Environmental Risks, the Leverage of Scientific Information and Data, and Mediated Communication

TR Number



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


Virginia Tech


This dissertation addresses the complex challenge of communicating knowledge about environmental risks from toxic chemicals. Modern environmental risks are often invisible and technically complex, making the management of these risks highly dependent on data and information. Reliance on risk knowledge necessitates effective dissemination and communication by government agencies, yet the public's engagement with this information remains unclear due to limited real-world studies. This dissertation is comprised of three standalone papers bridging this gap. Each focuses on different aspects of risk knowledge communication using news dialogues as data sources. The first paper investigates the communication of location-specific risk information through a case study of the Radford Army Ammunition Plant (RAAP). Using content analysis and logistic regression, the study examines how scientific information about local environmental issues is presented in news articles and what factors influence its inclusion. Findings highlight the varying capacities among different stakeholder groups to access and utilize scientific information, underscoring the need for governmental and research support for less-resourced groups. The second paper explores chemical-specific risk knowledge, focusing on the environmental risks associated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Employing a structural topic model (STM) and multinomial logistic regression, the study assesses the impact of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA)'s Draft Toxicity Assessment for GenX, one of the PFAS chemicals, on news topics. Results indicate that the influence of new risk knowledge on news topics varies depending on community context, with significant impacts observed when communities are ready for governmental action or legislation using the new assessment. The third paper examines the use of the US EPA's Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) database in news media. Through exploratory analysis, it reveals how different stakeholders use TRI data to make claims about environmental risks, highlighting that environmental organizations are primary users who often reconstruct TRI data to make it more relevant to the public. This suggests their potential role as intermediaries in risk knowledge communication. This dissertation provides empirical evidence of the limited news coverage of environmental risk knowledge, the dominance of government sources, and the significant role of intermediary groups. The findings suggest policy implications for government agencies and other organizations, highlighting the need to improve the conveyance and communication of risk knowledge. Recommendations include providing more contextual information and training for communities and intermediary groups on interpreting and utilizing risk data and information. These aim to bolster public comprehension and responsiveness to environmental risks, thereby protecting public safety and health.



Environmental Risks, Toxic Chemical Risks Risk Knowledge, Risk Society, Public Communication of Risk Knowledge, Risk Communication via News Media, Regulation-by-Disclosure, Dialogical Communication, Content Analysis, Logistic Regression, Structural T