conflict & communication online, Vol. 11, No. 1, 2012
ISSN 1618-0747




Nohrstedt, Stig A. (ed.) (2010): Communicating risks: Towards the threat society? Gothenburg, Sweden: Nordicom.

As introduced by the editor, Stig-Arne Nohrstedt, this volume is the main publication of a research project on Threat Images and Identity, an intensive interdisciplinary collaboration between researchers in media studies, political science and rhetoric at universities in Stockholm and Örebo, as well as at the National Defense College in Stockholm.  This collection not only contributes to the theoretical discourse on the notion of the “threat society,” but also presents a number of empirical case studies from Sweden, Denmark and Finland of ongoing discussions related to media representations of identity conflicts connected with the imagined dangers and risks of late modernity.  To provide an overview of the book, each of its nine chapters will be given closer consideration.
By introducing, discussing and defining the central concepts of the book – ‘danger’, ‘risks’ and the ‘threat society’ – in the first chapter, Stig A. Nohrstedt offers a solid theoretical foundation for the following contributions and concludes that “the late-modern society in which we live today, as well as its obsession with risks and threats, should be regarded as a newly emerging phase – a Threat Society.”  Relying on the theories of the ‘risk society’ developed by Ulrich Beck, the ‘culture of fear’ by Frank Furedi and ‘liquid fear’ by Zygmunt Bauman, Nohrstedt summarizes five points on how a threat society differs from a risk society, and five points that characterize the political discourses of the threat society.  Focusing mainly on studies by David Altheide and Simon Cottle, the author exemplifies the new role of journalism and the media in relation to a growing culture of fear in the cases of the war on terror and global climate change.
In the second chapter, Brigitte Mral, Helena Hansson Nylund and Orla Vigso take a look at risk communication from a rhetorical perspective and analyze two public hearings on the question of nuclear waste management in Sweden which were held in 2008 by the Swedish National Council for Nuclear Waste.  The authors argue that because in the past discussions of this issue were limited to a small, closed circle of experts and decision-makers, a broad gap emerged between risk analysis (technosphere, or how scientists assess the risks of nuclear energy) and risk perception (demosphere, or how the public perceives the threats of nuclear energy).  Although the analyzed public hearings employed a method of public discussion called RISCOM (risk communication), based on the principles of impartiality, honesty and credibility, the authors conclude that the hearings failed to build understanding through open dialogue.  The opposing threat perceptions of the “other” side prevented an authentic consensus from emerging.
In the third chapter, Johanna Jääsaari and Eva-Karin Olsson attempt to move beyond the characterization of journalists as simple rule-followers constrained by structural bureaucratic factors.  They analyze the responses of Finnish and Swedish TV news organizations to the 9/11 crisis as the outcomes of decisions made in terms of the interplay between specific organizational identities and institutional constraints.  Based on more than 30 interviews with top managers from these organizations, in-house documents, ratings, newspaper and magazine articles, the authors reconstruct the decision-making processes that occurred at that time.  They conclude that both public news services suffered an organizational crisis, were reluctant to employ an “open gate” approach in their crisis coverage, and did not include any potentially unexpected audience reactions in any strategic discussion on how to cover the events.
In the fourth chapter, Ulrika Olausson empirically analyzes the “climate threat” discourses and constructions of identity in Swedish news media.  Acknowledging the transnational nature of climate change and the nation-state logic of news reporting, Olausson examines 216 news items and attempts to determine how this transnational threat has been framed in the national media.  Rather than concluding that debates between “climate believers” and “climate skeptics” reflect the scientific “state of the art,” the author shows how national identity permeates the reportage on climate change and how a European identity emerges partly through the discursive construction of the USA as the “other.”  To a considerable extent, the reason is because the EU is portrayed as the “good guys” who act in a wise, “climate-friendly” manner and the USA as the “bad guys” who refuse to even discuss climate issues.
The fifth chapter, by Anna Rosvall, asks what it is that the West finds threatening.  Examining a sample of 1,162 foreign news articles from selected time periods, in 1987, 1995 and 2002, Rosvall aims to explore Swedish media representations of Middle Eastern Islam and (post-) Communism and how they are related to the West over time.  Neither quantitatively nor qualitatively could the author find discourses that used an either-Communism-or-Islam-as-arch-enemy approach.  Instead, Rosvall finds that both Communism and Islam were represented as enemies, both before and after the end of the Cold War, and both before and after September 11, 2001. There is a persistent discourse of either Islamic/(post)Communist irrationality or Western rationality.
In the sixth chapter, Leonor Camauer presents part of a large empirical study of coverage related to the 2007 publication of the Mohammed caricatures in the Swedish newspaper Nerikes Allehanda and the reactions it elicited.  By applying quantitative and qualitative methods to 211 items and conducting interviews with the newspaper staff and different Muslim organizations in Örebro, Camauer concludes that in this crisis the newspaper constructed “distant” and “close” Muslim communities.  It is, however, not geography that makes the two identities different, but rather the (textual) actors’ alignment, support for or dissociation from peaceful dialogue, textually locating some Muslim voices closer to ‘Sweden’ and hegemonic Swedish values and other Muslim voices closer to a distant Muslim identity, which is constructed as a distinct other.
In the seventh chapter, Lisa S. Villadsen scrutinizes two different reactions on the part of Danish politicians to a terrorist attack on the Danish embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, relying on the norms of rhetorical citizenship, which are based on the concepts of deliberative democracy and rhetorical agency. The publicly expressed view of two prominent Danish politicians that this terrorist attack was an occasion to reconsider Denmark’s foreign policy was met by aggressive criticism for being disloyal to the country in a time of crisis.  Instead, it was argued that it was indispensable at such times to signal Danish resolve to terrorists, and not to connect this occasion with Danish foreign policy.  Whereas citizens in a deliberative democracy should be able to freely exercise their right of self-expression, this example illustrates the problems besetting contemporary Danish public political culture at times when criticism of official political course is perceived and stigmatized as threatening to the country’s credibility and security.  By framing the issue in terms of mutually exclusive positions, Danish politicians missed an opportunity for a constructive discussion informed by insightful reflection.
The starting point of the presentation of research by Mats Eriksson in the eighth chapter is a sociological acknowledgment of the transformation that has taken place in a mobile communication environment in relation to emergency calls: we live in an age of increasingly overt expressions of fear and anxiety.  Whereas historically Swedish emergency phone calls were associated with only very serious emergencies, recent data shows that 90 percent of the 112 calls made during storms concerned valid but non-urgent matters.  Conducting eight focus groups made up of 36 Swedish citizens aged 16 to 71 years, Eriksson attempted to gain a better understanding of changing emergency communication conditions from the citizen’s viewpoint and to contribute empirical findings to the theory of the culture of fear and anxiety.  He concludes that although communication channels change, the importance of verbal interaction and interpersonal communication between citizens and operators at the emergency call center is increasing together with the growing need for a feeling of security.
In the final chapter, Joel Rasmussen undertakes to explain incident reporting as an emerging risk-management technique and to examine the identity positions that employees construct for themselves.  To this end he analyzes 46 semi-structured interviews conducted at three chemical plants, and the factories’ different forms of incident reporting. Identifying three salient discourses, called administrative objectivity, employee examination, and discretion, Rasmussen shows how the relations of power and responsibility between different groups and strata in the organizations change.  The ‘otherism’ aspect of risk communication in this study is partially reflected when employees with different positions in the organizational hierarchy describe each other as part of the safety problems rather than as part of the solutions.
To conclude, offering a variety of empirical and theoretical contributions, this collection is highly recommended for everyone interested in new developments in the fields of public relations, information management and journalism in general, or applied research on risk communication in particular.

Irina Volf




About the author: Irina Volf earned the title of Dr. rer. Soc in Psychology at the University of Konstanz in Germany. Her areas of specialization include quantitative and qualitative methods of media content analysis, conflict research and political Islam.


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