Thursday, August 24, 2006

Media, influencing perceptions and its impact on the truth

Whoever said information would be the key commodity of this new, digital world wasn't just spouting sci-fi gibberish.

But then, as a Communications major, I can appreciate the way information is processed both by the general public and the ones we mark as our "Targets" for the campaigns we design and execute. You have a message. It passess through a medium. It is transmitted to the intended (and unintended) reciever.

Of course, its never as simple as that. The old Sender->Reciever model of Communications cannot fully illustrate the complexities that come with information processing.

For one it doesn't take into account the role the Gatekeepers of Information play in the whole process. In most modern, (and ironically) democratic societies, the general public do not get the, ah, "raw data," or the information on an issue in its raw state. In most cases, people get their information from two sources: mainstream media, and the government. The problem here is that the latter usually tailors its information to make it look good, or at least to lessen the impact of bad news, while the former tailors its information to a specific agenda.

That's the Sender side of the equation. On the Reciever side, you have the Strategic Constituents, the persons that people consult with, or whose views on an issue are valued by a certain group, before a decision on an issue is made. If I remember my PR class right, StratCons are defined as people (or entities) that can "help or hinder your campaign."

All these, along with the biases of a culture and the personal history of an individual, all help to influence the way a particular piece of information is processed and, ultimately, determines its effects.

I gave that long-winded discussion on the Communications process in order to show how somethings we view as truth may just be a matter of perception.

For example: one of the primary stories in today's Philippine Daily Inquirer has as header, "GMA allies begin burial ceremony for impeach bid." This, ladies and gentlemen, is a story on the above-fold, front page area of the most widely-read and generally respected newspapers of the country.

There is this great debate on whether news should be of the "BBC" type - that is, shorn of sensationalism, given straight to the point and without any commentaries from those giving the report - to the "CNN" type, the so-called "distinctive" journalism where a newscaster is oftentimes asked by the anchor to give his or her views on the event.

Because the way information gets presented can and does determine how a reciever processes that information. Take away a large chunk of "objectivity" in a news report, and you'll end up with something that actually goes beyond simply informing the public to something that sets the agenda for the public.

But this somehow defeats the concept of information-sharing and dessimination in a democracy. Part of the reason why the Opinion section - with its biases and rhetoric - is in the middle of a paper,or why commentaries are shown separate from a newscast, is that you have a chance in the preceeding pages or through the 6:00 news to see the information in a more-or-less objective state. Its like eating; rumors are appetizers, the front page news is the main course, and the opinion page is either dessert or the patis and toyo that liven up the dish.

The problem here is that perceptions get formed not through the ideal way of a person getting information and then coming up with what we call an informed decision through deliberation and reflection, but through exposure to biases. In Comm parlance, the information recieved by the public is already "slanted", and when they talk to their StratCons, and somehow the "slant" resonates with the StratCon's ideas, it gets reinforced. There is no tension between competing data that allows for an informed decision because all the information someone gets is slanted one way.

And this should be a cause for concern. I once read something on the nursing leak, totally unrelated to the issue of Gloria's legitimacy. And yet, the letter sender somehow connected the two, even to saying that there is "overwhelming proof" of Gloria's cheating.

AGAIN, I will say that I do not like her and is not here to defend her. But the thing is... has there really been proof to the level that you can say, beyond reasonable doubt, that she did cheat? My information sources tell me that, at the very least, they all cheated. Or at least tried to; FPJ's group lacked the resources to do so. Besides, I have personal experience that acts as a tension to what mainstream media says, what PCIJ says and what even my own StratCon says.

But that's me. I was Trained as an intelligence operative, as an analyst within a security and intelligence context, so I'm usually paranoid of information I recieve. And, yes, being a Communications major, knowing that information can be manipulated to achieve a particular end, you tend to be careful of accepting something at face value.

What about the general public? What kind of defense does the people have when their sources of supposedly-reliabel information, or their Strategic Constituents, all seem to conspire to slant the information they recieve in order to advance their goals and private agendas?

People think its a truism that "Gloria cheated" or that there is "overwhelming proof" to her cheating not because there is... but because its all been made - by mainstream media, by PCIJ, by agenda-driven groups who used to be the respectable branch of Civil society - to appear that way. Because this is the Truth certain people want to be accepted as, and unfortunately for the general public they are in control of both the Gatekeepers of Information and are the Strategic Constituents themselves.

What can you consider as Truth then, when even supposed paragons and reliable sources of information start manipulating the facts and the presentation of information in order to make the Truth appear as they want it to be, and not as it should be?