Mass media consumers beware!

Becoming a smarter news consumer means having a vocabulary for manipulative tactics. From the Alamosa Valley Courier.


Mass media consumers beware! Be on the lookout for the following logical fallacies and manipulation tactics from your news sources.

False balance: In an attempt to fairly present a controversy — or to create a controversy where none exists for the sake of sensationalism — journalists may present opposing views of a topic as if they are on equal footing. For example, while there is overwhelming consensus among scientists that climate change is caused or at least exacerbated by human activity, media often present a handful of dissenters as an equivalent counterpart.

New York Times editor Daniel Okrent famously said: "The pursuit of balance can create imbalance because sometimes something is true." This can be exacerbated by the logical fallacy of argumentum ad populem: The belief that a proposition must be true because many people believe it.

Loaded words: Terms to describe an issue that evoke emotion. Examples include "pro-choice" and "pro-life" with regards to abortion: the first term implies the opposition is "anti-choice" and the latter implies their opponents are "anti-life."

Proving a negative: A logical fallacy in which someone is asked to prove the absence or non-existence of something. For example, conservative talk show host Glenn Beck asked U.S. Representative Keith Ellison, the first Muslim congressperson, to prove a negative when he asked, "Prove to me you're not working with our enemies."

Fallacy of the single cause: The assumption that a phenomenon or event has a single motivating factor. For example, after a school shooting, media may attribute the shooting to violent media, the accessibility of guns, or mental illness, despite the fact that such an event may have many complex contributing factors.

Slippery slope: a fallacy that suggests that a small first step will set off an inevitable chain of events. Examples include calling marijuana a "gateway drug" to use of worse drugs or saying that legalizing gay marriage will lead to legalizing polygamy and bestiality.

Illusory truth effect: Often cited as "a lie repeated often enough becomes true." An example is the oft-cited "statistic" that the average person will swallow a certain number of spiders in their sleep over a lifetime.

Chronological snobbery: The assumption that new ideas are better than old ideas simply because of their newness, or that old ideas are invalid because they coincided with disproven or disfavored ideas.

Misleading vividness: describing a problem in excruciating detail to induce a sense that the problem is more substantial. When applied to crime reporting, this can play to the availability heuristic: a psychological principle in which people believe something is common if examples can easily be called to mind. For instance, polls show most people believe child abduction by strangers is on the rise, despite a substantial long-term decline in such crimes. This perception may be fed by the heavy coverage of such cases in mass media.

Hierarchy of Death: An informal name for how much attention mass media will pay to death: Local deaths supersede foreign deaths, deaths in first-world nations over third-world nations, and white deaths over the deaths of darker-skinned people. Related to Missing White Woman Syndrome: the tendency of media to disproportionately focus on the kidnapping of pretty, upper-class, young white women, such as Natalee Hollaway.

Deviancy amplification spiral: the process by which media whip up isolated events into mass hysteria. The spiral begins with the reporting of a deviant or repugnant act, which brings other minor instances out of the woodwork, thus implying a pattern. These instances are presented as "the ones we know about." The publicity causes the event to seem epidemic, and inspires imitators, thus fueling the spiral. Law enforcement and the justice system are then pressured to crack down on the practice, and their responses reinforce public fear. Examples include the supposed "knockout game" epidemic of random attacks by young gangsters in 2013 or rumored waves of teen sex parties.

Mass media have unparalleled ability to influence our perception of the world. Outsmart them and think critically.