Introduction: Risk communication can help reduce exposures to environmental contaminants, mitigate negative health outcomes, and inform community-based decisions about hazardous waste sites. While communication best practices have long guided such efforts, little research has examined unintended consequences arising from such guidelines. As rhetoric informs stakeholder sensemaking, the language used in and reinforced by these guidelines can challenge relationships and exacerbate stakeholder tensions.

Objectives: This study evaluates risk communication at a U.S. Superfund site to identify unintended consequences arising from current risk communication practices.

Methods: This qualitative case study crystallizes data spanning 6 years from three sources: 1) local newspaper coverage of site-related topics; 2) focus-group transcripts from a multi-year project designed to support future visioning of site use; and 3) published blog entries authored by a local environmental activist. Constant comparative analysis provides the study’s analytic foundation, with qualitative data analysis software QSR NVivo 8 supporting a three-step process: 1) provisional coding to identify broad topic categories within datasets, 2) coding occurrences of sensemaking constructs and emergent intra-dataset patterns, and 3) grouping related codes across datasets to examine the relationships among them.

Results: Existing risk communication practices at this Superfund site contribute to a dichotomous conceptualization of multiple and diverse stakeholders as members of one of only two categories: the government or the public. This conceptualization minimizes perceptions of capacity, encourages public commitment to stances aligned with a preferred group, and contributes to negative expectations that can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Conclusion: Findings indicate a need to re-examine and adapt risk communication guidelines to encourage more pluralistic understanding of the stakeholder landscape.

Document Type


Publication Date


Notes/Citation Information

Published in Reviews on Environmental Health, v. 32, issue 1-2, p. 165-169.

©2017 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston.

The copyright holder has granted the permission for posting the article here.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)


Funding Information

Primary data collection described herein was supported by grant number DE/FG05-03OR23032 from the United States Department of Energy. Data analysis was conducted in conjunction with grant number P42 ES007380 from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, NIH.