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Instructor Class Description

Time Schedule:

Ann Bostrom
PPM 599
Seattle Campus

Topics in Public Policy and Management

Examines various research topics of importance in public policy and management.

Class description

TOPIC: RISK COMMUNICATION - This course introduces theories and use of risk communication in public policy to address environmental, health and technological risks. We will examine underlying theories of risk perception and explore how to design and evaluate risk communication programs and products.

How do people think about the risks of climate change? Of earthquakes and tsunamis? What is their perception of the risks of pandemic influenza? or nanotechnology? What are the characteristics of an effective risk communication campaign? What information, if any, might induce people to recycle more, drive less, or wear bicycle helmets?

Risk communication is a strategic component of public policies to address environmental, health and technological risks. Consider California Proposition 65, which requires the Governor to publish annually a list of chemicals known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity. Prop 65 illustrates that as a risk management tool, risk communication is as susceptible to abuse and misuse as any other policy tool, and can be controversial, or ineffective. Consider the Department of Homeland Security's color-coded threat level. Examples of risk communication in the public policy arena abound: food and drug labeling requirements from the Food and Drug Administration, automobile crash ratings from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, seismic and tsunami monitoring systems deployed by the U.S. Geological Survey and other agencies, and the Toxics Release Inventory managed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to name a few. Risk communication as a policy research area presents some formidable challenges and opportunities, colored by its strongly interdisciplinary nature and widespread (often seemingly atheoretical) application.

The course will introduce key theories and models applicable to risk communication, including prospect theory, social learning theory, theories of persuasion and stages of change, and the extended parallel process model. The class will explore the design and evaluation of risk communication campaigns and messages, from hurricane and tsunami warnings to vaccine information statements, including multimedia and Internet initiatives in risk communication. We will also explore the role of popular media in cultivating risk perceptions, and consider strategies for engaging the public in risk management decisions.

Because much risk information is inherently probabilistic, the class will examine how people understand probability in the context of risk, and consider various strategies for communicating probabilistic information, including numerical, visual and verbal representations of risk.

This course aims to ground you in risk perception research, entice you to explore risk communication research and practice broadly, and provide you with enough insight into the field to be able to delve deeply into particular issues in risk perception and communication.

Student learning goals

Familiarity with current social and behavioral theories of and research on risk perception and risk communication

Awareness of current status of environmental, health and technology risk communication in environmental and health public policies

Ability to critique and apply qualitative and quantitative research methods to design and evaluate risk communications.

General method of instruction

Course readings, class presentations and discussions; Hand-on analysis and design of risk communication products; Collaborative in-class use, simulations, and critiques of research methods in risk communication; Mental mapping and journal

Recommended preparation

To benefit fully from the class requires a basic background in social and/or behavioral science research methods and multivariate analysis. Familiarity with public policy and public administration research will be helpful.

Class assignments and grading

Short exercises (worth 10% each, 1-2 page written submission for each): 1. Present and critique one of the required readings 2. Design (or redesign) a risk communication (brief – warning label, short brochure, webpage or something similar) and present the design and rationale for it. OR Design an empirical evaluation for a risk communication product or program and present your design for the evaluation, with methodological details and theoretical justification. 3. Keep a journal of your mental map of risk communication as a research area (be prepared to discuss, and to turn in your final mental map)

Course project (40%): Write a 10-page (double-spaced) risk perception or risk communication research proposal to a potential sponsor (such as the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, some unit of the National Institutes of Health, or another federal agency).

Class participation (10%): Come prepared and contribute to class discussions appropriately. Share note-taking and reporting responsibility for one class session.

Grades will be assigned according to the scheme described under assignments.


The information above is intended to be helpful in choosing courses. Because the instructor may further develop his/her plans for this course, its characteristics are subject to change without notice. In most cases, the official course syllabus will be distributed on the first day of class.
Last Update by Blake N Cooper
Date: 12/30/2008