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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Media damaging perception

This is very true of today's India and its nasty media
Connecting Brain Processes to School Policies and Practices
A monthly column that explores scientific and technological developments that pose problems and possibilities for educational policy and practice.
  How Mass Media Affect Our Perception of Reality -- Part 1
December 2001
By Robert Sylwester, Ed.D.

The U.S. mass media were focused on sports, the lives of various celebrities, and a Congressman's relationship with a missing staff member just before September 11. Then everything changed. A skyscraper complex, militant group, and distant country suddenly dominated mass media as people sought to understand what had occurred, what to make of passenger planes turned into missiles, and who to trust for credible information on terrorism.
That dramatic shift in media emphasis is an excellent recent example of how mass media help to shape our shifting concerns and beliefs. Why could we have been so concerned about celebrity lifestyles one week and so unconcerned the next? Why such a prior general disinterest in an already notorious terrorist group, and in festering Middle East countries and cultures? Why the sudden media shift from a Regularly-Criticized-President to an Esteemed-Leader-President?

This column will focus on mass media as an important cultural phenomenon that we must understand if our cognitive processes are to be informed but not unduly influenced by it. Next month's column will focus on the techniques mass media use to shape and distort information and beliefs.

Dramatic advances in mass communication and transportation during the past 50 years have truly created a global village, a mass society. Things occurring anywhere are now quickly known everywhere. Mass media both overwhelm us with information, and help us to sort it out.
Mass media seek a broad audience for a typically narrow (and often biased) message that's typically embedded in entertainment or useful information/opinion. Mass media communication is expensive, so it's funded through participant admissions/subscriptions and contributions, or through sponsorships and advertising (or a combination of these funding sources). It thus must provide something sufficiently valuable to its potential audience to gain that necessary financial support.

The mass media have a slow news day problem. They have pages and time to fill, even when events are mundane. A common solution at such times is to focus on sports and the lives of celebrities (people who are well known for their well-knownness, as Andy Warhol once put it), or to take something relatively trivial and expand it into something important. Think back to the pre-September 11 focus.

Mass media encompass much more than print and electronic forms of communication (such as magazines and television). Sporting events, churches, museums, theme parks, political campaigns, catalogs, and concerts are also forms of mass media, although many people consider them to be something other than mass media.

The U.S. Constitution underscores the importance of the open communication of information and opinion in our democratic society by granting considerable self-direction to the various forms of mass media. A marketplace mentality suggests that useful information and opinions will spread, and the useless will disappear. A free-speech society can thus tolerate instances of false information, stupidity, and vulgarity - assuming them to be a temporary irritant.
Mass media are very competitive. Folks today have many options about the TV and films they watch, the books and magazines they read, the cultural and religious institutions they attend. The challenge for a media program is to get and hold the attention of mass media shoppers -- who are channel surfing, browsing at a bookstore, checking out various churches.

In a stimulating competitive environment, a media program must score quickly. Since you're still reading this column, the title and opening paragraph must have sufficiently caught your attention so you continued. Emotional arousal drives attention, which drives learning and conscious behavior - so it's important for mass media programmers to understand and present content that will emotionally arouse potential participants.

Our basic biological challenge is to survive and get into the gene pool, so avoiding danger and taking advantage of opportunities for eating/shelter/mating are cognitively important. Events related to these needs are inherently emotionally arousing, and successful mass media programmers understand this.

People complain about the amount of violence, sexuality, and commercialism in mass media, but let's look at the issue from a TV programmer's perspective. Channel surfers will give a TV program only a few seconds before moving to the next channel, so programmers focus on content sequences with a high probability for emotional arousal - and program content and commercials related to violence, sexuality, and food/shelter do attract and hold attention. Consider the recent media focus on terrorist violence, the Taliban treatment of women, the food/shelter problems now facing the families of those killed and Afghani refugees -- and the resultant widespread outpouring of anger and support.

Similarly, other forms of mass media, from churches to sporting events explicitly or implicitly include these attention-getters in their programming (consider hell-and-brimstone and sexual purity sermons and the appeal of church suppers; or football violence, cheerleaders, and drinks-and-chips).

Mass media thus exploit areas of strong emotional arousal to help shape our knowledge and opinions - such as with our rapid media-driven increase in knowledge of the terrorists and their victims. Osama bin Laden had previously been a peripheral media figure. The several thousands victims had been invisible office workers until many newspapers published a series of anecdotal obituaries of all of them. Police and firefighters across the country were suddenly elevated in esteem - as was New York's mayor, severely criticized prior to September 11. A nation already beset by a financial downturn had to become emotionally aroused to respond. Charities similarly use examples of a few individuals in desperate straits to encourage contributions for a much broader assistance program.

Given such manipulative potential over our affective processes, it's important to know who determines the content of mass media. A relatively small number of large corporations control much of our nation's print and electronic media (newspapers, publishing houses, radio/TV stations, cable systems, etc.). Further, a relatively small number of media stars reach vast audiences - syndicated newspaper columnists and cartoonists, radio and TV talk show hosts, late night TV comedians. On the other hand, most newspapers include editorial columnists who disagree with each other, and the Sunday morning political TV shows are characterized more by argument than agreement. A major media organization that defines itself too narrowly risks reaching a limited audience when they need a massive audience to survive - so this financial reality forces at least some balance in programming.
Magazines and radio stations are perhaps the most successful narrowly defined mass media formats - typically being upfront about seeking an audience who shares their narrow perspective (e.g., Rolling Stone, Gourmet, Ms., The Christian Century, Sports Illustrated - golden oldies, jazz, classical, rock music radio stations).

The Computer Age has revolutionized mass media. The Internet allows the universal inexpensive publication of ideas, whether it's an email message sent to everyone on one's list or a narrowly-defined website that's available to anyone. Desktop publication and advances in duplicating technology have reduced the need for authors to go through a publisher.

So it's a cultural paradox. We're simultaneously experiencing the centralization of influence in corporate mass media and the rapid expansion of populist mass media. Both pose dangers and opportunities that we'll explore in the next column.

Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon. He focuses on the educational implications of new developments in science and technology and has written several books and over 150 journal articles. His most recent books are The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (2007, Corwin Press), How to explain a brain: An educator's handbook of brain terms and cognitive processes (2004, Corwin Press),and A biological brain in a cultural classroom: Enhancing cognitive and social development through collaborative classroom management(2003, Corwin Press. second edition). The Education Press Association of America gave him three Distinguished Achievement Awards for his published syntheses of cognitive science research. He has made over 1400 conference and in-service presentations on educationally significant developments in brain/stress theory and research
How Mass Media Affect Our Perception of Reality -- Part 2
January 2002
By Robert Sylwester, Ed.D.

We gather and dispense information about our intimate environment through personal and electronic contact with family, friends, and associates. Mass media (MM) provide much of our knowledge of the larger environment. Last month's column focused on MM as a cultural phenomenon that we must understand if it's to inform but not unduly influence our cognitive processes. This column will focus on the techniques that (non-entertainment) MM use to shape and distort information and beliefs.
Mass media play an important role in democratic societies and competitive markets that function through the efficient persuasion of large widespread audiences. It's no surprise then that governments seek to control MM output, and that many who use MM distort the truth when seeking support for their cause. Websites have recently become an important, relatively inexpensive, unregulated venue for disseminating information, and so we should be as aware of who's running a website as we are of other MM venues we use, and also as leery of what's published on it.
Mass media have now evolved to the point where conflicting media messages constantly bombard us. How do we select what to attend to and what to believe?
Our brain must constantly differentiate between what's currently important (foreground) and peripheral (background or context). It does this through an attentional buffer (commonly called our working brain) that allows us to focus on only a few units of information for a short period of time while we determine their importance within the larger perceptual field.
Our working brain thus temporarily frames a segment of our larger perceptual environment. We attend to things that are inside the frame, and are merely aware of (or ignore) whatever is outside the frame. A short attention span is a requisite of a wary opportunistic brain that must constantly shift its focus.

Gaining Attention
Since mass media must assume a short audience attention span, MM messages tend to incorporate things humans innately attend to. Among these are rapidly moving objects, loud sounds, fluctuations (from sirens to snakes), unexpected events, and the red end of the color spectrum. Last month's column discussed the additional attentive appeal of information related to threat, food, shelter, and sexuality.
TV commercials tend to insert one or more of these elements into the picture to capture attention -- and then to surround it with the commercial message. For example, the opening shot might be of a smiling attractive woman standing next to a red automobile. Red and attractive woman have nothing to do with the worthiness of the car, but they do help gain and briefly hold the attention of potential buyers during the sales pitch.
TV commercials often tell an appealing and/or humorous story within the commercial, and the advertiser then repeats the commercial frequently in the hope that repeated viewing will eventually shift the audience focus from the story to the surrounding commercial message.

Mass media often relentlessly focus on what's within the frame and ignore its context -- and so distort its meaning and significance. The result is that repeated replays of a rare or isolated event that's emotionally charged come across as being common in the minds of those who can't get beyond their personal emotion into the event's cultural context.
Thus, folks have recently chosen to drive instead of fly 500 miles because of fear caused by the September 11 air crashes, even though driving 500 miles is much more dangerous statistically. Similarly, a few cases of anthrax in billions of pieces of autumn mail caused mailed Christmas greetings to be fearsome for some folks this year.

Effective mass media messages move us from attention to persuasion - and a persuasive message must have a rational base. Unfortunately, the limited time that a MM message typically gets hinders reflective thought. The solution is to distort the message through brief appealing rhetoric that seems rational (but isn't upon reflection). Common examples are political promises to increase services and reduce taxes, ads that indicate that a product is improved (but don't say over what), TV drug commercials that begin with clearly promised positive results, but end with a rapid incomprehensible listing of the dangers associated with the medicine (the televised equivalent of the small print in a contract or print ad).
We often depend on informed trustworthy friends' advice in many of our decisions. Mass media exploit this tendency by using celebrities and hired actors who look friendly and trustworthy to persuade a hopefully gullible audience. That a well known entertainer or athlete endorses a product has nothing to do with its worth - unless the product is integral to the endorser's life or work.
Living with Mass Media Trickery
It's important to realize that those who use mass media to promote their product, service, or belief system don't have a responsibility to tout the virtues of their competitors. We thus shouldn't be surprised that they try to make the best possible case for what they have to offer - and often push the envelope of accuracy and honesty. Things tend to be black and white in a single unit of MM information, no shades of gray. You have to surf the relevant MM widely if you want to understand all sides of an issue before you make your choice.
The Latin phrase caveat emptor emerged long before mass media, but buyer beware is still good advice for anything that reaches us via mass media. Folks who successfully use MM to promote something unabashedly use their knowledge of how to influence our decisions. They seek rapid/impulsive and not delayed/reflective decisions. We're not required to believe what MM present - so we shouldn't complain if we neglected to use our rational reflective processes to determine whether the message was useful or bogus before buying into it.

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