Alfred Korzybski

The Terrible Truth About The News

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Journalism & Media 6 Comments
Wereldomroeper

The author, reading the news

It was one of the most cynical cartoons I’d ever seen.

A colleague had just put it up on the wall of the newsroom at Radio Netherlands International where I was working at that time. The frenzy of fanatic reporters filing their stories disappeared into the background as I read the headline:

“WHAT IS NEWS?”

The question couldn’t be simpler. The answer couldn’t be more complicated. And yet, everything around me was buzzing with deadline-driven activity, as if all of us actually knew what we were doing. After all, we were the news makers. 

NEWS” is one of those words that you and I hear and use many times a day. In fact, we hear it and use it so frequently, that we rarely question what it means. 

There are many words like that; words such as crisis, control, communityand support. These words are so common, it’s pretty obvious what they stand for, isn’t it? There’s no need to define them. 

SEMANTICS

Scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski, the father of general semantics, would strongly disagree. He coined the phrase: “The map is not the territory.” By that he meant that an abstraction derived from something, is not the thing itself. In plain language: you can’t get wet from the word water.

The word water (the map) is only a representation of something that’s much more fluid (the territory). But when we use the word water, it is generally assumed that we know what it means. Well, let’s ask the people of Flint, Michigan, about that.

That very human ability to make assumptions is the basis of many conflicts, big and small. People confuse maps with territories all the time. Here’s what I mean.

BUMPER TO BUMPER

“Support our troops” it said on the bumper sticker. Most Americans couldn’t agree more. Especially these days, it is important to support our troops, don’t you think? But on a deeper level, what does ‘support’ really mean?

Remember: the word ‘support’ is just a map. But of what? How exactly, should we support our troops? By increasing the defense budget? By sending those stationed abroad care packages for Christmas? Or should we support them by pulling them out of trouble spots, and bringing them back home?

As long as we’re talking on the level of abstractions, it’s easy to agree. For instance, who isn’t in favor of world peace? Who doesn’t want to see employment increased? Who doesn’t agree that we need to improve our system of education?

But how all these things should be achieved, is a different matter, and that’s where the bickering begins. Need I bring up the presidential race?

WHAT DO WE REALLY MEAN?

Bumper StickerThere’s a vital element through which we consciously (but most of the time unconsciously) determine meaning. Here’s a quick example.

Imagine seeing the “Support Our Troops” bumper sticker on a pickup truck with a veteran license plate. There’s also a “Semper Fi” sign on the F-150, and a third sticker saying: “Anti-War = Pro-Terrorism.” With that information in hand, how do you think the owner feels we can best support our troops?

Here’s a different scenario. You’re on the highway and you spot that same “Support Our Troops” sticker. But this time it’s stuck to the back of a beat up Volvo station wagon. Next to it is a “Bring them Home” sticker, and another one that reads: “Against the War. Not the Warrior.” Knowing what you know now, what assumptions would you make this time, about the owners’ views on how to best support our troops?

Even though we’re talking about the same sticker, the meaning of the words is contextdependent. And without knowing the context, we’re all in danger of mistaking the map for the territory. Our territory.

As a result, we carry on entire conversations based on mind reads and interpretations that have very little to do with the reality of the person we’re talking to. That person can be a (Facebook) friend, a foe, a politician, or our life partner.

Our lips might whisper the words: “I know exactly what you mean,” but truthfully, our perception is greatly based on distorted personal projections. 

Army MapTHE REAL WOR(L)D

I’m not just talking semantics here. Every soldier knows that the reality on the ground is most likely to be very different from the map that was used during the briefing. Confusing the map for the territory has led to deadly mistakes.

It has killed many relationships and numerous attempts to build bridges between people, cultures, faiths, and political systems. And because it is so ingrained in human nature, it won’t hit the headlines any day soon. The familiar might be deadly, but it’s also boring.

So, WHAT IS NEWS?

The cartoon at my radio station showed this very simple and sad formula for determining the newsworthiness of an event:

“The number of people killed, divided by how many miles away from home it happened.”

I did tell you it was one of the most cynical cartoons I had ever seen, didn’t I? It criticized the “If it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead” type of journalism that is so pervasive these days. A plane crash in some far away land won’t make the six o’clock news, unless Americans are involved (if you live in the States, that is). Had it happened closer to home, it would have made the headlines.

That’s an example of the proximity effect. People tend to care more about what happens in their own backyard, especially if it’s grotesque, gruesome, and controversial.

MALFUNCTION

Now, let me ask you this: How many people experience a wardrobe malfunction on any given day? When it happens to you or me, it’s no big deal, but when a famous actress steps out of a limo, unintentionally showing some extra skin, the tabloids are having a field day.

It’s an example of the prominence effect. Whenever a celebrity is involved, the media will jump on it. The proximity effect and the prominence effect are just two of the filters journalists use to determine what news is. To a certain extent, these two filters are based on silly, but semi-objective criteria.

Here’s my question:

Is it possible to be utterly impartial, and leave personal values, opinions and ratings at the door when evaluating the newsworthiness of a story?

In 1996, the U.S. Society of Professional Journalists dropped the word “objectivity” from its code of ethics. Deborah Potter writes in The Handbook of Independent Journalism (a U.S. Department of State publication):

“Journalists are human beings, after all. They care about their work and they do have opinions. Claiming that they are completely objective suggests that they have no values.”

Twitter BadgeNEW SOURCES

Twitter has become one of the world’s fastest growing news sources. How objective do you think most of those microblogs (a.k.a. tweets) are? By definition, blogs usually reflect opinion instead of fact, and most Twitter-users don’t subscribe to a code of fair and balanced news-gathering, based on checking and double-checking sources to provide a complete picture. Twitter-chatter is highly subjective. That’s one of the reasons for its popularity.

But let’s bring it a bit closer to home. You’re a reasonable person, aren’t you? When push comes to shove, can you set your own prejudices aside, and open your mind to whatever information comes your way?

THE MIRROR

Well, let’s see how objective you are. When you see a “map,” do you think you really know the “territory”?

Remember that F-150 pick-up truck with the “Anti-War = Pro-Terrorism” sticker, the veteran license plate, and the “Semper Fi” sign?

That redneck driver is surely a right-wing republican Fox-News watching ex-marine in favor of killing our way out of any conflict, with an NRA endorsed semi-automatic rifle, yes? If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck…

Well, as you get off the highway to pump some gas, you end up parking your car right next to the F-150. A young guy in a “Life is Good” t-shirt, steps out of the truck and starts filling it up. A woman at the next pump is clearly upset about the provocative bumper stickers, and she says to the young man:

“Anti-War = Pro-Terrorism… that’s a terrible message you have on your car, young man. I’m against any type of war, but that doesn’t make me a supporter of terrorism, does it? Do you call yourself an American? Shame on you!”

The young man looks at her in shock. His face turns completely red. Then he takes a deep breath, and says:

“Ma’am, I’m on my way to the hardware store to pick up some stuff. I’m working on a house for Habitat for Humanity. This truck belongs to a friend of a friend who was kind enough to help us out. I didn’t even notice the stickers.”

On hearing that, the woman turned bright red, and apologized profusely.

At that moment she realized:

Things are never what they seem to be. The map is not the territory.

Think of that, when you watch or listen to tonight’s news.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice


Freelancing and Fresh Fish

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Freelancing 11 Comments

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
from Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass”

 

One sunny day, a fishmonger put up the following sign:

TODAY: FRESH FISH

One of his first customers said to him: “What’s this sign I see? You only have fresh fish today?”

“Of course not,” said the fishmonger. “I have fresh fish every day. You’ve been coming here for the past eight years. You know that.”

“Then why did you write: Today: Fresh Fish? That’s confusing,” said the customer.

So the fishmonger erased the word TODAY.

An hour later another customer questioned him about the sign:

“Why does it say ‘Fresh Fish’? Isn’t your fish always fresh? Or have you been selling me unfresh fish all these years?”

“Of course not,” answered the fishmonger a bit annoyed. “Each day I go to the harbor at the crack of dawn and buy my fish straight from the men who caught it. It can’t get any fresher than that.”

“Then why did you write: Fresh Fish? That’s confusing,” said the customer.

So the fishmonger erased the word FRESH. “I don’t get these people,” he mumbled. “Wasn’t it obvious what I was trying to say?”

ASSUMPTIONS

Our life is filled with unspoken assumptions. The obvious does not need to be stated, does it? If we hold that to be true, we’re forgetting one thing:

What’s obvious to one person might not be obvious to another person.

Language in and of itself is vague, inadequate and ambiguous, and therefore up for interpretation. If you have any doubts about that, talk to theologians or lawyers. In both cases you often need divine intervention to get them to agree on anything, even if they speak the same language.

Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski (1879–1950) is the developer of what he called “General Semantics.” Simply put, this refers to the study of how you and I react to our environment or an event, and how we derive meaning from it.

Korzybski coined the phrase “The map is not the territory,” meaning that a word is not what it defines (the territory), but merely a symbolic representation of it (the map). That’s why we don’t get wet from the word water.

Here’s the problem: if we don’t know what the territory looks like, how on earth can we know what the map refers to?

Take Nike’s famous trademark “Just do it.

Without knowing anything about it, would you have any idea what these three words stand for? For instance: what is “it”? And if we don’t know what “it” is, how are we supposed to know how to “do” “it”? It could mean a million things, and we’re supposed to “just” do them? Forget it!

Let’s move away from fishy advertising and “just do” a little experiment. Take this simple sentence:

“We only have a small budget.”

That’s plain English, isn’t it? But what does it really mean? Do we have enough information to know what the writer intended it to mean?

If you say “yes” to the question, please tell me what you think it means and what you are basing it on. If you say “no,” tell me what is missing.

I have a feeling that you’ve seen this sentence before. I will also go as far as to imagine that every day, freelancers like you and me allow these six words to influence the bids they put in, to win a project. Am I right?

In order to truly know what the client means by “We only have a small budget,” a lot of blanks need to be filled in. First of all: who is “we”? Is it a client? And if so, who is this client? Donald Trump? I bet you anything that what “the Donald,” considers to be small, will forever redefine your meaning of the word!

My voiceover agent sometimes sends me five hundred-dollar jobs and apologizes for the “small budget.” To some, five hundred dollars might be a huge step up from the hundred-dollar jobs they’ve been auditioning for, just to break into the business. But considering the fact that this client is a key retailer and that the job involves all major markets and a six-year buyout, five hundred bucks is very low pay.

It’s all relative, relatively speaking.

DEFINING MEANING

By giving you these examples, what did I just do?

I provided you with some context.

The meaning of words is not only determined by what you find in the dictionary. It is defined by the setting and circumstances in which they are used. In fact, dictionary editors define the meaning of words by studying the context in which they appear. They even come up with sentences in which a word is used to illustrate its meaning.

But let’s assume that little or no context is provided. What do we usually do to attempt to understand the words we read or hear?

We start making things up. Believe it or not, there’s a mindreader in all of us! To me, this is where things get really interesting. On what exactly do we base our uninformed guesses?

I remember the first time I drove on an American highway and saw a sign that said RAMP. I must confess that I had no idea what it meant (for first-time readers: I’m originally from The Netherlands).

In an attempt to understand its meaning, my mind started making associations based on my personal frame of reference. In Dutch, the word RAMP means DISASTER! Till this very day, I get uncomfortable whenever I see that sign.

Without a clear context and without the ability to ask any questions, we generally base our understanding on speculation, which in turn is based on our subjective experience. In other words: the way you interpret “we only have a small budget,” will tell us a lot about you and next to nothing about the person who wrote it. This gets us into trouble all the time.

As a service provider it is not supposed to be about us. It’s about what the client wants to see and needs to hear. But clients typically hand out maps and leave it to us to second-guess what their territory is supposed to look or sound like.

They’ll tell you:

“I don’t know how to describe to you what I want, but I know it when I hear it. As long as you try to sound warm but professional…. If you know what I mean.”

No I don’t know what you mean. How could I? We have never met. Sometimes I don’t even understand my wife, and I think that I know her better than most people.

MISUNDERSTANDING

Now, do you still wonder why you didn’t land that ‘warm and professional’ gig?

Could it be, because you were led by your own assumptions? Did you forget to ask critical questions, or were you unable or not allowed to contact the client and get some context?

Beginners often wonder: “If only I could get some feedback after the fact. That would give me some idea as to why my audition was rejected.”

I think it would be much more helpful to get some perspective before the fact; some sense of direction. Dump the vague and ambiguous verbiage. If you don’t tell us what you want, how are we supposed to give it to you? I know that words are inadequate ways of describing an experience, but can you at least try a little harder?

While you do that, let’s go back to the story.

TODAY: FRESH FISH

After erasing the first two words, the fishmonger stared at the sign that now read “FISH.”

That should do it, he thought.

No one can argue with that.

He was ready to go inside when a boy walked up to him. He had a ten-dollar bill in his hand.

“Sir, sir…” the boy said, “Can I ask you a question?”

“Of course,” said the fishmonger. “What can I help you with, young man?”

The boy looked at him with big, hopeful eyes.

“Sir, I just saw your sign and I was wondering: do you sell goldfish?”

The fishmonger made a gesture of utter exasperation.

People are completely clueless, he thought.

Then he took a damp sponge and erased the word FISH.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice