7. Sensory Smorgasbord

The medium through which we learn something affects the credibility of the message.

Take, for instance, the East End Park alligator. People who experienced it firsthand felt terror. The reaction of those who saw it in a photograph ranged from wary to disbelieving. Many of those who read about it found it mildly amusing. Reactions depended not just on the individual receiving the information; reactions depended on how individuals learned about it, specifically, the medium through which they obtained the information.

Personal Experience

For tens of thousands of years, as mankind evolved, personal experience represented the first and only way to learn. Personal experience brings all senses into play: sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. Because of this, it is one of the richest mediums. It is also one of the hardest to distort. If a threat looks, sounds, feels, smells and/or tastes like an alligator, chances are high that you’ve encountered an alligator. Your senses cross-check and verify each other.

Personal experience is also direct; it is not filtered through someone else so, compared to other forms of learning, there is less chance of distortion.

The big drawback of personal experience: it is limited and limiting. One person can only experience so much. New experiences have no frame of reference. The first time you come across an alligator, it may eat you or your dog before you learn it’s dangerous.

Interpersonal Communication

The advent of speech and language suddenly meant that we could learn from others, not just from direct personal experience. In some ways, this type of learning was an evolutionary advantage, but it did have drawbacks. While we no longer had to learn about the danger of alligators by being eaten, we no longer felt the danger as they approached us. We didn’t feel the fear they inspired – at least not the same degree of fear that one would experience before being devoured. As a consequence, we could consider alligators from a more clinical, detached perspective.

Like personal experience, the medium of interpersonal communication is limited in its breadth. We can only learn from people that we come in contact with. At most, one person can communicate with a few hundred at a time, depending on the strength of his voice.

Interpersonal communication is also subject to the vagaries of memory, rumor, the embellishment of stories, and the distortion of facts. Almost every child has experimented with sitting in a circle and whispering something to another child next to him who then whispers it to someone else. When the whispered secret comes full circle, it bears little resemblance to the way it began.

Interpersonal communication allows us to experience external reality from a second-hand perspective. The impression we get is only as good as the person telling the story. If we do not know the person telling the story, we may have no way to judge its veracity. The person telling the story may be making the whole thing up. We have only his or her “word.”

The Printed Word

In some ways, the advent of printing dramatically improved things for communicators. They could reach a wider audience without distortion of the message as it moved from person to person.

However, they gave up much of the nuance that comes from listening to someone who may have experienced an alligator firsthand. Much communication is visual and aural. For instance, one can deduce the importance of the message by the breathless excitement of the speaker. In print, this is impossible.

The advent of printing also separated us from the speaker. This distance between author and reader makes it much harder to judge the credibility of the source.

First, one often deduces credibility through visual and aural cues. Is the speaker smiling and winking at us when he talks of seeing an alligator at the edge of the water, or is he fearful?

Second, printing allows us to obtain information from sources we may not know or trust, even though they may be very knowledgeable and trustworthy. I inherently trust family members, neighbors, and friends – those I personally know. I even know to discount the validity of information from certain individuals prone to exaggeration.

However, in today’s world, stories come at us from hundreds of directions, authored by people we rarely know. How can we be sure if an article about a political disagreement discusses it fairly and accurately? Perhaps the writer sides with someone and has shaded his coverage or posed questions in subtle ways to make the other side look foolish. In an era of global media, it is simply impossible to know all sources. Because we may not know any given reporter’s prejudices, we may not know how much to discount information he or she feeds us.

Compared to personal experience and interpersonal communication, print reaches many more people (and can continue reaching them generations from now). However, print also makes it much harder to judge the credibility of the source.

Radio

As technology evolved, some of the elements of communication filtered out by print were restored. Radio allowed us to hear the excitement of speakers again. It could take us to the location of events as they were happening. It restored the immediacy of personal experience in a limited way.

The medium of voice also allowed listeners to get to “know” people reporting the news in ways that print never could. Radio brought personality back into information exchange.

It restored passion, outrage, fury, humor, innuendo and other feelings to the exchange of information that went far beyond mere printed words.

Television

The next evolutionary step in media was the advent of television. Television allowed us to hear and see the people speaking to us. Suddenly, it wasn’t just what people said, it was how they looked when they said it, and what was going on around them while they said it.

Television transported people to the front lines of distant wars. During the Sixties and early Seventies, the pictures painted on television sets across America affected the conduct and outcome of the Vietnam War. They made it difficult for leaders to claim America was winning the war or even had any hope of winning the war.

Television also made it more difficult to use euphemisms. During the era of print, people could use words to gloss things over or conceal their true meaning. Words are, at best, abstractions that approximate the writer’s intent. This abstractness means the writer or speaker can also use them to disguise intent. The visual component of television, however, made this more difficult.

Television coverage from Vietnam revealed that military leaders often used phrases like “the pacification of indigenous personnel” and “collateral damage” to describe “civilian casualties.”

Because television involved more of the senses – sight and sound – in real-time, the medium made it easier for viewers to determine the true meaning of such phrases and harder for speakers to mislead viewers.

Ironically, the transition of television from an analog to a digital medium during the last twenty years undermined much of its innate trustworthiness.

During the Vietnam era, seeing was believing. Today, that is not necessarily true.

Digital manipulation of images has become cheap, easy, fast and widespread thanks to the advent of applications like Adobe Photoshop and Apple Shake. Once, only giant movie studios had the mega-budgets necessary to manipulate reality convincingly. Today, most teenagers have had the experience of cutting and pasting someone’s head onto another person’s body in a photo-editing program.

In fact, digital images are so easy to edit that it is difficult to authenticate them for forensic or insurance purposes. Usually no traces of alteration remain once images are edited. As a consequence, evidential camera systems are being patented.[1] Technologies are also being developed that detect when and how images have been altered, revealing the underlying original image.[2]

The Internet

Each new evolution of media gets closer and closer to our starting point – personal experience – and extends our reach farther. However, each new medium also imposes certain limitations on communicators as well as those receiving information.

The Internet, for example, despite all its richness, still does not let me smell, taste or feel external realities. Moreover, the anonymity of the Internet lets communicators pretend to be people they are not. This induces suspicion and cynicism in those receiving information.

Internet hoaxes have become so common that sites like Snopes.com have sprung up. Their sole purpose: to dispel rumors and misinformation purported to be true. Another consequence of the anonymity of the Internet: electronic identity theft has become one of the fastest growing crimes in America.[3] Consequently, cyber-security and identity validation have become major Internet businesses.

The democratization of publishing via the Internet has created an explosion of content unlike any in history. Today, every American can have his or her own web site for about the cost per month of one meal. Everyone can post opinions free of charge on millions of blogs and forums that cover an infinite variety of topics.

This explosion of content creates a dilemma for the reader. What information and which writers can be trusted?  Am I reading fact or opinion? Am I reading a hoax? Does this writer have an axe to grind? What are his or her motives? Incentives? Credentials?

Viewers watching a network television news show intuitively understand that reporters have run an academic and professional gauntlet to achieve their positions. Surviving this ordeal and reaching the top of one’s profession implies exceptional competency. The same cannot to said for the Internet because of the low barriers to entry, lack of editorial standards and absence of regulation.

Clever advertisers – eager to attract attention – have exploited this. In the process, they have eroded trust in Internet advertising with viral campaigns that would never be allowed on television. These clever campaigns – often hugely entertaining – do not look like traditional advertising campaigns. Most often, they deliberately obscure or disguise the source of the advertising to fool viewers into thinking they are watching entertainment. This often tricks viewers into forwarding videos, links, and stories.

When – and if – the viewer finally realizes he’s been tricked, his reaction is often, “They got me” as opposed to “They entertained me.” Such campaigns exploit the current lack of constraint in the Internet. They erode the credibility of the medium. Ironically, they may also make once-burned viewers more suspicious. No one really knows what or whom to trust.

People who rely on the Internet for most of their information may be conditioned to distrust much of what they see. This brings us back to the alligator warning at East End Park. “We thought you got that picture off Google,” said the teens. Clearly, they thought it was a hoax.

A Nation of Skeptics

Could it be that media proliferation and parallax have generated so much conflicting information and so many conflicting sources that we have turned into a nation of skeptics? Do we no longer trust the information being fed to us?

The Pew Research Center for People and the Press has tracked a downward trend in the believability of various mediums for the last ten years.[4] The most trusted source in broadcast and cable journalism according to their 2008 study is CNN, however, a mere 30% of respondents believed all or most of what they saw on this network.

Just 26% of viewers believed all or most of what they saw on C-SPAN with CBS News and the BBC bringing up the rear with 22% and 21% respectively.

During the decade from 1998 to 2008, these “believe all or most” ratings trended downward. CNN fell from 42% to 30%. C-SPAN fell from 32% to 26%. CBS went from 28% to 22%.[5] Pew did not measure the BBC in 1998, but every other source measured during this period declined with one exception, NPR.

Print journalists did not fare much better. During the same period, those who believed all or most of what they read dropped in every medium with the exception of the National Enquirer.[6]

Publication                              1998    2008

Wall Street Journal                  41%     25%

Your Daily Newspaper             29%     22%

Time                                        27%     21%

U.S. News                               NA      20%

New York Times                      NA      18%

Newsweek                              24%     16%

Associated Press                     18%     16%

USA Today                              23%     16%

People                                      10%     8%

National Enquirer                      3%       5%
Most online news outlets measured in 2008 had even less credibility.[7] Note the percentages “believing all or most” of what they saw on:

Google News              13%

Yahoo News               11%

AOL News                   7%

Drudge Report            7%

Salon                          7%

Huffington Post          6%

Slate                          4%

Further, Pew documented differences in the way Republicans and Democrats rated the credibility of each of these news sources.[8] For instance, only 18% of Republicans believed all or most of what they received from NPR, compared to 37% of Democrats. Only three sources of news received higher credibility ratings among Republicans than Democrats: USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and Fox News.

These partisan credibility ratings and the overall decline in credibility, suggest that people distrust much of what they see and hear in print, over the airwaves, and online.

Pew’s findings further suggest that people trust the Internet less than traditional sources of news. Even though sources like Google and Yahoo are simply aggregating and posting information from other sources, fewer people believe their news is credible.

Large segments of our society do not seem to trust anybody about anything. This is especially true for people who rely on the Internet.

When people consider warnings designed to save their lives a hoax, clearly communicators have a challenge that transcends attracting attention.

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[1] US Patent 6968058 – Digital evidential camera system for generating alteration detection data using built-in encryption key. See: http://www.patentstorm.us/patents/6968058/claims.html

[2] See: http://sciencelinks.jp/j-east/article/200304/000020030403A0064878.php

[3] The FBI’s Uniform Crime Report lumps identity theft with property theft making identity theft difficult to track. However, the Bureau of Justice Statistics issued a special report on identity theft in 2005. See “National Crime Victimization Survey: Identity Theft, 2005.” By Katrina Baum, Ph.D., BJS Statistician. The report, actually released in November, 2007, states on page one, that “In 2005, 6.4 million households, representing 5.5% of all households in the United States, discovered that at least one member experienced one or more types of identity theft.” Further, “One in 10 households with incomes of $75,000 or higher experienced identity theft…” Captain Wally Wieghat of the Harris County Constables, Precinct 4 Office, confirms ID theft is one of the fastest growing and most common crimes in Harris County.

[4] 2008 Biennial News Consumption Survey, The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, Section 7, “Media Credibility,” Page 56. www.people-press.org.

[5] Ibid., See Chart “Believability Trends,” Page 56.

[6] Ibid., See Chart “Trend in Print Credibility, Page 57.

[7] Ibid., See Chart “Most Online Outlets Not Considered Credible,” Page 58.

[8] Ibid., See Chart “Partisanship and Credibility,” Page 59.

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