Sly Words: How the News Media Tells You What to Think…

By Niles Wimber

I had a high school AP English class where, near the end of the year, we had a series of “physical debates”. After the overall question was asked, sections of the room were labeled with varying degrees of “agree” or “disagree” and, as the debate progressed, you would physically move around the room to the section that matched your current opinion. This usually boiled down to one or two students who adamantly opposed each other and the rest of us moving to one side or the other.

On one particular day, the topic was globalization. At one point in the conversation, I gave an example to explain investment: a mayor convincing backers to construct a pillow factory that would support a small third-world community. Most of the class had moved to my side after hearing that.

However, the teacher (who was ostensibly impartial) liked to “inject momentum” into the debate by acting as what I nicknamed “op-eds” under the guise of off-hand remarks. This was done through declaring bold, inflammatory statements, usually against the side she secretly disagreed with.

In this case, she mockingly joked that the pillow factory was going to be used to smuggle guns inside the pillow cases. It was supposedly a funny reference to the fact that I had written an essay on gun control earlier in the year but it also “injected momentum” by driving away a lot of supporters solely on the grounds that my idea “’wasn’t serious”’.

It was a… surprising lesson about the media’s power in guiding public opinion.

From this and other situations in life, I learned about a few logic tricks that the media uses to convince us that they’re right. In the above story, my teacher used something called the “appeal to ridicule fallacy” which in short is saying your argument is wrong by making fun of it. The idea is that others will be so distracted by how silly the argument is that they’ll ignore any actual merit that it may have. It certainly worked well for my teacher: about 70% of my supporters immediately jumped ship over her comment.

Another trick is called source amnesia. This is basically knowing  some fact, but not remembering its source or how truthful it may be.  Your brain can’t remember every aspect of information you receive so it only remembers the main topic. You’ve had this every time you’ve said something along the lines of “I remember hearing that somewhere” or “I know I’ve read that before…”. The news media (from TV to blogs) knows that the vast majority of us only skim headlines and thus works to make each headline as memorable as possible.    This can also serve to subconsciously influence your opinion.

For example, take a look at this headline from a major newspaper:

Source: Salt Lake Tribune

Source: Salt Lake Tribune, print edition, Feb. 4, 2014.

Think of your gut reaction to what that headline is saying before reading on.

Most reactions range from “wow, another loss for gays” to “how can another court rule against this?!” However, from reading the article, it’s clear that’s not the case at all. The article says that a lawyer representing some gay couples who aren’t a part of the case had her request to join oral arguments (the debate before the appeals court) denied and has to file a supporting statement instead.

This is entirely normal as courts usually allow an intervention only if a new viewpoint is brought to the table. In a hypothetical case, my friend couldn’t intervene in my drunk driving case solely on the grounds that he has also been drunk before. He adds nothing new to the discussion.

It was a non-issue court decision that changed the main case in no way, but the headline out of context can hype it up to make it look like the judges declared an early ruling. In a few days, all you’ll remember is the gays lost again at the hands of government.

Overall, it’s pretty easy to be misled by words. I don’t expect all of you to immediately start poring over the morning news hunting for tricks but I hope that we can all keep the knowledge in the back of our minds that when someone is telling you something to think about, they may be secretly telling you how to think about it as well.

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