Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Priming the Pump


You've probably seen it a million times in the newspapers. "Alcohol was not a factor." It seems innocuous enough, but it's actually journalistically unethical. The biggest objection to the phrase comes when you apply it to something else, such as `Teenaged Drivers were not a factor in the accident.` There might be good reason to suspect Teen drivers were involved in an accident, since they're more prone to crashing their truck. However, because they're not relevant, it's not mentioned. In fact, there's a great deal of non-relevant things that are not mentioned.

But far from wasting page space, these kinds of phrases when given by authority figures (such as a newspaper, or a police agency) actually have the opposite effect. It's called `priming,` and Obama has a lot of problems with it. The meat of the issue is when an authority figure discusses something, even to say it's not associated, it almost instantly becomes associated. Because of how the Human Brain works, when you hear Obama say "There are no death Panels," people are more likely to think Death Panels exist. The more time an authority figure spends dispelling a rumour, the more authority that rumour takes. It seems backwards, but the human brain often is.

So, when people talk about accidents and say `Alcohol was not involved,` readers are more likely to take away the message that alcohol was involved. Or, at least, they're primed to consider that as a possibility, if they weren't before.  The News Miner is terrible about this, when they say that drugs were found at the scene of some crime, but drugs were not a factor in the crime. Instantly, people begin to assume it is a drug related crime, when in reality it's a totally false association. My favourite example of this is  when someone pointed  out that both Hitler and Stalin had moustaches, so history books should mention that mass-murder is not moustache related.

And the worst bit is, Journalists aren't ignorant of this. If the journalist went to that fancy pants college place, they almost invariably have learnt that a) this stuff happens and b) doing this is unethical. Sadly, many reporters and editors don't seem to be able to remember their actual training. Now, I'm probably never going to the battle on accident reports, when when people detail crime victims, and say they were in possession of, say, an once of marijuana in a totally drug-unrelated crime, that really cheeses me off.

Alcohol was not a factor in this post.