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Media and risk: definition and perception

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By Anastasiia Pachina

Despite the attempts, that humanity is making to protect itself and predict possible options for the development of its future, despite the high costs of health care and safety, increase in life expectancy and constant improvement in all of these areas, our society remains risky. At the end of the 20th century, the sociologist Ulrich Beck already defined our society as risky (Beck, 1995). In the modern world, even inaction can bring its own risks.

Two approaches to defining risk

There are two main approaches to defining risk. The realist approach comprehends “risks” in scientific and technical terms. The premise of this approach is the possibility of calculating the risk and its consequences, where the risk is the result of the probability of occurrence of the hazard and the scale of its consequences (Bradbury, 1989). Risk is the product of probability and hazard. It is defined as an objective fact of the surrounding world, as a danger that is calculated independently of sociocultural processes.

The sociocultural approach determines risk as a socially constructed attribute that is dependent on processes within society. It implies that social perception and our values ​​go hand in hand with the definition and evaluation of risk. Even objective indicators and risk assessments are accompanied by subjective judgments and opinions. Media as a subsystem of society also has some influence on the construction of risk.

Media and risk perception

With the advent and popularization of media, the speed of information dissemination has significantly increased. Accordingly, the transfer of information about risks is accelerated. News about a catastrophe in a certain country in a matter of hours and sometimes minutes spreads all over the world. Media not only accelerate but also bring information about possible risks closer to us. An incident that happened many kilometers away from us is already perceived as something real and very close to us. The amount of information also plays an important role. The more information the media provides, the stronger the effect it has on risk perception (Wahlberg, Sjoberg, 2000). The more news we receive about a particular problem, the more we perceive it as to be real and the more real the risk is.

On the other hand, the media does not cover all events. The media is a public arena, which has its own carrying capacity (Hilgartner, Bosk, 1988). Since public attention is a scarce resource, there are limitations to the issues that the media can cover. Problems constantly compete for attention. This dynamic process opens up new issues that require our attention, and allows us to forget about others for a while. The agenda is changing; events are replacing each other, which means that the danger of other risks and threats comes to the forefront.

I don’t think that a couple of years ago, many people would have imagined life during a pandemic. The threat of terrorist attacks, natural disasters or another economic crisis seemed more real. We can only wonder and try to predict what awaits us in the future, what risks await us and how quickly they spread around the world, including through the media.


Beck, U. (1995). Ecological Politics in an Age of Risk. London: Polity Press.

Bradbury, J. A. (1989). The policy implications of differing concepts of risk. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 14(4), 380-399.

Hilgartner, S., & Bosk, C. L. (1988). The rise and fall of social problems: A public arenas model. American journal of Sociology, 94(1), 53-78.

Wahlberg, A. A., & Sjoberg, L. (2000). Risk perception and the media. Journal of risk research, 3(1), 31-50.

About the author:

Anastasiia Pachina

Anastasiia Pachina  is a Sociologist at Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic.

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