On 19 August 2002 an infant was fatally injured by a black bear (Ursus americanus) in Fallsburg, New York. Based on the social amplification of risk theory, we anticipated that media coverage of the incident would affect perceived bear-related risk among residents in New York's black bear range. We compared results from a pre-incident mail survey (March 2002; n = 3,000) and a post-incident telephone survey (September 2002; n = 302) of New York residents in the same geographic regions to determine whether perception of personal risk (i.e., the perceived probability of experiencing a threatening encounter with a black bear) had changed as a result of the infant death. Additionally, we performed content analysis of news stories published between 19 August and 19 September 2002 (n = 45) referencing the incident. The proportion of respondents who believed the risk of being threatened by a bear was acceptably low increased after the incident (81% pre-incident vs. 87% post-incident), corresponding with an increase in print media coverage of black bears during the month following the incident. The majority of media coverage noted the rarity of human fatalities caused by black bears. Stability in risk perception may have been reinforced by media coverage that uniformly characterized the risk of a bear attack as extremely low. Alternatively, existing perceptions of black bear-related risk may have been reinforced by the short-term nature of media coverage after the incident. The fatality did not serve as a focus event that motivated stakeholder groups to promote change in wildlife management policy. Additional bear-related fatalities, however, could create the impetus for a change in risk perception via a social amplification of risk. Wildlife managers should be aware of potential media effects on risk perception and recognize the potential for risk communication to improve the congruence between actual and perceived risk.
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