The Power of Cognition on Perception

Monday, October 17, 2005
Some of my best friends are in media.

When I read a lot of news watchdog sites, then, while I'm interested in the content, I find the strident conspiracy model a little tough to take. I know some of those people, and I'm pretty sure that they aren't meeting in Marvin Kalb's office to set the official spin on every story based on how it advances their political agenda.

What's more interesting, I think, it to ask how the spin happens without a central organizer. If, as I suspect, it's some emergent behavior, from what does it emerge?

A story I picked up from today shows one way it could happen. The story points to a screen-capture of an ABC News story with the headline "White Supremacists Riot in Toledo, Ohio".

If you followed this story this weekend, you know that this is exactly the opposite of what actually happened: the white supremacists (or neo-nazis, and I haven't bothered to track down why they're called one of the other) didn't riot, and in fact they didn't actually demonstrate — when the police told them they couldn't guarantee their safety, they bugged out. Ran like rabbits.

What happened instead was that a counter-demonstration got out of control: it was the anti-"white supremacists" who rioted. The first paragraph of the story shown in the screen-capture is at worst ambiguous: "Protestors at a white supremacists' march..." could be read either way, but the story appears to identify who was protesting what correctly.

It's that very ambiguity, though, that explains the mistake: the headline writer read that first paragraph and assumed, perceived, the bad guys as being the white supremacists — and thus they became.

The dance of perceptions continues, though, if you read the actual NewsBusters posting. The writer, John Armor — who apparently isn't aware that the reporter doesn't generally write the headline — asks:

Presumably John Seewer, AP reporter, actually attended the event and saw what happened. So, the question is a very simple one:

Who is going to get fired for this gross and public dishonesty which polluted the American press this morning?

Notice that the reporter is being called out by name here, along with the suggestion that there was "gross and public dishonesty" that "polluted the American press", even though the story itself appears to have been accurate, and the headline a feasible interpretation of the first sentence of the story.

On the one hand, a mistaken headline based on the "knowledge" (it appears) that white supremacists are always the bad guys; on the other, a mistaken interpretation of "gross and public dishonesty" where there appears to have been an incorrect headline, quickly corrected. (The reason NewsBusters shows a screen shot is that the actual headline was corrected.)

Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things. — Epictetus


chuck said...

I think you have got this right. Conspiracies require way too much organization and discipline to account for the widespread appearance of bogus stories. Our natural interpretation of events in light of preconceptions and the social pull of community consensus are the main causes, I believe. The same probably accounts for the remarkable plurality of Democrats over Republicans in academe: who wants the hassle of being the oddball? Originality in social opinions among one's peers is a pain and at best tolerated with a bit of a sneer.

terrye said...

They call it group think for a reason.

MeaninglessHotAir said...

Bingo! Excellent post.

There are two separate points here, the social pressures, which Chuck addresses, and the passing of reality through a preconceived filter. In this case, the assumption on the part of the headline writer that white supremacists are always the bad guys. That's a given. That's part of our cultural mythos. In this case apparently contradicted by the facts.

The question to me is, given that our internal meter-stick is necessarily always inadequate because the dynamic range of reality is much greater than our ability to reason about reality, at which point exactly does society as a whole agree to apply a different meter-stick? Specifically of interest, the meter-stick being applied to the Iraqi travail is that it's all a failure all the time. (See Jamie Irons's post above.) Yet the evidence seems to be piling up that this filter is completely wrong. What is the tipping point? When do your friends in the media wake up and realize it's an unprecedented success?

David Thomson said...

“I find the strident conspiracy model a little tough to take.”

You are right to do so. It is foolish to go down that road. I unwaveringly reject the overt conspiracy thesis. There is almost never a conscious cooperation of journalists to filth on those not sharing the leftist vision. No editors are directly ordering their underlings to lie. What then explains their behavior? They are all on the same page. These individuals earn a living in an ideological echo chamber. Everybody essentially perceives reality via the left-wing perspective. Disagreement among the ranks is a rare event. How does this occur? Most of these journalists attended the same liberal universities. Promotions are subtly based on adhering to the progressive line. It is simply assumed that right of center journalists “don’t get along with others.” They are deemed uncooperative and too willing to argue their point of view. Journalists, after all, are suppose to be objective, dispassionate, and above the fray. In other words, someone who has their act together should naturally be a Democrat “moderate.”

vnjagvet said...

One way to observe reality is to "feel" your way through it. This is the way our younger generations were taught to perceive the world. When we hear someone of these generations express an opinion, it is often preceded by the words, "I feel", as in "I feel the war against Iraq is wrong".

Another way to observe reality is to "think" your way through it. This is the way, for the most part, my generation was taught to perceive the world. This is the way of book learning and reason. It sometimes makes for unpleasant surprises when the real world is encountered.

A third way to observe reality is to "see" your way through it. That is the way my parents' generation was taught to perceive the world. That so-called "greatest" generation actually experienced two world wars, the great depression and the fears and insecurities of the cold war.

No one way of perception is wholly the right way. Each method of perception often yields a different reality.

Facts are capable of interpretation in many ways. To have only them interpreted only one way yields bad intelligence and wrong decisions.

Syl said...

Well, the only answer I see here is to fire all the copy editors in the MSM.

I didn't catch it myself, but in a comment at tom maguire's the other day someone pointed out a WaPo headline (I'm paraphrasing):

Lawyers say Libby In Trouble

But the first paragraph said (again paraphrasing):

People close to the investigation say Libby could be in trouble if his story doesn't match Judith Miller's testimony.

One can find examples of this every day. In fact at one point in my life (like a few weeks ago) I thought I'd start a blog JUST to point out headline misrepresentations like these.

It's egregious whether it's caused by sloppiness, laziness, incompetence, or willfulness, because, as we know, many people just glance at the headline then go on to read a different article.

I'd say half the problem with the MSM's affect on our populace would be solved if the headlines actually reflected reality.

The AP (and Reuters, of course) are especially prone to this problem. And I'm being kind here. :)

MeaninglessHotAir said...


Comparing headlines to stories. Sounds like another good idea for a regular feature here.