Meaningless without perspective

Remember “Jaws,” when the guys on the Orca first spot the shark? Hooper, Richard Dreyfus’ character, asks Chief Martin Brody, played by Roy Scheider, to step out on the bowsprit, over the water, so he can take a photo of the shark. Brody’s not interested, but Hooper knew what he was doing: without the police chief in the frame, the photo wouldn’t provide a proper scale of the beast. Anyone looking at a picture of a shark with nothing but ocean on all sides would have no way of knowing whether it was a four-foot fish or a 25-foot monster.

That’s what good journalism does: it not only reports the who, what, where, when, why and how, but it provides context… a sense of perspective that helps readers understand the scale of the story in relation to the subject’s place in the world.

Done well, this providing of context helps a story make sense to readers who might not be as steeped in the details of the topic at hand as the subjects of the story and the journalist might be. For instance, it could make more clear why a 2-degree C average global temperature increase from climate change could be devastating for millions, even though a 2-degree difference on any day might simply mean you wear a sweater instead of short sleeves.

Done badly, or manipulatively, though, a journalist’s perspective doesn’t enlighten. Rather, it can be used to mislead, misinform or inflame.

When used this way, news is no more accurate than those forced-perspective photographs you’ve probably seen that purport to show someone holding an impossibly large dog, rat or gecko. There are no four-foot-long rats in the Holocene, but a clever camera angle and a person holding a smaller rat in a particular way can make it look like it’s a giant.

Now, a trained zoologist would likely spot such deception instantly. But someone who knows nothing about rats could very well be fooled.

The same holds true with perspectives in written or spoken reporting: a climatologist watching a misleading news report about, say, historic carbon dioxide concentrations or past sea levels will be able to spot the deception. Viewers with little science training, though? Not so much.

That’s why manipulated news — not necessarily “fake” news — can be so damaging. It uses an imbalance of information to convey not facts, but a particular viewpoint with a particular aim. And that leaves readers or viewers not only misinformed about one thing, but less informed (as Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind poll (PDF) discovered about Fox News viewers) about the world as a whole. When that happens, conditions are ripe for all sorts of false, ridiculous, illogical and unrealistic beliefs to spread… from the existence of four-foot rats and large wads of undigested gum in your digestive system to global “conspiracies” of climate scientists or vaccination advocates “in it for the money.”

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