Monday, September 12, 2005

An Educated Consumer

We think that with all this information, we're so smart. We can know about anything just by typing some search terms into Google.

Newsflash: we're not.

A few days after the initial reports of looting in New Orleans I flipped on CNN and noticed something funny: the looting footage hadn't changed. Here they were talking about the rampant looting, but they had no new pictures. I had to wonder, if they have no new pictures, is the looting continuing in that way? Was that an isolated moment? How widespread is it really? Was it just in part of the city?

Over time I think I have answers to some of these questions. It appears that the looting wasn't as widespread and rampant as first thought, though still terrible. It also seems to be a much smaller group of people than first expected.

People who really DO know about this stuff wrote about the issue in the Boston Globe this past Sunday. Basically, the experts interviewed noted that while some violence and looting took place, it was blown out of proportion by the media. One section in particular caught my eye:

Clark McPhail, author of ''The Myth of the Madding Crowd" (1991) and an emeritus sociologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says that people interpreting the footage of looters last week often fell prey to common misconceptions about collective behavior. Two of them: that everyone in a crowd shares the same goal, and that a collective frenzy overwhelms rational thought. For example, he says, that crowd you thought was ransacking Wal-Mart for consumer goods no doubt included people who indeed were ransacking Wal-Mart for consumer goods. But there were also mothers getting diapers, thrill seekers checking out the action, people trying to persuade their friends not to loot, and others just milling about.

''I have looked at probably more film footage of protest events than anyone else," says McPhail. And in contrast to what many people think they see in such situations, almost invariably ''it's just amazing how little violence proportionally took place."

What we see on TV are pictures. The people telling us about them are reporters in that they are simply there, but they're not experts in psychology or in crowd control or in security. They are just people, like you and me, looking at a piece of a puzzle and trying to figure it all out.

Back when I was in TV I hated writing health news. I hated it because in the little time given to the story I could never fit in all the qualifiers for a given issue. I remember getting calls from little old ladies who would ask questions like "I saw on your news that my drug may be bad for me, should I stop taking it?" My answer was always the same "talk to your doctor, 'mam."

But what worried me more was the people who didn't call and who based their information solely on what they saw on TV. Information written by a guy who didn't even take biology in college.

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