October 04, 2004

Giving People Information to Get Them to See

Orig Posted on the Lakoff blog:

This particular statement made in class last Tuesday reminded me of what I often heard journalism students and the occasional visiting professional journalist giving a lecture at the JSchool at UCBerkeley say, though they were speaking from the journalistic model, not the voting model. It would always make me stop then too. It's the idea that given the right information, people will choose wisely (code word for the 'right' way, which is the way the speaker thinks is right). In a way, the theory is understandable in that given better information, people will make better decisions. But economists know this doesn't happen. Given lower pricing, many people do not buy the generic brand over the branded brand even though the same manufacturer may have made it. And given the right information, or the facts, people do not necessarily choose a particular course of action, for one reason or another.

It might be due to their perception that the facts as delivered by either liberals or journalists is incorrect, to be disregarded because the facts don't fit the person's framework of life, are not trustworthy for some other reason, or are less trustworthy than some other conflicting fact. But it may also be because people don't like being condescended to, don't like being told what is right or good or correct. I believe this is one of the issues top down media currently faces today: the masses, who were supposed to be reading newspapers and getting the right info so they could make the right decisions and be 'well-informed', realized some time ago that newspapers in their old form were in one way or another out of touch with their lives and what they needed from their information deliverers. It might have been the paper-paper delivery, the generalist nature of the coverage, or the occasional journalist whose lack of humility or disregard for the truth or the intelligence of those they were reporting for just didn't sit well with the great unwashed. But when media has screwed up, anger toward top-down media has showed up in some surprising ways, and at least for me, and the few that I've spoken with, the anger and distrust comes in part from the sense of condescension we've felt. Liberal views of knowing what's best have also provoked this same sort of anger in the public. That's not to say that I or those I've talked with about this are libertarians.. though there is some flavor of it there, balanced by other sensibilities that government has a responsibility to control certain things for all of us, whether we like it or not (keeping industrial pollution regulated, making everyone stop at stop signs, providing education -- though you probably realize that I see us doing a better job on the stop signs and falling down with our responsibility to kids and the environment).

So does better information matter? Absolutely, as does education, so that people understand many ways of looking at fact, theory and argument. But I don't believe that given better information, people will the see 'the light', especially the one particular light the information giver wants to make people to see. Yes, some will see it, but the most responsible thing to do is to give people honest information no matter what position it supports and let them make up their own minds. It's why I love blogging and other newer forms of online information passing. It may not always be right.. it maybe require us to be continuously asking about whether the information appears true, whether we trust the purveyor, or should put our trust in the search for information that is more truthful. But expecting others to get some particular notion afterward is condescending, and will never get the liberals, or top down journalists, a considered place at the table of most folks. Because the bristling nature of that condescension just makes people feel funny and that leads to distrust. But sharing information across many information sources, blogs and top-down media online, and wikis and via word of mouth, gives us the opportunity to lose the condescension so that we do our own fact checking and are apart of the process of getting the best information for the sake of getting the best information no matter what its provenance.

Posted by Mary Hodder at October 4, 2004 10:48 PM | TrackBack