Americans are frightened about radiation. And why not? The news is chock-full of reports about elevated levels of radiation in food and water. This week ABC news ran a report that scientists found “higher-than-normal levels of radioactive Iodine-131 in milk samples from California and Washington.”
Let’s break down this teasing lead. If you zipped through your nightly news and heard this, you might indeed be worried because milk has “higher than normal” levels of radiation. Right?
But then the report goes on the say that “the levels are 5,000 times below the danger threshold.” But when folks like me study the mass media and readers’ responses, guess what we find? Readers are likely to remember the frightening news, not the reassuring news.
The ABC report goes on to say that radiation surrounds us all. You’re exposed when you fly on an airplane, when you eat from a plate with a certain type of glaze, and—for some people—from the unseen radon in your basement.
The news report offers reassuring information: the radiation levels in milk are low. But once readers and viewers hear the news that levels are elevated, that’s what we tend to remember.
It’s like the movies about lawyers who reveal some explosive tidbit and then the judge tells the jury to disregard the comments. But what we remember is the juicy details, the fear, the risk, the danger.
So it’s really no surprise that we feel we’re at risk.