That’s the point of this little critique. Risk reporting that overplays worrisome information and underplays the encouraging can actually hurt people. Fear fueled by coverage that goes beyond the evidence of the actual danger can lead to unhealthy choices by individuals and by society (fear of nukes has contributed to an energy policy that relies more on coal burning for electricity, the particulate emissions from which kills tens of thousands of people per year). Fear certainly adds to stress, which is bad for our health in all sorts of ways.

Moreover, dramatic coverage that distorts the facts damages the already shaky public trust in the news media. Alarming stories get people’s attention, which is how news organizations make their living. But journalism that goes too far and induces fear to attract attention is contributing to a big risk to the industry itself.

Potential conflict of interest disclaimer: I have consulted to several clients in the nuclear field about risk communication; the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Swedish Nuclear Authority, the National Radiological Emergency Preparedness Association, and the Nuclear Energy Institute.

David Ropeik is an instructor in the Harvard University Extension School's Environmental Management Program, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, creator of the in-house newsroom training program "Media Coverage of Risk," and a consultant in risk communication. He was an environment reporter in Boston for twenty-two years and a board member of the Society of Environmental Journalists for nine years.