Sunday, May 23, 2010

Research, Second of Many Parts: Judging Sources II

Reflect upon last week’s lessons about the steps necessary as you begin research. Some of those steps are tedious, yet each step essential. They include: choosing or accepting the topic, adjusting your attitude, and persevering when you experience frustration.

Step 3: Thinking Critically

One more step is absolutely essential as you begin: turn on your critical thinking. Remember that some sources have agendas, often hidden, and you must, to the best of your ability, uncover them. Remember also that your information needs to be timely; i.e., current. As Ferris Bueller said, “Life moves pretty fast;” information changes pretty quickly, too.

Last week, I used a research topic about buying a new car as an example. In that research project, I suggested that a reasonable, useful step would be to visit car dealerships and pick up brochures about the cars you can afford. Would the car-maker have a bias? Would the company’s desire to make a profit alter its presentation? Would the company reveal any deficits or problems with the car?

The answers to those three questions above are: Of course, the company has a bias. Yes, the company’s desire for profit would affect its presentation of the car’s features. And no, the company will not reveal deficits and problems; the company will most likely “spin” any perceived weaknesses of the car into perceived strengths. Advertising or marketing campaigns exist to “spin” the public perception, and they do it well.

Advertisers manipulate color to persuade us. Against blacks, white, and grays, vibrant red stands out, draws our eye, and focuses our attention. Blues tend to be soothing and connote peaceful, serene settings. Blue also signifies depth, wisdom and status; therefore, many colleges and universities “spin” their message using blue. Diamond dealers and car-makers also use blue to appeal to the public’s desire for status.

Advertisers also manipulate lines to persuade us. If all directional lines lead to one place, our attention goes to that place. Vertical lines suggest energy; horizontal lines suggest stability and rest. Jagged lines add tension, even chaos.

Advertisers and publicity campaigns also manipulate words to persuade us. Consider the choices below:

1. Are you more likely to wear the name radical or free-thinker with pride?

A radical often “thinks outside the box” and holds strong opinions, but today, a radical is also associated with extremism whereas free-thinkers, we believe, are not easily duped or led. They base their opinions on reason, not emotion, so we prefer the badge reading free-thinker because Americans admire independence. If a marketer labels a man as a radical, we are not likely to support him, but a free-thinker may earn our vote or other endorsement.

2. Are you more likely to buy a product advertised as improved or the same product without the word improved on the label?

Most of us will buy the improved version even if no change has been made—except, of course, to add the word improved to the label. Americans are innovators; we like to think of ourselves as progressive, always finding ways to improve the quality of our lives. We like improvement.

3. Are you more likely to trust someone who claims to be from the Heartland, one who upholds family values than you are to trust some Ivy-leaguer who lives on the East or West coast?

Well, for this one, so much depends upon where you happen to live. People from the Heartland tend to distrust people from the coasts, and people on the coasts tend to think themselves superior to people in the Heartland. Moreover, the truth is that family values are rarely listed or defined by the people who claim to have them, and people everywhere are quite capable of having family values. Still, the terms stir something in us, and that something tends to be positive.

In conclusion, language has life and spirit. Advertisers study language and use it to their advantage. So do all writers, including those whom you will read and research.

Be aware of the “spin,” the manipulation—what once was known as propaganda. Everyone does it! Everyone! The left, the right, the in-between; the marketers, the speech-writers, bloggers, and politicians. Everyman prefers to be known as a sanitation engineer instead of a garbage man. Few men or women like to think, much less say, that their loved one died. We “spin” the reality of mortality, choosing euphemisms such as “passed on,” “passed over,” and “crossed the bar” (Tennyson). “Spin” is everywhere.

So, when you have turned on your critical thinking, pay attention to color, line and language. Are you being manipulated? Probably—but manipulation can be gentle persuasion or outright distortion. You simply need to be aware, and when you are aware, you will be armed against some of propaganda’s impact.

Spinning the message may also affect the facts. Some folks just make up stuff. They intend to mislead you. The classic example is the tobacco industry. It employed doctors and scientists to reach different conclusions about the addictive properties and harms of tobacco. The industry employed lobbyists to influence legislation; it hired spokesmen and women to represent the industry’s interests even if those interests negatively affected yours.

Tobacco companies are not alone. Bankers, insurance companies, realtors, Chambers of Commerce, teachers, makers of planes, trains, and automobiles, and ordinary citizens have a vested interest in regulation, law, policy, and tax codes. They try to influence public opinion, elections, and Congress. Sometimes they omit facts not in their favor; sometimes they embellish the facts in their favor, and sometimes they simply make up stuff. You must think critically and ask yourself if the claims are reasonable and credible. You must judge the ethos of the written and spoken word, of the writer and speaker of the word. Is the messenger fair, well-informed, and trustworthy? Is the message genuinely fair and balanced? That is the topic for next week’s analysis: how can the researcher determine truth from distortions?

Reading Challenge:

Use a search engine or a good library to research the history of tobacco. You may tackle the entire history or focus upon one of several more narrow topics such as tobacco litigation, governmental regulation of tobacco, advertising for and about tobacco, or tobacco product development and placement. If you are a fan of Russell Crowe, rent and watch the film The Insider, the story of a man who “blew the whistle” on seven tobacco companies.

Writing Challenge:

Read a magazine, skipping all the articles and studying the advertising instead. Watch several hours of television, but only the Public Service announcements and ads. Make notes about the use of color, line, and language. Consider also how music persuades. Become an aware “reader” of print and non-print media as you do.