Public trust and food-related risks – is the answer staring us right in the face?
By Brogan Micallef
Why are some individuals and organisations trusted as sources of risk information whilst others are not? This is one of the major questions that is commonly dealt with in risk communication. It is particularly important to have the public’s trust if you are communicating a food-related (or any kind of) risk because people are extremely unlikely to change their behaviour if they don’t trust you.
Generally speaking, it has been demonstrated that the public distrusts sources that are seen to be biased or self-serving, or have a vested interest in a particular point of view. For example, even though KFC says they use real Steggles chicken, I often find myself wondering if they really do, mostly because the ads are run by KFC themselves. Although I generally trust Steggles, do I in this instance? Not really, because they have a vested interest in KFC.
Although the KFC debate isn’t a food-related ‘risk’, what about the debates that are? High fat diets, using microwaves and genetic engineering have all been reported in the media. If the public don’t trust the information source, they could be damaging their health with a high fat diet, or industry could lose out on the GM debate.
Interestingly, Frewer et al. (1995) found that the most highly trusted sources are seen to be
“…moderately accountable to others, to have a partial vested interest in promoting a particular view, and to be reasonably self-protective. Total absence of such characteristics allows for sensationalization (sic) of information.” (pg. 483, emphasis mine)
As the author’s realised, this does not support the results of previous studies. It also demonstrates that the relationship between public trust and the source of information is much more complex than originally thought. Too much vested interest and the source is biased. Too little accountability and you’re not being honest. You have to get it just right. Remind you of Goldilocks and her porridge dilemma? To further complicate the matter, Frewer et al. stated that different characteristics apply to different information sources. Not only do you have to get it right, it seems that the balance changes with the situation. The medical profession needs to have a vested interest in public welfare, but GM producers promoting their product? That’s a bit iffy. They’re biased aren’t they?
Although it has been argued that the way to overcome the trust-distrust barrier is to increase the scientific literacy of the public, the scale and level to which this would have to be achieved is unreasonable. Not everybody has the capability, opportunity or interest in becoming an expert in all new aspects of science and technology. The study revealed that
“…scientists, medical sources, radio and consumer organisations were all named as trusted…sources. However, they were infrequently named by respondents as important sources of food-related information.” (pg. 475, emphasis mine)
Isn’t the answer right in front of us? Perhaps it is easier to use institutions and individuals that are already trusted, than for distrusted groups to try to improve their level of public trust. We’ve seen how complicated it is to get that balance right. Won’t people always be concerned about the ‘private agenda’ of the government or a particular industry? It seems a waste to not exploit already trusted sources with regards to food-related risk communication. Who knows what might be achieved?
Reference: Frewer, L. J., C. Howard., D. Hedderley, and R. Shepherd. 1995. What determines trust in information about food-related risks? Underlying psychological constructs. Risk Analysis 16(4): 473-486.