Trade-offs versus reassurance: framing competing risks in the 2016 Zika outbreak

Policy Sci. 2021 Sep 6;1-19. doi: 10.1007/s11077-021-09437-z. Online ahead of print.


Environmental threats increasingly entail important risks from government responses. In considering the risks of a new vector-borne disease, for example, decision-makers must also grapple with potential risks from responses such as the aerial spraying of pesticides. In communicating about these complex risks, public officials often choose different "frames" that promote different conceptualizations of the issue. Yet prior research has paid limited attention to how public officials frame the related risks of the environmental threat and the public response. This paper starts to fill that gap by conducting a content analysis of statements by public officials regarding risks from the threat of a local outbreak of the Zika virus in South Florida in 2016, as well as risks from the response of aerial pesticide spraying. Based on limited prior research, we hypothesize that public officials are likely to have adopted a "risk maximization" frame that stressed the high risks from exposure to Zika, but a "risk trade-off" frame when discussing aerial spraying. In actuality, we find that officials strongly favored a "reassurance" frame that downplayed both types of risks. Based on this analysis, we suggest framing strategies for disease outbreaks and other threats with potentially risky government responses may vary significantly depending on local contexts and that the South Florida experience was a missed opportunity to test the strategy of trade-off framing.

Keywords: Public engagement; Risk framing; Risk trade-offs; Zika virus.