Issues concerning radiation worry many people throughout the world. These include the health and safety effects of man-made radiation connected to nuclear power plants, nuclear waste storage sites, clean-up of nuclear weapons production facilities and global fallout from above- ground nuclear testing in the 1950s and 1960s. Naturally occurring radiation also can present health problems in the form of radon, which seeps into people’s homes and is the second largest cause of lung cancer in the United States after smoking cigarettes.

This paper will review the many problems that scientists, government officials and journalists have while trying to explain the basics of radiation to the public. These include the complexity of radiation science and its terminology, and a significant communication problem related to what scientists believe and want to communicate about radiation and what lay people hear and want to believe. Another issue to be discussed in a case study will be past secrecy by the U.S. government at a nuclear weapons facility, which led to significant distrust of radiation information about the facility’s impact on the health of citizens living near it. Finally, the many problems journalists have with both understanding radiation science and policy and then explaining these issues to their audiences will be reviewed.

Several suggestions will be offered to ease some of the problems of communicating about radiation to lay people.

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Public Communication of Science and Technology

 

Communicating about radiation problems with complex science, distrust and journalistic constraints

Sharon M. Friedman   Science and Environmental Writing Program,Department of Journalism and Communication, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, USA

Issues concerning radiation worry many people throughout the world. These include the health and safety effects of man-made radiation connected to nuclear power plants, nuclear waste storage sites, clean-up of nuclear weapons production facilities and global fallout from above- ground nuclear testing in the 1950s and 1960s. Naturally occurring radiation also can present health problems in the form of radon, which seeps into people’s homes and is the second largest cause of lung cancer in the United States after smoking cigarettes.

This paper will review the many problems that scientists, government officials and journalists have while trying to explain the basics of radiation to the public. These include the complexity of radiation science and its terminology, and a significant communication problem related to what scientists believe and want to communicate about radiation and what lay people hear and want to believe. Another issue to be discussed in a case study will be past secrecy by the U.S. government at a nuclear weapons facility, which led to significant distrust of radiation information about the facility’s impact on the health of citizens living near it. Finally, the many problems journalists have with both understanding radiation science and policy and then explaining these issues to their audiences will be reviewed.

Several suggestions will be offered to ease some of the problems of communicating about radiation to lay people.

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

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