Background: Risk communication plays a crucial role in the today’s public controversies on science and technology development. Several experiences in different countries have shown that in a democratic society any attempt to impose technological projects "from the top" – without first establishing a transparent risk/benefit discussion with the people involved in them – inevitably leads to social conflicts. The dynamics that emerge in the communication between the different stakeholders involved in this kind of controversies, however, have not been fully understood yet. Three‐actor models, such as the well‐known "deficit model" ‐ that includes only scientists, mass media and the public – fail to explain the complexity of the communicative processes inherent in typical historical case‐studies, in which the relevant information about risk is produced and shared by numerous stakeholders, such as environmental associations, citizens’ committees, private companies, consumers’ associations, political parties, NGOs, "independent" experts and many others.

Objective/Hypotheses: This work aims at drawing a "map" of the communicative strategies adopted by the different stakeholders that take part in public debates on risks of science and technology. These "maps" will be drawn by analyzing some historical case‐studies in order to identify the relevant communicative interactions between the stakeholders in real controversies. The goal is to better understand the communicative dynamics which trigger off controversies and orient the different stakeholders in decision‐making processes. Results will be used to advance a multi‐actor theoretical model for risk communication. Methods: Drawing on methodologies used in media studies, we are carrying out a quantitative and qualitative analysis on the main national and local newspapers aiming at "mapping" the communicative processes between the different stakeholders involved in some Italian case‐studies of public controversies about technological risks. The communicative strategies used by the most relevant stakeholders will be further examined by studying the particular language (metaphors, dominant representations, images, etc.) used in newspaper articles and in other documents, e.g. official websites. In some cases, to fully understand the reasons and the expectations of the most relevant stakeholders, we intend to carry out semi‐structured interviews with the most prominent personalities involved. The common results of the different case studies will be used to identify parameters that play a crucial role in orienting the debate towards a compromise or a polarized controversy. These results will eventually be compared with international literature on risk communication, taking into account the different national and cultural contexts.

Results: Preliminary results show that a plurality of stakeholders takes part to the debate, which is not limited to the close examination of the techno‐scientific aspects but focuses on a clash between values and world‐views in which the communication processes play a crucial role. In many cases, filling the information gap on risks left by "official" sources, the "opponents' movements" became the only credible interlocutor in the debate, also through a true production of new scientific knowledge about the risks "from the bottom", commissioned to renowned experts, that goes beyond a simple contribution of lay information based on experience and direct knowledge of the territory.

Moreover, many stakeholders adapt their communicative strategies to the different goals and audiences. For example, the "opponents' movements" use an "emotional communication" based on shared values when they want to sensitise citizens in the protest, and an "institutional communication" based on scientific facts when they talk to official institutions, so as to give scientific rational foundations to the reasons behind their protest. Conclusion: Although studies on risks management have a well established tradition, we believe that further analyses based on the communicative dynamics that orient the different stakeholders in decision‐making processes could contribute to better understand the real reasons behind today’s controversies about the social impacts of science and technology as well as offer more insights into the development of more effective strategies on risk management.

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Public Communication of Science and Technology

 

Towards new theoretical models for risk communication

Giancarlo Sturloni   SISSA ‐ International School for Advanced Studies

Background: Risk communication plays a crucial role in the today’s public controversies on science and technology development. Several experiences in different countries have shown that in a democratic society any attempt to impose technological projects "from the top" – without first establishing a transparent risk/benefit discussion with the people involved in them – inevitably leads to social conflicts. The dynamics that emerge in the communication between the different stakeholders involved in this kind of controversies, however, have not been fully understood yet. Three‐actor models, such as the well‐known "deficit model" ‐ that includes only scientists, mass media and the public – fail to explain the complexity of the communicative processes inherent in typical historical case‐studies, in which the relevant information about risk is produced and shared by numerous stakeholders, such as environmental associations, citizens’ committees, private companies, consumers’ associations, political parties, NGOs, "independent" experts and many others.

Objective/Hypotheses: This work aims at drawing a "map" of the communicative strategies adopted by the different stakeholders that take part in public debates on risks of science and technology. These "maps" will be drawn by analyzing some historical case‐studies in order to identify the relevant communicative interactions between the stakeholders in real controversies. The goal is to better understand the communicative dynamics which trigger off controversies and orient the different stakeholders in decision‐making processes. Results will be used to advance a multi‐actor theoretical model for risk communication. Methods: Drawing on methodologies used in media studies, we are carrying out a quantitative and qualitative analysis on the main national and local newspapers aiming at "mapping" the communicative processes between the different stakeholders involved in some Italian case‐studies of public controversies about technological risks. The communicative strategies used by the most relevant stakeholders will be further examined by studying the particular language (metaphors, dominant representations, images, etc.) used in newspaper articles and in other documents, e.g. official websites. In some cases, to fully understand the reasons and the expectations of the most relevant stakeholders, we intend to carry out semi‐structured interviews with the most prominent personalities involved. The common results of the different case studies will be used to identify parameters that play a crucial role in orienting the debate towards a compromise or a polarized controversy. These results will eventually be compared with international literature on risk communication, taking into account the different national and cultural contexts.

Results: Preliminary results show that a plurality of stakeholders takes part to the debate, which is not limited to the close examination of the techno‐scientific aspects but focuses on a clash between values and world‐views in which the communication processes play a crucial role. In many cases, filling the information gap on risks left by "official" sources, the "opponents' movements" became the only credible interlocutor in the debate, also through a true production of new scientific knowledge about the risks "from the bottom", commissioned to renowned experts, that goes beyond a simple contribution of lay information based on experience and direct knowledge of the territory.

Moreover, many stakeholders adapt their communicative strategies to the different goals and audiences. For example, the "opponents' movements" use an "emotional communication" based on shared values when they want to sensitise citizens in the protest, and an "institutional communication" based on scientific facts when they talk to official institutions, so as to give scientific rational foundations to the reasons behind their protest. Conclusion: Although studies on risks management have a well established tradition, we believe that further analyses based on the communicative dynamics that orient the different stakeholders in decision‐making processes could contribute to better understand the real reasons behind today’s controversies about the social impacts of science and technology as well as offer more insights into the development of more effective strategies on risk management.

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.

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