12. How Filters Work

Most people have seen photographic filters. Many people assume they somehow color light coming through them. They do, but not the way most people assume. Filters do not add color; they subtract it. A pure blue filter, for instance, subtracts red and green from the spectrum (by reflecting them back) so that only blue light passes through the filter.

This same principle explains how media filter information. They pass information “of their own color.”

People on the receiving end always get something less than the complete picture. Sometimes they get much less – as information is filtered multiple times. I once read a:

  • Blog post
  • Which summarized an MSNBC segment
  • Which cited a Twitter entry
  • From someone who attended a live press conference

By the time the information got to me, it had been filtered four times. It was a shadow of the original speaker’s intent.

In the communication process, the filtering process begins with those acquiring, editing and transmitting information. Filters on multiple levels constrain the sending of information:

  • The medium (how information is transmitted)
    • Physical limitations of medium
    • Ability to accommodate the length of discussion needed
    • Corporate ownership
    • Government regulations
    • Advertising-to-editorial ratios
    • Financial capabilities
    • Deadlines
  • The people sending the information (the source)
    • Skill level of writer, reporter, editor or producer
    • Their values, prejudices, attitudes, biases and interests
    • Research capabilities
    • Editorial policies and focus
    • Fairness

All of these factors and more influence the length, thoroughness, and accuracy of the information being transmitted.

For example, regarding physical limitations of the medium, consider this. The evening network television news contains about 20 minutes of programming. This allows them to cover just five to ten of the world’s most important stories each day. Since people talk at roughly 120 words per minute, complex stories, such as the economy, will receive a few hundred words of coverage at most. They must sum up the news of the entire world in less than 3000 words. Obviously, television must omit much news and many details.

Compare this to a newspaper or magazine that can expand at will to cover information thoroughly. Only financial considerations, such as the amount of advertising the medium can attract, limits the editors. A newspaper or magazine might devote thousands of words to one story alone. Stories in award winning magazines, such as Texas Monthly, routinely run from 5,000 to 10,000 words. This essay is approximately 15,000 words when all the chapters are combined.

Compared to television, the medium of print gives reporters the ability to delve into nuances and communicate more detail. The economics of television force writers to condense discussion and summarize at a very high level.

In this crucible of competition for space and airtime, the Internet represents a game-changing technology. Dramatically low barriers to entry make virtually everyone a potential publisher. This can be both a boon and a bane for individuals. We have more information than ever before at our fingertips, but the task of assessing it has increased exponentially. How do we know which information to attend to and believe?

After senders filter information, receivers filter it again. These include the gates of perception discussed earlier.

Perceptual filters on the receiving end of the communication process are obvious. They include factors such as the education of the viewer/reader, his/her values, attitudes, experience, language, vocabulary, technology ownership, available time, visual acuity, hearing ability and wealth.

They also include environmental factors, such as ambient noise, lighting conditions, Internet access, bandwidth, media clutter and a host of others.

Finally, they include psychological factors hardwired into our brains (see next chapter).

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