are subject to all the pitfalls and critiques of official information (Douglas 1967, The Social Meanings of Suicide, Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press; 1970, Deviance and Respectability; The Social Construction of Moral Meanings, New York: Basic Books; 1971, American Social Order; Social Rules in a Pluralistic Society, New York: Free Press; 1972, Research on Deviance, New York: Random House) and the social construction of reality including accounting metrics, various fallacies of commensurability (Espeland and Stevens 1998, Commensuration as a Social Process, 24) and isomorphism (Cicourel 1964, Method and Measurement in Sociology, New York: Free Press of Glencoe), and bureaucratic propaganda (Altheide and Johnson 1980, Bureaucratic Propaganda, Boston: Allyn and Bacon).

Keywords: communication formats; discourse of fear; media Logic; politics of fear; risk assessment; risk communication

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Arizona State University.

Publication date: November 1, 2010

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  • The Catalan Journal of Communication and Cultural Studies (CJCS) is committed to publishing research and theoretical articles in the fields of media studies, popular culture and cinema, public relations and advertising studies, social communication, new media, language uses in the media, communication and cultural policies, social and national identities, gender studies, sports and leisure, tourism and heritage, among other related issues. CJCS publishes double blind peer-reviewed articles and its aims and scope cover not only Catalan media and cultural systems but also other social contexts.
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