‘Once more BBC Scotland feasts on a single case and attempts to make a wider crisis out of it.’
Indeed. This is now a common practice in BBC Scotland’s journalism. (It’s also much loved by Labour politicians!). When set alongside BBC Scotland’s characteristic ‘perspective bypass’ in its reporting and when reinforced by ‘bias by omission’, it delivers a potent ‘public service’!
In an article in the US magazine Wired in 2017 (by Emily Dreyfuss) we learn that: ‘The human brain has a built-in tendency to conflate the aberrant with the norm. The news industry—and certain politicians—know this all too well.’
Dreyfuss adds: ‘The aberrant occurrence is the story you’ll read and the picture you’ll see. It’s news because it’s new.’
‘The problem here is not just that this singling out creates a distorted, fish-eye lens version of what’s really happening. It’s that the human psyche is predisposed to take an aberration—what linguist George Lakoff has called the “salient exemplar”—and conflate it with the norm. This cognitive bias itself isn’t new. But …. it’s newly exploitable.’
‘Psychologists call this bias the “availability heuristic, … “It basically works the way memory works: you judge the frequency, the probability, of something based on how easily you can bring it to mind,” says Northeastern University psychologist John Coley. “Creating a vivid, salient image like that is a great way to make it memorable.”
(Check out the photographic image of the nurse in today’s BBC article – of someone young, looking very tired, with staring eyes, and unpleasant facial marks presumably caused by wearing some kind of PPE.)
Dreyfuss tells us that psychologists stress that the ‘brain has to work this way, to a certain extent—otherwise you’d have a very hard time differentiating and prioritizing the avalanche of inputs you receive throughout your life. “It’s not a cognitive malfunction,” says Coley. “But it can be purposefully exploited.”
The Wired article warns: ‘The daily news at its worst becomes a catalog of salacious salient exemplars that only serve to distort the reality journalism in its most ideal version aspires to reflect. Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard argues journalists’ failures over the use of salient exemplars aided Donald Trump during his campaigning. By focusing on negative stories, the news helped to paint a picture of an America in need of “being made great again.”
The equivalent in Scotland? By focusing on negative stories, the news helps to paint a picture of a Scotland in need of the Union.
The Wired article concludes: ’… reporters need to get smarter about covering the non-aberrant, to show that commonplace does not equal mundane. It may not be rare, but it’s reality.’ What chance of that here any time soon?