Challenges and Opportunities for Communicating about Seismic Hazard

Timothy L. Sellnow, Emina Herovic, & Deanna Sellnow

Published September 6, 2016, SCEC Contribution #6456, 2016 SCEC Annual Meeting Poster #324 (PDF)

Poster Image: 
The complexity of seismic hazard information poses communication challenges for scientists charged with publicly communicating this information. Scientists must translate complex information for nonscientists who, in turn, make risk-based decisions about their property and welfare. Misinterpretation in this communication process can move beyond frustration for both scientist and their publics to crises such as occurred in L’Aquila, Italy, in 2009. The L’Aquila case and others have inspired a call for more research into the social science of communicating about seismic hazard (Jordan, et al., 2011).

This study addresses the call for communication research to improve the understanding of seismic hazard by nonscientists. Structured interviews were conducted with 21 attendees at the annual meeting sponsored by the Southern California Earthquake Center in Palm Springs, California, September 12-16, 2015. Interviewees were selected based on their involvement with public communication. Interviews were chosen as a means of data collection to assure that participants were given the flexibility needed to express their personal views on the subject. For purposes of consistency, a structured set of questions based on the best practices of risk and crisis communication were used in all 21 interviews.

Transcripts of the interviews were studied to identify themes surrounding the challenges and opportunities for communicating seismic hazard. Inductive coding was used to identify emerging themes. The authors read the posts several times "looking for similarities, or patterns within the subsample" (Boyatzis, 1998, p. 46). Where possible, themes were combined into major themes with related subthemes.

This poster summarizes six major themes: three challenges and three opportunities. Themes focusing on the challenges for improved communication included counter-messages from non-scientific sources, audience discomfort with uncertainty and probability, and maintaining interest during quiet periods where earthquakes have not occurred recently. Themes focusing on opportunities for improving communication included strategies for consistently distinguishing between hazard and risk, acknowledging and emphasizing that scientific data cannot and should not always translate into actions for risk management, and the emphasis on operational earthquake forecasting as means for dispelling misinterpretations about earthquake prediction. A model is provided that matches opportunities with challenges and provides specific communication recommendations is provided.

Key Words
Risk Communication, Probability, Warning, Crisis Communication

Sellnow, T. L., Herovic, E., & Sellnow, D. (2016, 09). Challenges and Opportunities for Communicating about Seismic Hazard. Poster Presentation at 2016 SCEC Annual Meeting.

Related Projects & Working Groups
Communication, Education, and Outreach (CEO)