Back to Blog

Risk Perception, Outrage and the Flint Water Crisis

Posted by Brandon S. Brewer on March 1, 2016 at 11:00 AM

The water crisis in Flint, Mich., is not new. Water quality in the city has been an issue for years, affecting many people – residents, companies who use the water supply and elected leadership and environmental health regulators at local, state and federal levels trying to come to grips with the problem. The story has slowly spiraled out from being local to regional to national news.

Trying to keep track of the regulatory, engineering and political aspects of the story can be a dizzying endeavor. The risk communication piece can be just as difficult to get a handle on, for any "outsider." If we focus on the outrage aspect of risk communication, we can understand why people are truly upset.

Two risk communication maxims, from thought leaders in the field, come to mind when contemplating the crisis in Flint: Dr. Vincent Covello's, "Perception is Reality," and Dr. Peter Sandman's, "Risk = Hazard + Outrage." Understanding why people become outraged is a key component to both being able to understand the perception of risk and how to communicate it.

"Regular" people have different perceptions of risk than those of technical experts. While officials in Michigan spent years writing memos, conducting tests, refuting the results of other tests and working on alternatives to supplying drinking water, citizens who were using the water supply had a much more simplistic truth – "Something is wrong with my water, and I'm worried. It's discolored, smells foul and tastes horrible. It is tainted." Their reality was that the water was bad, and they did not have to wait for officials to announce this to them. The discolored, stinky and bad tasting water could have been safe, and that would not have mattered to anyone who had to communicate the risk to residents of Flint – their reality was what they perceived it to be. All this is what Covello has been getting at for years – if you're going to communicate risk to people, you have to do some empathetic brainstorming, because your reality of any given situation might not be the same as theirs, and they're the people affected by risk x.

Hand-in-hand with Covello's definition of perception are Sandman's outrage factors, which take on strong moral and emotional overtones. These factors predispose people to react emotionally (with fear or anger, at times), which can significantly amplify levels of worry and perceived risk. People weigh outrage factors according to their values, education, experience, sense of a given risk and stake in the outcome. The Flint water crisis is a "winning bingo card" for what Sandman considers some causes of outrage – for either real or perceived risks:

  • Catastrophic effect
  • Origin of the risk: In Flint, it is water from the tap – something most Americans consider safe, without giving it much thought. (Note: Human actions/failures cause more outrage than acts of nature)
  • Effects on children: Reports of elevated levels of lead and copper in Flint's water have focused on how this affects children.
  • Media attention: There has been intense media scrutiny, to say the least. Whether or not the media "gets it right,” all the time is irrelevant, since we are talking about perceptions of risk.
  • Dread (Note: People are more worried about what humans can do to them than what nature can)
  • Personal controllability: The residents of Flint have no control over who provides them with drinking water, unless it comes from somewhere besides the tap.
  • Voluntariness of exposure: A skydiver, for example, willingly accepts the risks associated with her endeavor; residents of a city with clean, and then polluted, drinking water don't, in the same way.
  • Trust in responsible institutions: After years of machinations at many levels – and the water problems persisting – I would assume that some (many?) residents of Flint have little trust in those organizations responsible for fixing their problem.
  • Equitable distribution of risk: Many people responsible for fixing Flint's water problem do not have to drink from, bathe in or cook with the water that comes from the city's taps. At worst, this can establish an, "Us vs. Them," mentality.

If any one of these factors exists for a given situation, there's a good chance people will be outraged (and act accordingly) – many exist for the people in Flint affected by the water crisis!

Aside from understanding the outrage, all the risk communication learning points from the Flint water crisis are yet to materialize, as more work is being done to mitigate the real damage done. A guiding principle of risk communication is to tell the truth – "You are safe from risk x, because y and z," or, "You need to take action to protect yourself from risk a, because b and c." The complete truth of the situation, as of this writing, is still unfolding in Michigan.

I recommend two timelines of the crisis for anyone who feels they need to "catch up" on the glut of information on the topic:

The Detroit Free Press' How Flint's water crisis unfolded:

The Center for Michigan's Disaster Day by Day: A detailed Flint crisis timeline:



March 2, 2016 at 7:29 PM

Nice Blog. Sad to see it had to get to someone discovering it through going to a hospital to find out the problem.