Saturday, November 10, 2007

decision heuristics and power of the media

I heard a great comment on NPR this morning by host Scott Simon. He was discussing former Illinois Governor George Ryan, who has many good and bad events in his history. He was nominated for a Nobel Prize for his suspension of the death penalty in his state because of uncertainties and unfairness in how it was applied. He also was the manager of a corrupt government that accepted bribes, one of which led to a horrible accident where several children were killed.

What makes this story relevant to human factors is that Scott Simon remarked that if you tell the story beginning from the traffic accident, Ryan comes across as a terrible person. Listeners may cynically discount the death penalty suspension as an attempt by Ryan to make friends in the prison system, knowing that he may end up there soon. On the other hand, if you tell the story beginning from the Nobel Prize nomination, listeners may sadly wonder how a principled man could be tempted by the power and influence of politics.

It is amazing how much power the media has in the way it presents stories. A little bit of knowledge about anchoring bias, confirmation bias, representativeness bias, and others can make a newspaper or TV news editor incredibly influential. You could craft a series of stories, without doing anything deceptive, unethical, or improper, that significantly skew public opinion one way or the other.

And it can be done so subtly that no one would really know the difference. It would not be like Chavez, Putin or Musharraf intimidating the opposition media.