CRDM’s second annual research symposium: Environments, Risks, and Digital Media: Communicating, Governing, and Managing Risks in a Mediated World

“The unique moment—being here now, talking throughout the day—is not digital.”

–G. Thomas Goodnight, NCSU Rolf Buchdahl Memorial Lecture, April 15th, 2011

CRDM hosted its second annual research symposium on April 15th and 16th, with keynote talks on Friday from both established and emergent scholars: Graham Murdock, G. Thomas Goodnight, Blake Scott, and Matthew Nisbet. The two-day “discourse party” (Kinsella, 2011) proved to be a concentrated complex of conversation about the ways we construct control and chaos in the digital/global age.

Murdock (dressed in a pleasant combination of three different greens) and Goodnight bookended Friday with talks that focused on the contested field (risk) and its rhetorical milieu (digital media), respectively. Murdock proposed risk as a narrative that is replacing progress in a time when progress is “exhausted.” He went on to describe several material variables (connectivity, interactivity, and mobility) that allow the digital media frame risk and influence public perception. Our own Jeremy Packer, in his response, added “informationalizability” to the list of important digital affordances—the ability of the digital to immediately add to the pool of data that name, locates, and fixes risky populations. Packer also noted that the word “obfuscation” was easier to type than it was to say.

2nd-year Chris Cummings, doing his best to avoid obfuscating anything.

Blake Scott and Matthew Nisbet, the other two keynote speakers, spoke about media’s role in specific risk communication events. Scott addressed the “riskiness of rhetoric” around the global pharmaceutical market and how India specifically dealt with the Western framing of its generic drug trade. Nisbet discussed the scientific community’s much-vexed struggle to communicate to the public about climate change. His talk included his own audience effect study, given on the National Mall.

Other Friday speakers included Dr. Carolyn Miller, who invoked Aristotle and asked what trust means in terms of risk communication, and David Berube, who talked about spin and strategies of risk attenuation on the web.

Saturday’s topic were more various, and included analysis of emails from “Climategate” (Marlia Banning of Texas A&M), recreation and park system management’s use of risk communication (Jordan Smith, NCSU) media effects on health-related decision making during pregnancy (Kelly Albada and Brandi Moyer, NCSU), “risky” sound and control of the soundscape (Seth Mulliken, NCSU), and a revision of existing frameworks for studying the social amplification of risk (Chris Cummings, NCSU).  After lunch, a session devoted entirely to the nuclear question and recent events at Fukushima included Andrew Binder (NCSU), Tatsuo Nakajima (Duke), Tudor Ionescu (Stuttgart), and Ashley Kelly & Meagan Kittle-Autry (NCSU). Our own Bill Kinsella, Elizabeth Dickinson (Salem College), and visiting NCSU professor Pat Arneson ended the day.

Dr. Kelly Albada delivering on risk and pregnancy.

This reporter thinks that the highlights of the symposium were the intellectually risky situations it engendered and managed, itself.  Foremost in my mind:

  • Carolyn Miller being “not quite convinced” by Blake Scott that “tactical” was so different from “intentional” in a discussion of affect as what Scott called a “precognitive intensity” (well-put, I think).
  • Graham Murdock calling Chris Cummings’ use of the SARF framework to task because of its lack of attention to the visual.
  • Matthew Nisbet calling for semantic scruples in Marlia Banning’s treatment of the Climategate papers. Particularly problematic terms: “neoliberal” (as all of the interested parties are arguably influenced by neoliberal ideologies), and the idea that the emails in question were “stolen” or “hacked.”

It should also be noted that after constant critical attention to the ways in which risk is “made” by media as a dominant frame, narrative, or mechanism of control, we were all happy to play our part as subjects when tornadoes touched down in Raleigh and the news media told us to go underground. Risk may be rhetorically constructed, but on that day, DE-struction was material and real. Our good wishes go to those nearby who weren’t as lucky as we were.

Thanks to all faculty on the planning committee who organized the conference, and to CRDMers Fernanda Duarte, Nathan Hulsey (with Shari Oliver), Ashley Kelly, and Seth Mulliken, who (with Robert Bell) coordinated video and audio recording of all presentations.

~Kate Maddalena (@KateMadd)

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