May 27, 2004

"simple navy blue silk" or "wrinkled pigeon-colored number" ?

According to this NYT story, Reuters and Robert Fisk are not the only ones whose preconceptions get in between their sensory inputs and their published descriptions.

Lara St. John is a classical violinist described as a "striking six-foot blonde". For the past few years, she's been trying to get past her first album picture, which showed her naked holding her instrument across her chest. So for a recital in Toronto last February, she "chose her best gown, a simple navy blue silk", explaining that "because the recital was so serious I didn't want trouble with the visuals". But John Terauds, apparently disappointed at the contrast with the album cover, wrote in the Toronto Star that

An almost matronly St. John shambled out onto the Jane Mallett Theatre stage in a wrinkled pigeon-colored number that had to be one of the ugliest frocks to see stage lights this season.

Terauds did like her playing, at least.

Journalists, like junior high school students, want to be able to tag everyone according to some simple and evocative mnemonic category. So-and-so is the class clown, so-and-so is a snooty brainiac, so-and-so is always daydreaming. Lara St. John is tagged as selling sex appeal, George W. Bush is tagged as linguistically inept.

This makes life easier for journalists with deadlines and without new ideas, I guess. But precisely because everyone's perceptions are necessarily influenced by expectations -- sometimes even determined by them -- you'd hope that journalists would take special care with the facts when they see or hear what they expect to.

This is good advice for scientists, too. Dick Hamming once warned me (as I gather he warned everyone) to "beware of finding what you're looking for." In John Terauds' case, I guess the advice applies in reverse; but then he had to come up with a lede for his review from somewhere. So maybe the advice should go to journalists' subjects and journalists' readers: recognize that journalists will misperceive or invent facts that correlate with their stereotypes and preconceptions, and adjust your actions and beliefs accordingly.

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 27, 2004 09:47 AM