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J Urban Health. 2002 Dec;79(4):482-90.

Print media coverage of risk-risk tradeoffs associated with West Nile encephalitis and pesticide spraying.

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Biology Department, Boston College, 140 Commonwealth Avenue, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467, USA.


When mosquito-borne West Nile virus emerged in the United States in 1999 and triggered pesticide spraying, society was faced with a controversy over an important risk-risk tradeoff-the risks of pesticide exposure versus those of West Nile encephalitis. Effective public communication about risk-risk tradeoffs is important because it can assist individuals and society in investing resources optimally. This study examined how effectively major North American print media in the year 2000 provided information on this risk-risk tradeoff. My colleagues and I found that the print media were generally ineffective in providing precise information about pesticide risks and in comparing risks of pesticide exposure with those of West Nile encephalitis. The media were also ineffective in mentioning the efficacy of pesticide spraying or comparing the economic costs of pesticide spraying with those of West Nile encephalitis. We suggest that greater effort in collecting and reporting precise risk information, fostering more active relationships between journalists and scientists/public health professionals, and recognizing biases resulting from preconceptions can help improve reporting by the print media and public health agencies on risk-risk tradeoffs associated with emerging insect-borne infectious diseases. These efforts could help improve public health by improving decision making related to the control of insect-borne diseases.

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