14. Conclusions

The degree to which we apply these filters determines which information successfully crosses the gap between sender and receiver, and then becomes part of the receiver’s belief systems. This, in turn, affects the flavor of our own reality stew and influences the choices we make.

The mediums we prefer further filter information and, over time, shape our values and belief systems. The phenomenon called parallax thus influences our realities.

The unique perspective of each medium and each channel within each medium colors our perceptions. The degree to which we share these preferences helps create common values in a society. However, media proliferation supports divergence, not convergence. Our media habits and preferences make each of us unique.

The pull of special interests and self-interest, supported by mediums like the Internet, is realigning allegiances in society. Geography alone no longer defines communities; interests do.

This brings us full circle to the East End Park alligator that almost ate my dog and terrified me into sounding an alarm in local newspapers and on television.

You will recall that I also posted signs and pictures of the beast at the park entrance to warn other visitors. Later, I saw several teenagers exiting the park in swimming trunks with towels and inner tubes. Horrified, I asked them if they had seen the warnings. They replied they had and then said something that shocked me, “We thought you just got that picture off Google.” They thought it was a hoax.

I believe this incident was not a typical teenage dare. No one seemed very concerned. They did not exhibit that giddy high that comes from triumph over a dare. The group had both males and females; they seemed like they had just come back from a relaxing swim. They were truly oblivious to their vulnerability. They simply did not believe the warning.

Newspaper readership and television news viewership have plummeted in recent years as more and more people – especially young people – prefer to find their news online.[1]

So in all likelihood, the group saw nothing about the alligators but the signs at the park entrance. Had they ever seen one of these usually reclusive creatures in person, they most definitely would not have been swimming there, especially at an area within the park called Alligator Point!

If these teenagers were typical, their primary mediums for learning about the world are most likely the Internet and interpersonal communications. More than half of the 33 million teenagers in America use the Internet daily, and a quarter use it multiple times each day.[2] At this writing, the average teen chooses to spend an average of 16.7 hours a week reading and writing online.[3] Teens are fluent in texting, e-mailing, blogging, and IM’ing. They also constantly amend their profiles on social network sites. On average, 30 of their friends will visit these profiles every day.

Social networking on the Internet is huge among this group. Almost half of boys and more than two-thirds of girls maintain Facebook (or other social network) profiles.

The anonymity of the Internet makes it easy to pretend you are someone you are not. People constantly assume new identities in chat rooms. They try on different personalities like an adult would try on new clothes.

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, a majority of teens post false information online. The report is titled “Teens, Privacy & Online Social Networks.

It discusses how teens manage their online identities and personal information in the age of Facebook. Released in April, 2007, Pew found that 64% of profile-owning boys and 50% of girls post fake information. Younger teens post fake information more often: 69% of younger teens post fake information versus 48% of older teens.

With this in mind, it is not surprising that teens question much of what they read online. They wonder whether information is valid and can be trusted, just as they did with the East End Park alligator. Having drawn the wrong conclusion, the consequences could have been fatal.

The phrase “digital divide” once referred to groups that could afford technology and those that could not. It should also apply to those who are adept at using and understanding technology, and those who are not.

We need greater awareness of how the unique properties of different mediums – such as the anonymity of the Internet – can distort communication and affect our perception of reality.

We also need communication industry professionals to adopt and practice standards of conduct that restore the credibility of the mediums that provide their livings. Nothing is more important. Trust is the currency of communication. Without it, we have no business.

The credibility of advertising has always been suspect; it is biased by its very nature. Regardless, advertisers rarely discuss credibility. Today, advertisers primarily chase awareness, often at the expense of believability.

Advertisers relied on the mediums they supported to create a halo of credibility. Recent Pew Foundation data suggests that people rarely see those mediums as credible sources of information anymore.

When I started Journalism School at Northwestern University in 1967, I regarded The New York Times as “the Chronicle of Truth and Western Civilization.” Today, only 18% of Americans[4] believe all or most of what they read in The New York Times. The major news networks do not fare much better. They all score less than 25% on the same measure.

Somewhere along the way, Americans have replaced the search for truth, compromise and common ground with panels of backbiting pundits pushing parochial interests. Television networks have somehow equated “objectivity” with “balance.” Unfortunately, pitting extremists against each other on television entertains more than it enlightens.

The Wild West, anything-goes, pardon-me-while-I-flame, say-what-I-damn-well-please, and screw-you-if-you-disagree mentality of the Internet gives equal voice to trusted journalists and the most extreme elements of society. Rumor replaces reason. Fiction passes for fact. Readers confuse “what is said” for “what is.” “Scientific consensus” somehow trumps “science” which gets lost in the shuffle.

In issues as great as global warming and healthcare reform, or as small as choosing a brand of coffee, a confused and skeptical public finds little reliable information on which it can base sound decisions.

Publishers, editors, broadcasters, webmasters, journalists, advertisers and entertainers – all parties involved in the communications industry – need to consider ways to rebuild credibility. Until America solves this problem, chances are, we won’t find real solutions to many other problems.

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[1] Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 2008 Biennial News Consumption Survey, See Chart “Newspaper Readership Declines, Internet News Increases,” Page 3. www.people-press.org. Since 1993, the percentage of people who read a newspaper “yesterday” decreased from 58% to 34% while the number of people who went online for news three or more days per week increased from 2% in 1995 (the first year measured) to 37% in 2008. The survey also showed declines in viewership of local TV news (77% in 1993 to 52% in 2008) and nightly network news (60% in 1993 to 29% in 2008).

[2] Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2005.

[3] “What’s the matter with kids today?” by Amy Goldwasser, March 14, 2008 posting on Salon.com.

[4] Pew Research Center for The People and The Press, 2008 Biennial News Consumption Survey, Page 57, See Table “Trend in Print Credibility.” Percent of respondents believing all or most of what they read in the New York Times equals 18%.