How to see?
“This is a fluid universe where what one is looking for determines what one sees.”
How do we do this? Exactly how do we wake up from “trance imposed on us by our senses,” as McLuhan describes media influence and fortify ourselves against Postman’s American Technopoy? We pay attention to how we see, which we will define here as perception. Indeed, when he spoke at the 2007 Convention of the Media Ecology Association in Mexico City, Eric McLuhan, Marshall’s son and co-author of Laws of Media, accurately predicted the next stage of development in the study of human communication and the media that deliver our messages: “Perception is the next frontier,” Eric said. Paying attention to how we see means better understanding the role of human perception in the communication process, which is particularly essential with the advent of digital media and social networking tools.
Studying and better understanding perception and how human beings see is of critical importance to journalists, media ecologists, and communications scholars now because the processes of perception routinely alter what humans see. According to French Phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty, when people view something with a preconceived concept about it, they tend to take those concepts and see them whether or not they are there. This problem stems from the fact that humans are unable to understand new information, without the inherent bias of their previous knowledge. A person’s knowledge creates his or her reality as much as the truth because the human mind can only contemplate that to which it has been exposed. When objects are viewed without understanding, the mind will try to reach for something that it already recognizes, in order to process what it is viewing. That which most closely relates to the unfamiliar from our past experiences, makes up what we see when we look at things that we don’t comprehend.
The perceptual bias that favors the confirmation of old knowledge over the reception and accurate processing of new information has far reaching and profound consequences for both the creation and consumption of news in the newssphere: even when exposed and confronted with facts that are indeed true, people often select and, even more devastating, distort those facts to fit existing belief systems. This behavioral and cognitive phenomenon has been termed “back fire” by political scientists at the University of Michigan. Lead researcher on a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, Brendan Nyhan explains that backfire is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.” http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/07/11/how_facts_backfire/
Writing in the journal Political Behavior, Nyahn and co-author Jason Reifler observe: “An extensive literature addresses citizen ignorance, but very little research focuses on misperceptions.” “The backfire effects that we found seem to provide further support for the growing literature showing that citizens engage in “motivated reasoning.” While our experiments focused on assessing the effectiveness of corrections, the results show that direct factual contradictions can actually strengthen ideologically grounded factual beliefs—an empirical finding with important theoretical implications. (p. 329) “Many citizens seem or unwilling to revise their beliefs in the face of corrective information, and attempts to correct those mistaken beliefs may only make matters worse. Determining the best way to provide corrective information will advance understanding of how citizens process information and help to strengthen democratic debate and public understanding of the political process.”
This is a powerful insight and a significant finding because it supports a simple but profound truth: despite a huge amount of factual evidence to the contrary, people will often deny the truth. Not only will they deny the truth, they will find a way to rationalize factual evidence that conflicts with their belief system and distort that evidence so it confirm their existing belief system. Nyahn and Refiler’s findings are significant because they break this process down and show how this happens on an individual level. They point the way for a closer examination of the reception and consumption of news and information in the newssphere.
We can’t wait for the right information to come to us, we need to seek it out! Journalism students are especially capable of doing this. Read–read people who have different opinions. I read Howard Dean’s book to get informed about health care. Find more neutral outlets–the BBC perhaps, and
also factcheck.org. And look at the frame you are bringing–why do you want to know why this is a bad things? Would it suffice to know the significance to you
(devoid of laudatory or negative comments?) As journalists, we have a responsibility, in my opinion, to break down the polarization of ideas in this country–
no more blue or read, no more black and white, instead, how about some purple and grey!!!
Christine M. Tracy
I have been thinking a lot about the value of news and exploring how news brings value to real people’s lives.
I woke up Sunday morning not realizing that I was not aware of the time change: I had not gotten this piece of information from my regular flow. Is this news or is this information? It was information I needed, so is that news? The dashboard on my WordPress blog reminded ! That intrigues me.
NPR’s Talk of the Nation focused today on the new Pew Report on the state of the news industry. Tom Rosensteil, a real expert here, identifies new trends, such as the continuing interest in legacy media. Here’s my short synopsis: economic models
are still emerging and still cannot support the many exciting content experiments. The most hopeful sign–a rebirth of the journalistic mission!!! I do believe a quality product will be economically viable.
Christine M. Tracy
J.D. Salinger died on my birthday, January 29, 2010. He was 91. I heard about his passing from a dear friend that I have known since grammar school. I recall acting scenes from Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” in our high school English class and upsetting our teacher because we included his obscenities.
It was a different time. But Salinger’s work and legacy appear timeless, and it was with great joy that I read his obituary in the online New York Times today. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/29/books/29salinger.html
I am impressed on two levels–first, the historical accounting of Salinger’s “reclusive life” is impeccable. According to the Times, Salinger served in World War II and was married twice. I saw another obit about him on CBS’s Sunday Morning, which was interesting but not as thorough and accurate. Obituaries are one of the oldest forms of news, and I believe this story is journalism at its best. Maybe we’re simply present day historians? What also makes this story so elegant and interesting is the interactive map of Holden’s wandering through Manhattan (complete with links to Salinger’s writing) and relevant links including Joyce Maynard’s “An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back On Life,” which
spawned their ensuing love affair.
So is Journalism today’s history, literature, or an engaging combination of these and other elements? I simply think this worked for me and perhaps the fat lady, too.
Christine M. Tracy
As I re-read my “Evolution of the Newspaper of the Future,” which was written in the spring of 1995, I am truly amazed at its predictive quality (I wish I could consistently be this clairvoyant!) and especially the comments Howard Rheingold,
one of the founders of the WELL, made about the decentralized power of digital technologies. Mass media are disintegrating and social networks are thriving. We have a much larger and exciting role to play now, but it is not without its pitfalls. I’m reading a book titled, “This is not a book,” –reallly–that’s what it’s called! It claims to be a philosophical game and thought experiment. Here’s one: ethics is ecological. I like thinking about that. I do not naturally connect the two, but as a rhetorician and media ecologist, I have studied both. Michael Picard asks us to consider: “The inconvenient moral truth is that we must learn to widen the circle of our moral concerns, and let it encompass the whole earth.” So, let’s consider the evolution of the newssphere in the same playful vein.