Posted in Media

Under the iceberg: Media and the axioms of Communication

BuzzFeed has published some leaked reports that alleged some pretty embarrassing stuff about US president elect Donald Trump. In their own words, the report includes “unverified, and potentially unverifiable” allegations, published “so that Americans can make up their own minds”.

This has spurred debate: in publishing these reports, is BuzzFeed behaving unethically? Well, of course! BuzzFeed is being extremely unethical, and they know precisely what they’re doing. That shouldn’t be a point of debate—and in fact, at this point, it isn’t, since BuzzFeed’s behavior has been criticized everywhere, even by Trump critics, and there’s even talk of this report originating from /pol/ trolls.

I do believe that this is a pretty interesting starting point for a discussion of a very interesting subject: Communication theory, and how journalists abuse its principles to peddle lies.

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An axiom of Communication, most famously expressed by the Pragmatics of Human Communication, is that not just a portion but the majority of meaning in any Communication is implied.

Anytime we’re communicating something—even when we think we aren’t, since another axiom says it’s impossible not to communicate—an obscene number of factors is influencing the message that gets received, whether we want it or not.

Factors including, but not limited to:

  • Identity of the speaker or the listener. When I go take pictures of cosplayers, I might compliment male cosplayers on their physique—but not females, since they’d likely perceive it as romantic soliciting.
  • Phrasing. “Could you pour me some water” or “My glass is empty” have the same meaning, but the second implies a certain contempt for the listener.
  • Tone, non-verbal communication. It’s the reason we take so long to write about something that we would easily convey in person.
  • Medium we’re using. I could go on.

One of these factors is the amount of space the Communication is taking up. At the limit, the fact that the Communication exists at all communicates something about it. The mere fact that a certain detail exists in a narration is enough to perceive it as important.

When applying this to journalistic stories, the fact that a journalist has decided to report on a subject is actually saying that the subject is worth covering. In the BuzzFeed case, it doesn’t matter how often the article (or its defense by EiC Ben Smith) mentions the claims are unverified and, because the mere fact that these claims are being published is implying that they’re worth publishing.

Back in my Ethics in Journalism class at the University, our professor brought up this example: an Italian tv show wanted to make an episode about skinheads, and tried to organize a debate between a skinhead and holocaust survivor writer Primo Levi, who refused to participate. Levi did very well not to: had he appeared in a debate with a neo-nazi, the implied meaning would’ve been that neo-nazis are credible enough to debate someone of Levi’s renown on an even ground!

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Another very interesting thing about implications in Communication concerns omissions. This is another point of the BuzzFeed article that, in my opinion, makes it very clear that their article was not a mistake, but they were being dishonest and knew exactly what they were doing.

In the article at a certain point BuzzFeed points out some mistakes in the claims: they’re mispelling a name, they’re describing a settlement as reserved to the government when it’s just inhabited by wealthy people. This is basically like Betty’s audition in Mullholland Drive—although the words are saying one thing, the body language is saying the opposite.

BuzzFeed might seem more honest for pointing out some mistakes, but paradoxically it’s the opposite, because by drawing attention to these small mistakes they’re implying that these are the worst mistakes in the report, and therefore that the rest of the report is reasonably accurate.

It’s like linguist Grice’s famous recommendation letter, where he writes that someone speaks excellent English and attended tutorials regularly—it’s implied that these are the person’s best qualities, thus that this person is unskilled. Much more low-brow, it also reminds me of a classic Italian joke, an exchange that more or less goes “Is she beautiful?” “She’s polite”.

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As stated above, there’s really not much of a point in debating BuzzFeed’s already-discredited article. The observations above are more general and interesting for other articles that use similar manipulation tools.

What could be a more interesting is reflecting on what BuzzFeed was trying to do in throwing this terrible article out. The more I go on, the less estimate I have for journalists, and the more simple stupidity looks plausible: a myopic clickbaiting outlet throws out an outrage-inducing story for quick hits, they are surprised to discover people are having none of it, they are doubly surprised when six months from now Trump starts dismantling civil liberties and journalists calling him out are dismissed and ridiculed because they’ve disintegrated their credibility after falling for hoax after hoax.

Still, comfy as this idea is, this kind of articles does actually have a target: people who already almost believe it. BuzzFeed seems to think that there’s people despising Trump to the point that they will take this seriously, and that they make such a sizable crowd that the site will have a net gain in eyeballs despite the hit they just took to their credibility.

A move like this wouldn’t make sense otherwise, unless the outlet is so desperate that they’re running out of options.

Image via Wunee—