The media informs our choice in way they don’t realise. (And nor do we.)
Like you, I am a fair-minded, considerate, person. The news I read, the stories I engage with, the information I glean is considered, compared, and compartmentalized against my existing understanding, which is itself, considered, compared, and compartmentalized – and so on. I am never told what to think. Frequently I am told what other people think, but never told what I should think. And if anyone tried, I would disengage.
What’s wrong with that? Nothing, it seems. But there’s a trapdoor.
‘I am never told what to think’ works on two levels as far as our cognition is concerned; explicitly and implicitly. Explicitly it’s easy to spot, ‘vote for me’, ‘I’m right when I say . . . ‘, etc. The implicit takes a lot more work to recognise, and is – arguably – more persuasive.
Flogging a dead norm
Maxwell Boykoff wrote a paper in 2007 called ‘Flogging a dead norm?’ for which he examined the reporting of climate change in US and UK newspapers during the mid-2000s. At the time scientific consensus
Is this just unnecessary whining? No. Relative prevalence informs our behaviour directly. Seeing a two-sided debate informs us that it is (it must be) a two-sided debate.
And we get that ‘answer’ as-if for free – it hardly touches the sides.
At its most basic, this is normative behaviour at work – the perceived behaviour of the average person usually correlates with actual average behaviour. This is not to say that a normative understanding is inherently wrong – it’s not, as evolutionary psychology tells us it’s pretty useful to correlate the perceived behaviour with actual behaviour because it’s usually a ‘good bet’, and we don’t have to think too hard to be able to act on it. But that is also its downfall; we rarely see it for what it is because we adopt without looking.
This is why the balance of reporting itself informs our opinion of the subject irrespective of actual content. I posit that we don’t realise it: and the evidence suggests I’m right. And by extension, I say that people in the media don’t know realise much presentation affects the understanding irrespective of the actual content.
The only way to deal with this – short of having ninety-seven manmade climate change scientists ‘for’ and three ‘against’ in a debate – is to question the presentation.
Whilst this is a problem of presentation in and for the media, it also a problem outside the media. In fact, it’s a problem unrecognised when presenting choice to your partner about where to eat for dinner as much as it is a problem unrecognised when presenting debate to a nation. You can’t avoid it. (You can only be vigilant.)