On communication of risk in the media: a case study using asbestos

I had an interesting discussion this morning with a member of the media on the topic of risk communication. The discussion derived from an Ottawa Citizen article “DND moving 500 staff members into Gatineau building containing asbestos – workers not at risk, department says”. As a regular commentor on how risk and science is discussed in the public sphere, I expressed my concern about the formulation of the article and in reply got some strongly negative responses from the article’s author, Mr. David Pugliese, on Twitter. Now as everyone knows, Twitter is not the ideal environment for nuanced discussion and soon the discussion descended to the point where Mr. Pugliese was directly accusing me of conflict of interest, and called me a climate change denier (since removed). So it seemed a reasonable topic to address in a blog post to explain the nuance of my opinion.

First some background. As many of my readers know, I work for a large multi-national engineering firm called Parsons. I was not actually hired by Parsons, but rather our smaller Canadian firm was recently acquired by Parsons. As such I am not entirely familiar with what the larger entity does outside of the sphere of our former company. Now Mr. Pugliese assures me that my company has contracts with Public Works Canada and he may be correct on that score, however; due to the nature of the company’s internal structure, I derive no income from any activities in that part of the company. Moreover, as I have pointed out on more than one occasion, I derive absolutely no income from my blogging and do not blog on the company dime. Rather, I remain an unpaid shill for evidence-based decision-making. I have entire sections of my blog dedicated to how risk is communicated on topics such as Wifi and Gypsy moths and even talk about soccer fields. As such any claim of conflict of interest is simply laughable, but ad hominem attacks are often used by those who cannot counter points directly.

All that being given, I also have specific expertise in the field of both risk communication (which was one of the topics of my Doctoral Thesis) and have planned and conducted the investigation, monitoring and remediation of asbestos-affected buildings (not for Parsons). So I come into this discussion with relevant knowledge-set. The remainder of this blog post will involve a discussion of the formulation (in the technical writing sense) of the Ottawa Citizen article to show how it either consciously, or unconsciously, drives the reader to negative conclusions and unwarranted (in my opinion) fears. Now before I start, let’s be clear. I do not know whether Mr. Pugliese has any opinions on the topic of risk, asbestos or labour relations. I cannot tell if he tweaked his story to bring in more eyeballs, or even if the report published looks anything like what he submitted to his editors. I also know that editors can do a lot to tweak the direction of an article to draw in eyeballs. So I will restrict my comments to the way in which the report reads on the page and how it emphasized (intentionally or not) one side over the other. The approach used is a familiar one and so before you go any further have a read of the article, I will wait here.

While we are waiting for the others, let’s cover a couple topics important to this discussion. Let’s start with the risk angle. In a previous post “On Science Communication and the Difficulty Relaying Scientific Information to the Public” I introduced some of you to the concept of “dread risk”. As I describe in my previous post: “dread risk” is a term used by Dr. Paul Slovic in his seminal article on risk communication called “Perceptions of Risk“. For those of you without access to journal articles Dr. Roger Pielke discusses the topic in a blog posting. I have previously suggested that any reader who wants a non-technical but compelling read on the subject of Risk should get the book by Dan Gardner of the same name. For those of you not interested in doing that much work suffice it to say: dread risks are risks associated with factors that cannot be seen or felt using our normal senses and can have serious or life-threatening consequences, often a long time after the initial exposure.

Two classic sources of dread risk in our society are radiation and asbestos. Both represent an unseen danger that can have deadly consequences and over which the average person has no control/or knowledge of their exposure. As such the public tends to have an almost genetic fear of these sources of risk. Put the word “asbestos” in a headline and you will pull in readers.

Secondly, understand the dread risk almost always exaggerates actual risk. With respect to asbestos, the fibres are potent carcinogens, but only if inhaled. If asbestos has been correctly encapsulated (typically in wall spaces, under tiles or in attics) then occupants of affected buildings are not at risk. Only if the asbestos is disturbed are occupants at risk. Since virtually every commercial building built prior to 1989 has asbestos in it, an entire industry has grown to ensure that building occupants are not put at unacceptable risk from the existing asbestos. Recognize that building owners will be liable for any associated occupational illnesses, so they become pretty careful to ensure that employees are not put at any real risk. Moreover, regulators are incredibly strict about how asbestos is handled in occupational environments.

Now that our readers are back, let’s get back to our discussion of the article. We won’t consider the headline because we all know that headlines are written by editors to drive eyeballs to articles and writers have little or no control over that content. That being said, absent the word “asbestos” in the title, the article would likely have seen an order of magnitude fewer sets of eyeballs.

Asbestos is first mentioned in paragraph 3 which reads:

She acknowledged the building contains asbestos. “It is contained and encapsulated and does not pose a threat to employees,” she said. “There is no associated health or safety risk to employees who may be relocated to work in that building.”

Note the use of the word “acknowledged”. It is typically used in the context of someone admitting to something they would prefer not to say. No one “acknowledges” that they love ice cream, but PR flacks will often “acknowledge” bad news if repeatedly pressed by courageous reporters. The remainder of the acknowledgment is then put in quotation marks. The author of the piece is simply reporting what was heard while not providing any particular credence to the position/information. In risk communication authors often do this to information they do not explicitly trust. This sows the seeds of doubt into the minds of the reader. Now if the alternative view is similarly placed in quotation marks then the piece ends up reading as balanced, if not then the reader is given an unconscious (and sometimes wrong) impression that the author believes one side of the argument more than the other.

The next two paragraph serve as the counterpoint:

Although a number of employees have raised the issue with the Citizen, Collier said the DND has not received any concerns from employees.

June Winger, executive vice president of the Union of National Defence Employees, said the presence of asbestos is an ongoing problem with many DND buildings. It is not uncommon to see warning signs about asbestos in certain facilities, she added

The first paragraph implies a lack of faith by the employees in their employer by noting that employees are complaining to the media but not their employer. The second paragraph provides the opinion of the employee’s union. Note the absence of quotation marks around the comments by the union representative. This information is so certain that it doesn’t need quotation marks to qualify it.

The next paragraph provides more detail:

“It’s definitely something we are concerned about,” Winger said. “We expect the employer to meet their safety obligations and we’ll be holding their feet to the fire on this type of thing.”   

This paragraph is in quotation marks as it contains a direct statement from the union that strongly infers that the union is of the opinion that the employer would put their employees at risk if only they could get away with it. The union will be “holding their feet to the fire” since they only “expect” that their employer will “meet their safety obligations”, but really are we to believe that? Clearly not, as the union needs to keep their employer’s “feet to the fire”.

I’m not sure why anyone would work for an employer who they don’t trust to keep them safe but then I have always worked in environments where safety of employees was the first, second and third priority of management.

The next two paragraphs are relatively anodyne:

Public Services and Procurement Canada spokesman Pierre-Alain Bujold said testing has been done on the government-owned building. “As with all PSPC buildings containing asbestos, an annual asbestos inspection of every known piece of asbestos in the building is conducted to identify safety concerns and needed remedial actions,” he said. “As a result of these activities, there is no risk to the health and safety of employees working in the building.”

He noted that the last annual inspection at 45 Sacré-Coeur was completed on November 28, 2015. Ongoing monitoring by building service technicians is also being done, he added.

This employer’s response is a pat bureaucratic response with no indication of empathy by the employer. The article then goes back to address the practicalities of the move. In the end we have a 600+ word article that would be mostly ignored absent the asbestos angle.

So what is the take-away from the article? The tone of the article presents an emotionless, empathy-free employer who only “acknowledges” problems (who certainly doesn’t volunteer info). This emotionless, empathy-free employer is forcing employees to endure this dread risk. Those employees, however, are protected by the brave union that will keep the employer’s “feet to the fire” to ensure that the employer meets “their safety obligations”. This is odd because nowhere in the article is there the slightest indication that the employer has ever failed to meet its safety obligations. Rather the quotations from those empathy and emotion-free automatons demonstrate that the employer is doing yearly testing; is maintaining a careful and detailed inventory of the asbestos and has a labeling scheme to inform employees about the location of every bit of asbestos risk.

So re-reading this piece I realize that I may have been too harsh on Mr. Pugliese with respect to risk communication. The article certainly makes abundant use of loaded language and dread risk to pull in readers, but perhaps the emphasis of this dread risk is one derived from a union/employer diametric and only uses the asbestos risk as a foil in that battle? Now I am not one to read the comments on online articles (who has the time?) but I made an exception in this case and I am glad to say that I was not the only one who saw this article as implying the presence of serious risk while, simultaneously, using the language of moderation.

Post-script: Mr. Pugliese has been kind enough to comment on my post. The entire comment, unedited in original format, is provided in the comments section below. A version presenting his comment in regular text and regular tab spacing and including my replies (in inset and in italics) is provided here.

Mr. Pugliese: For someone who says he has “specific expertise” in the field of risk communication, it is fascinating how – in my view – you have jumped to many erroneous conclusions.

You claim to discuss the “formulation” of the article but you were in no way involved in that formulation. You have no knowledge how the interviews were conducted or how the information was provided by employees, unions or the Defence Department.

Reply: you appear to have misunderstood how the term “formulation” is often used in technical writing. “Formulation” includes how the actual report comes together on the written page, not simply the process of writing the article. As such my commentary is entirely valid as it refers to the completed product not simply the physical/intellectual process of creating the written product. That being said, I have replaced the term in the one place where it could be misconstrued.

Was the word “acknowledged” used because the Defence Department was not forthcoming about this issue in the first place? You don’t know do you? But you assume otherwise.

Reply: I make no assumptions, I make a clear statement about the word and its use in this context. “Acknowledged” is a loaded word that is typically used in a specific manner in reporting and by the sounds of it I described it correctly in this case.

Then you write: “The remainder of the acknowledgment is then put in quotation marks. The author of the piece is simply reporting what was heard while not providing any particular credence to the position/information. In risk communication authors often do this to information they do not explicitly trust. This sows the seeds of doubt into the minds of the reader.”
Really? Or was that line put in quotations perhaps because it was the only piece of information that was provided in an email by the Defence Department and the reporter put it in quotations so the reader gets an unfiltered view of the message that DND wants?

Reply: Once again your reply does not address the point. Whether they gave you an expansive interview or a terse one sentence reply, how you place that reply in context in your article speaks to the tone of the article. All I did is provide my readers with that context.

You don’t know do you? But you have assumed motives on my part.
You write: “Note the absence of quotation marks around the comments by the union representative. This information is so certain that it doesn’t need quotation marks to qualify it.”

Reply: I make no assumptions about motive. I carefully avoid making any implications about motive in my post and repeatedly suggest that the tone could be incidental and not intentional. With regards to this specific example, I simply point out how text included without quotation marks is viewed in an article and how it affects the tone of the article when mirroring text in quotation marks. Once again this is technical writing 101 and will come as no surprise to most of my technical readers. My readership is strongly weighted to technical readers and most will recognize the approach once it is pointed out to them.

Or was it because a union official did a 20 minute interview with the journalist while the Defence Department sent a 20 word email? You don’t know but you assume you know and then assign motives.

Reply: Once again that background is not relevant to the discussion at hand: how the article reads on the page. I did not do a background on the piece nor did I attribute any motives. I provided a discussion of the article, as presented in the online edition, in light of technical writing standards and risk communication norms.

You also write: “The tone of the article presents an emotionless, empathy-free employer who only “acknowledges” problems (who certainly doesn’t volunteer info).”
Or is that empathy free tone simply the result of the briefly worded email sent by Public Services and Government Procurement to the reporter? Again, you don’t know but you jumped to conclusions to assign motives.

Reply: No I don’t, neither do I know what the letter/message you sent to the employer said, nor what history you may have with the interviewee in question. Once again this is all irrelevant. If you have a personal animus; were annoyed with the public relations person or simply wrote the article in a particular style that is reflected in how your article reads. Readers don’t get the benefit of the insight you are providing and so are left to read the article as written. It is from that perspective that I wrote this post. 

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4 Responses to On communication of risk in the media: a case study using asbestos

  1. David Pugliese, Ottawa Citizen says:

    For someone who says he has “specific expertise” in the field of risk communication, it is fascinating how – in my view – you have jumped to many erroneous conclusions.
    You claim to discuss the “formulation” of the article but you were in no way involved in that formulation. You have no knowledge how the interviews were conducted or how the information was provided by employees, unions or the Defence Department.
    Was the word “acknowledged” used because the Defence Department was not forthcoming about this issue in the first place? You don’t know do you? But you assume otherwise.
    Then you write: “The remainder of the acknowledgment is then put in quotation marks. The author of the piece is simply reporting what was heard while not providing any particular credence to the position/information. In risk communication authors often do this to information they do not explicitly trust. This sows the seeds of doubt into the minds of the reader.”
    Really? Or was that line put in quotations perhaps because it was the only piece of information that was provided in an email by the Defence Department and the reporter put it in quotations so the reader gets an unfiltered view of the message that DND wants?
    You don’t know do you? But you have assumed motives on my part.
    You write: “Note the absence of quotation marks around the comments by the union representative. This information is so certain that it doesn’t need quotation marks to qualify it.”
    Or was it because a union official did a 20 minute interview with the journalist while the Defence Department sent a 20 word email? You don’t know but you assume you know and then assign motives.
    You also write: “The tone of the article presents an emotionless, empathy-free employer who only “acknowledges” problems (who certainly doesn’t volunteer info).”
    Or is that empathy free tone simply the result of the briefly worded email sent by Public Services and Government Procurement to the reporter? Again, you don’t know but you jumped to conclusions to assign motives.

    Like

  2. timg56 says:

    Pugliese comes across as a spoiled kid who is unhappy teacher gave him a C- rather than the A+ he most certainly feels he deserves. Love the repeated use of “You don’t know”. Let me guess, that implies that David knows, you don’t so shut up.

    Like

  3. Will Lombart says:

    While Mr. Pugliese’s accusations are laughable, your blog post sounds plausible! Kudos to the way you’ve handled this situation! As far as safety of employees is concerned, not many companies have a passionate approach. There needs to be exhaustive training modules to guide construction workers and give them information about products and materials containing asbestos.

    Like

  4. Darryl Lew says:

    Thank you for the considered discussion on the communication of risk in the media. It seems that we often see people either: over react, or under react to these issues (neither is desirable) and it is so critical to communicate effectively – the ‘dread risk’ definition helps to break this down and better understand how people are taking in this information.

    Like

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