One of the most challenging aspects about reporting on medical research is the need to convey risk in a meaningful way to readers. Human brains are not wired to understand risk in the way we need to understand it in the 21st century. Our brains evolved to assess risks for very different environments and threats than those we face today ― particularly in a time of pandemic.
Those earlier threats were more acute. When people lived as hunters and gatherers, wild animals and anything unfamiliar were the most significant threats. Today’s threats tend to come either from contact with a very familiar object — cars, guns, household chemicals, etc. — or a future risk to develop a chronic and potentially fatal illness. The latter category, which can include conditions such as heart disease, cancer or diabetes, can come from behavior, actions or exposure to a hazardous substance over time.
Assessing risk is high on everyone’s minds now. We can be exposed to a novel coronavirus ―which may lead to a disease that affects us and anyone we later encounter in unpredictable ways ― just by doing something as simple as visiting the grocery store or hanging out with friends at a bar.
The idea of evidence-based preventive health is relatively new in human history. So it’s not surprising that it can be so hard to make sense of what a certain increased risk, be it absolute or relative, really means in daily life. Risk has to quantified, but numbers can also quickly become abstract and challenging to interpret for the average layperson. Absolute risk in studies is usually more accurate, but the human brain intuitively understands relative risk (in terms of comparing one risk to another) a little more easily.
Where does all that leave journalists whose job is to communicate risk from medical research in a way that’s relevant to readers’ lives? Often scratching our heads or tearing our hair out!
Seattle-based science writer Jane C. Hu a while back shared some helpful tips for communicating risk in a post on The Open Notebook blog. Hu noted that some of the key goals of reporting on risk include:
- Describe risk in the most meaningful way,
- Dispel misconceptions,
- Turn on your bullshit detector,
- Talk to independent experts,
- Be clear about the unknowns.