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Elusive Reality

Originally posted in February of 2008, the content outlined here will serve well for the upcoming election year.

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Circumstantial evidence is a very tricky thing. It may seem to point very straight at one thing, but if you shift your own point of view a little, you may find it pointing in an equally uncompromising manner to something entirely different.

Sherlock Holmes, The Boscombe Valley Mystery (1892)

Thus the superlative deductive detective of the 19th century pinpoints the challenge faced by those seeking truth in any body of data. One’s point of view, or perhaps better, one’s worldview or frame of reference, dramatically influences how we interpret the data coming at us in every area of life. If you haven’t liked broccoli since childhood, you will have a difficult time trying any dish that contains it without a significant shift in paradigm.

One of my favorite examples of this can be found in Francis Schaeffer’s film series based on his book How Should We Then Live? This opus is an historical examination of the development of western thought from early Greece and Rome all the way through the latter part of the 20th century. At one point he very instructively shows footage of a news story of a riot that’s been staged specifically for his film. First, he shows coverage that depicts "our brave police" staving off the rabid attacks of "fanatics" demonstrating against something or other, with the "rioters" hurling insults and bottles at the police, who hold their ground and remain calm, defending themselves and carrying off only those rioters who have attacked by physically launching themselves at them. The newscaster speaks in glowing terms of the bravery of the police and their willingness to stand in the gap to safeguard the public. Shots focus primarily on either the police or on obviously enraged attackers and their hateful grimaces and faces prior to any action on the part of the police. Makes you feel all soft and warm and protected by the police, thankful that they are there. Then, the film breaks to a second broadcast. In this one, also a riot, the cameras focus only on "police brutality," showing the police apparently overreacting and pounding on those "innocent" demonstrators who were only exercising their first amendment rights of free speech when they were attacked with great violence by the police force armed to the teeth and against which these demonstrators stood no chance to defend themselves. Again, there is selective language by the newscaster in describing the "peaceful protesters" and the "brutal police." In this case, one’s sense of justice and outrage are inflamed at what you see. Finally, a third camera zooms out to show that exactly the same riot is being filmed by two different crews. What has happened is…you’ve been framed!

The earliest formal work on framing traces back 25 years to research by the cognitive psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. In experiments examining risk judgments and consumer choices rather than content itself, the two psychologists discovered that the different ways in which a message is presented or framed can result in very different responses. They concluded in their Nobel Prize winning research that ‘perception is reference-dependent.’

Over the past two decades, research in the fields of political communication and sociology has added to previous work on framing to explain how media portrayals in interaction with cultural forces shape public views. In this research, frames are identified as being used by audiences as ‘interpretative schema’ to make sense of and discuss an issue, by journalists to craft interesting and appealing news reports, and by policymakers to define policy options and reach decisions.

In each of these contexts, frames simplify complex issues by lending greater importance to certain considerations and arguments over others. In the process, framing helps communicate why an issue might be a problem, who or what might be responsible, and what should be done.

(Matthew C. Nisbet & Dietram A. Scheufele, The Future of Public Engagement, October 1, 2007, The Scientist)

Framing is an essential part of communication and happens whether or not you are aware of it. The first paragraphs of this post are, in fact, a "frame" in which an attempt is being made to show the relevance of the following content and to draw you into the presentation represented by this post. It is, therefore, an important tool in creating communication that captures your audience and transmits your message. The question, then, is not whether or not you have been framed, but whether or not the frame corresponds to reality. This is not a trivial question for a culture in which truth has become increasingly malleable and relative to the one experiencing or asserting it, or to the communicator’s ultimate goals with the ends justifying the means. Consequently, what is usually missed is the consciousness that this is occurring, and so critical thought regarding the truthfulness of the frame and the truth of the contents in the frame is overturned by the emotional associations triggered by the frame.

When the emotional responses to the frame block rational thought, you have the essence of propaganda and empty rhetoric no matter the source. Although one can find examples of framing on both the left and right of the political spectrum, the preponderance of flawed framing that literally boggles the mind emanates from the left as their worldview is much more subjective and visceral than that of the right. For purposes of this discussion, we will here note the following definitions from the Pocket Oxford Dictionary (with emphases added to highlight particularly relevant parts): propaganda = information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view; rhetoric = 1) the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing; 2) language with a persuasive or impressive effect, but often lacking sincerity or meaningful content.

As flawed human beings, we are all subject to falling for propaganda and rhetoric, but it behooves us as rational creatures to beware of such manipulation. Those who must needs resort to a distortion of truth generally have an agenda they are seeking to hide, an agenda that, were it fully revealed, would trigger rejection and resistance to it.

As the information available for consumption has been increasing exponentially, our current political and social milieu particularly this election season abounds in examples of all kinds of framing. Thus, Thomas Sowell sounds the alarm in his recent (i.e., recent in February, 2008; sorry but the original does not seem to be available now) NRO article, calling false framing demagoguery:

Yet we seem to be no more aware of the need to be on guard against demagoguery today, in the 21st century, than those people who looked up with open-mouthed adulation at Adolf Hitler in the 1930s and at numerous other demagogues, large and small, around the world throughout the turbulent 20th century.

Many people find it thrilling that the mantra of "change" is ringing out across the land during this election year. But let’s do what the politicians hope that we will never do — stop and think.

In citing a specific example from current campaigning, Sowell adds,

Everybody is for change. They differ on the specifics. Uniting people behind the thoughtless mantra of ‘change’ means asking for a blank check in exchange for rhetoric. That deal has been made many times in many places — and millions of people have lived to regret it.

I, of course, cannot help but repeat his quip specifically directed at one of the most egregious perpetrators of empty framing:

Barack Obama says that he wants to ‘heal America and repair the world.’ One wonders what he will do for an encore and whether he will rest on the seventh day.

Another example: accurate framing is something that’s been dramatically missing in the reporting being done on the Iraq war. As Michael Yon notes in one of his recent dispatches:

The best reporting comes from reporters who have spent the most time on the ground here, because the context is complex and evolving. Long distance reporting is like exploring the moon through a telescope. To get a feel for the ground here, a journalist has to be like Captain Kirk. I have often commented on how very different the reality is over here from what most Americans seem to think it is.

There is no way to explain how different, except to say ‘you would have to be here to understand it.’ When mainstream reporters get the story wrong, it’s usually because they lack the context and depth of experience necessary to correctly interpret what they see and hear. The same is true for bloggers, some of whom are grandiose in implying that they spend a significant amount of time in the field, but an inventory and audit would not support the claims.

False framing most frequently involves the selection of material to show only one side of the story. Dissenting data is dismissed as irrelevant, when in fact, it is only irrelevant for the propagandist whose purpose is only to portray one side, lest the "wrong" conclusion be reached by his audience. A particularly good site for exposing such is Newsbusters.

The bottomline: part of developing critical thinking capacity is to learn to discern the framing taking place in any story, and then to test both the frame and the story content against known realities. In so doing, one heeds the admonition of the wisest man to ever live when he said:

The simple believeth every word: but the prudent man looketh well to his going.

Proverbs 14:15

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