Commentary on Terrorism and Risk Communication by Timothy Sellnow

Editors’ Note: From time to time, we receive particularly well-considered expert commentary on an issue of Cato Unbound. This month we received two such commentaries, and we are pleased to run the second of them today. It comes from Timothy Sellnow, a professor of risk and crisis communication at the University of Kentucky who has often worked with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Prof. Sellnow writes,

As a professor of risk and crisis communication who has worked closely with the Department of Homeland security on terrorism and public communication issues, I commend William Burns for his compelling overview of challenges and opportunities we face regarding terrorism — “the new species of trouble.” As a communication specialist, I was particularly impressed with Burns’ emphasis on dialog and resilience. Considerable communication research suggests that a genuine dialog — listening to public concerns and responding openly and accurately — between government agencies and the general public creates enhanced perceptions of self-efficacy and optimism. As Burns indicates, risk communication scholars have studied numerous crises in an attempt to generate “best practices for risk and crisis communication.” These best practices are split into three areas:

–pre-crisis dialog with all stakeholders, including the general public, that can help to avert or minimize the impact of a potential crisis,

–communication during a crisis that can help mitigate the impact of the crisis, and

–post-crisis communication that help to restore confidence and coordinate a response to the crisis

Burns is also correct in his emphasis of the need for message sensitivity in a dialog related to terrorism. Research indicates that standard media sources, for example, tend to miss underrepresented populations, particularly new Americans. This research consistently reveals that many individuals outside the mainstream population are less likely to trust standard information sources unless someone they trust has endorsed the message.

Burns’ call for a dialog that creates a realistic understanding of the actual risk and that empowers all stakeholders with the knowledge needed to function before, during, and after a crisis, is supported by an abundance of evidence. Indeed, such planning helps stakeholders accept and manage the uncertainty that is inherent in terrorism.

Additional work has been done to assess the degree to which the media accurately portrays the risk of terrorism. The results of this research are shared frequently with various media groups in hopes of creating opportunities for a synergistic relationship that makes coverage of such issues as bioterrorism as accurate as possible. If this effort is successful, two outcomes will occur:

–The media will reach its full potential to serve as a resource for improving the public’s understanding of risk in complex and evolving issues such as terrorism.

–The media will reflect both public concern and the realistic risk level of the terrorism threat.

Indeed this is the stated research and training objective of the risk communication team at one of the Department of Homeland Security’s Centers of Excellence.

Without a focus on improving relationships with the media, agency leaders miss an opportunity to create the accurate perception of terrorism, the “learned optimism” that Burns correctly contrasts with the problems of “learned helplessness.”

Burns’ essay and this response have addressed only a portion of the research being done in risk communication. Still, the call for an ongoing dialog that encompasses pre-crisis planning, crisis response strategies, and post-crisis needs is essential. The outcome of this dialog is a better-informed and more resilient population. Conversely, the absence of this commitment to dialog is likely to create an increasingly fearful society that lacks a capacity to allocate resources in a manner that accurately addresses the risk of terrorism.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In his lead essay, William Burns argues that national discussion of terrorism can take one of two forms: It may be reflexive and fear-driven, or scientific and confident. He expresses hope that the new administration will choose the latter: In recent years, abundant research has been conducted on the social psychology of risk, and that of terrorist risk in particular. Moreover, the transition to a new administration offers an opportunity to change the official tone of public discourse about terrorism, and to employ many of the insights now being produced in social psychology. Burns outlines some of the major findings and describes how they might be applied to public counterterrorism policy.

Response Essays

  • In his response to William Burns, Bernard Finel argues that “the fear of fear” can also be exaggerated: Panics come and go, and U.S. institutions that support liberty and limited government are more robust than we often tend to think. Finel also expresses skepticism about the power of messaging, which he terms a “blunt instrument.” Although terrorism has been used, regrettably, as a tool of partisan politics, the right response is simply to condemn this approach and leave it behind. A better message about terrorism won’t do much to combat public fear, in part because the U.S. government is just one voice among many, and fearmongers are still out there regardless of what it might say. Finel argues that a better strategy for actually ending terrorism might include U.S. disengagement from the Middle East, nuclear nonproliferation, and energy independence, among other measures, and that these, too, are likely to ease public fears.

  • In his response essay, John Mueller assigns some (astonishingly small) numbers to the likelihood of being killed by terrorists. He also notes that the dangers of overreaction and fear are indeed quite great, often greater than the dangers that prompted the fear in the first place. Irrational fears lead to lost civil liberties, useless or near-useless government agencies and programs, and a variety of anxiety-related public health problems. Each of these may well be worse, in terms of hurting our quality of life, than whatever terrorism they were designed to stop.

  • Camille Pecastaing argues that although the United States had faced terrorism before September 11, something about that particular attack clearly induced more widespread fear. Was it the magnitude of the attack? The foreignness of the attackers? The response of the Bush administration? A combination of all of these? Our answers, about which there is no consensus, may prove important in responding to future attacks.

    He also observes two particularities about the response to September 11: First, there was overwhelming momentum toward hysteria. And second, that momentum dissipated very quickly. Although we are still paying the price for this overreaction today, we at least inhabit a political world where the costs can be assessed soberly and where we can attempt to craft better counterterrorism strategies for the future.