A well-known politician stated several years into our recovery from the Great Recessions that the US economy was “flatlining.” This was not a statement of fact about the US economy, but rather a metaphor that referred to the loss of a heartbeat or brainwaves in an individual human. Still, there were people who accepted it as fact without asking what it meant in real-world terms or what measure the speaker was using to arrive at this characterization. They may even have repeated it when the subject of the economic recovery came up.
Surprisingly, journalists seem reluctant to respond to such statements by asking, “What does that mean and on what measure do you base that opinion?”
Depending on your level of awareness of what the US economy was doing back then (or now), you may think either “OMG! this many years into the so-called ‘recovery’ and we’ve stagnated.” Or “What the heck is he talking about, and what measure is he using?”
What does awareness have to do with it? Everything. What we are aware of in the world determines our assumptions about reality. And those assumptions (both about reality and the person delivering the message) will determine how we receive this sort of input.
- If we have assumptions about reality that coincide with the speaker’s statement, we may experience confirmation bias—meaning that we believe what he says because we agree with it. It is already part of our assumptions about reality.
- If we have no assumptions about a particular reality, but we trust the speaker, we may simply accept what he says as being fact, and thereby add it to our assumptions about reality. Indeed, it may form the foundation for our assumptions and color other information we receive on the same subject.
- If we have no assumptions about a particular reality, but don’t trust the speaker, we may simply reject what he’s saying, and therefore reject any implications it may have for reality.
- If we have assumptions about reality that are in conflict with what the speaker says, we may just shrug and think, “Huh, well that’s weird. Why’s he saying that?” OR we might think that and take the further step of doing some research ourselves to determine if the speaker is correct.
So, let’s take the flatlining economy—specifically one oft-cited measure thereof: job creation. Let’s say you were aware that the US had a run of months in which 200,000-plus jobs were created. You were also aware that we had several years of strong job creation and that the employment rate was at 5%, down from a high that was at least twice that. (Whether or not you subscribe to the “whisper number” school of calculating unemployment, this is still significant because we were using the same method of calculating unemployment when it surged to 10%.)
You may have been further aware that after hemorrhaging jobs in 2008-9, the US pulled back into a mode of annual positive job creation in 2010. Whatever you may think of various segments of our government or what party you follow, the facts are these: we went from minus to plus in one year and from there pulled upward in a wobbly line. Back to back years as solid as we saw in 2014 and 2015 hadn’t been seen since 1998-99.
So, how is it that though most Americans who have opinions about this element of the economy were hearing the numbers, a significant portion of them believed a pundit or politician who said, “our economy is flatlining?” How does that happen?
I think it happens because knowing the factual numbers is one thing; understanding their significance is something else. And that understanding can be influenced by how sources of information frame that information.
This is a handy thing to know if you’re a writer. It can help you get more out of your research and it also illustrates how you can manipulate your readers’ perceptions of characters, situations, and facts that arise in your stories. It’s also handy—and arguably more crucial—if you’re just an American trying to navigate everyday reality. Your understanding of reality informs the way you act and react in the public sphere. It influences how you think, talk, behave, and vote. It guides what causes you take up and what organizations you ally yourself with. It can even affect how you treat other human beings, near or far.
So, what am I suggesting? First of all, question everything. Whether you agree with it, disagree with it, doubt it or just don’t know.
Do the research. Do it in a variety of places.
And redact the hell out of everything you read.
Years ago, I started collecting transcripts of speeches, interviews, and press releases that bore on issues I felt were important for me to understand as a writer, as a citizen of this country, and as a human being. Hearing something with its emotional content, the expression on the speaker’s face, perhaps the heightened emotion that comes with being in a crowd, et al, is different from seeing the words written down and connected together.
When you listen to a speaker, you may remember isolated, defining words, or even brief collections of words, and how those words made you feel but, unless you have an eidetic memory, you’ll be left with an ambient (and possibly ambiguous) sense of what was said. And depending on what biases are at work (confirmation or conflict, for example) you may remember the person saying what you wanted to hear them say. This is why people in the same audience come away from speeches or interviews with vastly different takes on what was said. And, as we now know, a speaker who knows how to employ ambiguous rhetoric can heighten that effect dramatically.
Seeing the written word can make a significant difference in how you parse what a speaker is saying. I’ve read transcripts of speeches after hearing or reading a summarization by a journalist who thought they were relaying the information accurately. I’ve been floored by the difference between what was said and what was perceived to have been said. Sometimes this “slippage” is accidental and leads to misunderstandings; sometimes it’s intentional and leads to manipulation.
“Yes,” you may be thinking, “but we’re talking about numbers here. You can’t exaggerate numbers without changing the numbers themselves, right?”
Not so. I got a first hand illustration of this when I heard two different reports on the job creation numbers for October 2015.
- NPR reported the numbers this way: “In a jobs report that may influence the Federal Reserve’s decision on interest rates, the Labor Department says that 271,000 jobs were added in October. The unemployment rate fell slightly to 5 percent, according to the report from the agency’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.” (The jobs number was upgraded to over 300,000 later.) This was, inarguably, the best jobs report (by the measure of sheer numbers) for the entire year.
- Here’s how Fox News reported the same information: “Only 271,000 new jobs were added last month. That is up from September as well. Analysts were expecting more than 180,000 jobs for October.” (Emphasis in the audio.)
You see that little adverb appended to the very beginning of the first sentence? The first word the listener hears is “only”, which sets the emotional tone and frames whatever follows. And what follows is: “Analysts were expecting more that 180,000″. The combination of “only” and “expecting more” might cause you to miss the fact that analysts expected far fewer jobs to be created. It would be unsurprising if you walked away with the impression that job growth for October 2015 was disappointing. How different if the Fox reporter had said, “271,000 jobs were added last month. That’s up from September. Analysts were expecting 180,000.”
Numbers don’t stick in our memories as well as emotional associations do. “Only”—that seemingly insignificant modifier—has the power to suggest to the listener that job growth in October was disappointing, flat.
“…our economy is flatlining…”
So, if you want to separate fact from fiction, reality from fantasy, and denotation from connotation, I encourage the search for transcripts of potentially influential statements whenever you can find them, or repeated listening to video and audio when you can’t. When you read, redact—at least, when you read for comprehension. Pull out every adverb, every adjective, every colorful verb (replace with the most neutral equivalent that will work), then read the result. You may walk away with a different impression than you had at first blush.
In any event, you will have circumvented the speaker’s attempts to skew your perceptions. In all cases, ask those pertinent (or even impertinent) questions about meaning and measure.
In closing, I note that the same politician I referenced in my opening said that “the stock market is falling apart”. I’ll leave you, Dear Reader, to parse that one.
PS: I just stumbled upon this fascinating youtube video by a fellow calling himself nerdwriter (gotta love that) that analyses the way a major celebrity-politician uses language.