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Uncovering Crossroads between Risk Communication and Political Science

Uncovering Crossroads between Risk Communication and Political Science

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Tegan George

My name is Tegan George, and I am a second-year graduate student at the University of Maryland, in the department of Government and Politics. This semester, I applied for– and was fortunate enough to receive– an internship with the Risk Communication and Resilience department here at START. In my day-to-day studies, I mainly focus on Middle Eastern politics and conflict, so this semester working with the risk communication team has been a rewarding experience for me in more ways than one. While I had several friends during my undergraduate years who majored in communication or related fields such as public relations or marketing, I was unfamiliar with the extant scholarship, as well as the subfields within the field broadly. While much of the literature and writing styles were similar to what I regularly encounter in political science, I was surprised at the depth and breadth of literature on niche and nuanced risk-related topics, such as how communications differ based on what “stage” of a  crisis is occurring or what type of crisis is being analyzed, and was instantly fascinated. Before this semester, I would not have associated risk analysis with communication, but it is clear to see why it’s relevant and very much needed. Quality of communication during the pre-crisis, crisis, and post-crisis time periods has the ability to save lives and reduce chaos, and is something all organizations, from schools to hospitals to senior living facilities, should possess.

Part of being a scholar is always looking for new expertise to investigate, and I was very pleasantly surprised to delve into a field totally new to me this semester, and benefit from the myriad of contributions to the field already made by the best and brightest communication scholars. I found many parallels between risk literature in communication and in my own field of political science, and enjoyed mentally comparing the two – something I have continued to do as my time here at START has passed. One of my first assignments at this internship was to conduct an in-depth literature review on tornado warning systems and risk preparedness for a proposal undertaken by the START team. This was an excellent opportunity for me, as it presented a way to both get my feet wet in risk literature, and help the proposal process by utilizing a skill I have very much honed in graduate school. We were tasked with researching several cities of interest with varying tornado activity for the purposes of ethnographic research, and with writing proposals about each city, justifying why it merited study. In the end, we focused on Birmingham and Nashville, and included demographic information, as well as detailed information about local meteorologists, social media prevalence, and propensity for natural disaster occurrence. The two case studies dovetailed each other well, as they are similar in size and in composition. However, Birmingham is far more likely to have natural disasters, while Nashville is closer to the national average. This proved very useful, as it established Birmingham as a treatment condition for natural disasters and Nashville as a control representing baseline risk. Somewhat on the other hand of the expertise spectrum, I also got to try my hand at creating infographics for the city proposals. As someone with absolutely no artistic ability, I was nervous at first, but ultimately was quite proud of my end results and happy to add a skillset to my résumé that I wouldn’t have anticipated being able to do.

In many ways, I would describe my experience at START thus far as a mix of applying my current skillset to a new field and trying my hand at assignments I had never encountered before. After the proposal, we were tasked with working on interview transcriptions and analysis for a National Science Foundation (NSF) project on crisis communication in hospitals. Given that I have a similarly minimal amount of experience with hospitals as I do with tornadoes– this time, the extent of my expertise being a torn ACL in high school and 12 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy– once more, I started from scratch. Again, I was very pleased with the skillset I gained. While listening to the experiences of the interviewees, I learned about a whole new field that I did not even know existed, and was inspired by their passion for what they do. I also learned quite a bit about standard operating procedures and day-to-day life at several major hospitals in the U.S., and how hospitals behave in a crisis. Some of their tactics– like use of ham radios in emergencies– surprised me.   

I am always grateful for an opportunity to challenge myself, so I have very much enjoyed my experience at START so far. The avenues for future research in this field are truly endless, and I look forward to keeping tabs on new findings and publications in the future. Political science and communication are in many ways much more linked than many people think, and I hope to see more interdisciplinary work emerge in the years to come.