Opportunities and challenges for risk communication during public health crises: A study of public perceptions and media coverage

Marion de Vries

Research output: PhD ThesisPhd-Thesis - Research and graduation internal


The COVID-19 crisis has severely affected public health and wellbeing worldwide. Although not always as widespread and tangible as the COVID-19 pandemic, all societies regularly face various types of public health crises. A major challenge in all these crises is fulfilling the public’s need for reliable information. Authorities need to address this need with appropriate and well-adjusted risk communication. The aim of this thesis was to provide recommendations to improve risk communication during various public health crises. To that end, we studied public perceptions and media coverage during three different public health crises in the Netherlands: the discussion about the risks posed by practicing sports on fields with rubber granulate, the rise in meningococcal W infections, and the first three months of the COVID-19 crisis. We derived a number of valuable key findings based on the three studied crises together: • Dynamic public perceptions and responses: Public perceptions and responses during crises can change in relatively short periods of time, under influences of changes in the crisis situation and changes in information provision, for example through media coverage. • Variation in perceptions and responses: Public perceptions and responses vary between people, based on different levels of vulnerability to the risk at hand, with regard to themselves or their loved ones. In addition, parents of underaged children are generally more concerned about risks than others, and more likely to support and adhere to risk mitigation or control measures. • Uncertainties in crises: All crises deal with certain levels of uncertainty, but the influence of these uncertainties on risk communication can differ largely. This depends on the nature and magnitude of uncertainties, the way uncertainties are interpreted and explained by different stakeholders, and the influence of information about uncertainties on public perceptions and responses. • Trust: Trust in those managing risks and communicating about risks is crucial for successful risk communication during crises. During the studied crises, public trust in the government and the RIVM was fairly high, and relatively stable. Nevertheless, the monitoring of public trust in authorities, and an understanding of the possible drivers behind changes in public trust, remains important. • Media reporting: The role of media reporting in relation to risk communication by authorities can differ considerably between different public health crises. Media can adopt a facilitating role or a more critical “watch-dog” role with regard to the risk communication by authorities. Possible factors which might play a role in the media’s role adoption are the type of risk and the presence or salience of opposing opinions in the public debate. For future research about risk communication in crises, we recommend to provide more insights into: • dynamic and varying perceptions and responses, and into the underlying factors • the communication of uncertainties in complex contexts • the reach of risk communication among various groups in society • changing role perceptions of journalists during prolonged crises And finally, for the practice of risk communication during crises we recommend: • to constantly adapt risk communication during crises to public perceptions and responses • to adopt different risk communication goals and strategies for different crises • to make use of transdisciplinary collaboration in the practice of risk communication during crises
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
  • Timmermans, Danielle, Supervisor
  • Timen, Aura, Supervisor, External person
  • Claassen, L., Co-supervisor
  • Mennen, M.G., Co-supervisor, External person
Award date23 Sept 2021
Place of Publications.l.
Print ISBNs9789463327640
Electronic ISBNs9789463327640
Publication statusPublished - 24 Sept 2021

Cite this