Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Epistemology and Responsibility of the Mass Media

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Epistemology and Responsibility of the Mass Media

Article excerpt

WORKING JOURNALISTS seldom concern themselves with deeply philosophical questions or with the epistemological assumptions of their own profession. Many operate on the aristotelian assumption that their words reflect (or should reflect) 'reality.' They are disturbed by charges of 'distortion' and incensed by charges of 'bias.' They strive for 'objectivity' while admitting, reluctantly, that it is hard to attain.

With these attitudes common among working newsmen it is not surprising that most news readers (or listeners) hold similar assumptions about the nature of news and are generally uninformed about the newsgathering process.

I believe newsmen have a responsibility to themselves and to their readers, listeners, or viewers to examine their assumptions about how they know what they 'know' and then to share their insights with their readers. I further believe that general semantics provides a methodology for examining those assumptions in the light of modern scientific knowledge.

    General semantics is not 'the study of words' or 'the study of
    meaning' as these terms are ordinarily understood. It is more nearly
    correct to say that general semantics is concerned with the
    assumptions underlying symbol systems and the personal and cultural
    effects of their use. It is concerned with the pervasive problem of
    the relation of language to reality, of word to fact, of theory to
    description, and of description to data--of the observer to the
    observed, of the knower to the knowable. It is concerned with the
    role of language in relation to predictability and evaluation, and
    so in relation to the control of events and to personal adjustment
    and social integration. (1)

Let me begin with a brief analysis of the newsgathering process--first a simple local news story, then a more complex international story.

Let us assume that an event has taken place. If it is to be reported 'first hand,' a reporter must see it, hear it, touch it, smell it or taste it; that is, in one or more of these ways his senses must be stimulated by the event. His unique sensory apparatus sets the first limits on what he is able to abstract. He may be nearsighted, farsighted, astigmatic, or color blind. His hearing may be insensitive to certain frequencies, acutely sensitive to others. From what we know today about individual differences, we would also expect his sense of touch, taste and smell to be unique. (2)

The senses, though limited, convey a vast quantity of information to the nervous system which, because of its structure, selectively processes only a small portion of that information. The reporter's semantic reactions--thoughts, feelings, tensions, electro-chemical changes, etc.,--are not to the event itself but only to those aspects that made an impact on his senses and were processed by his nervous system.

Then as our reporter tries to formulate his story, he must do it within the limitations of his language. He must chop up the continuous spread and flow of the event according to the categories available to him and relate the elements in ways specified by his language code. Note that he is limited not only by "the English language" but by his personal subset of "the English language." If he is sensitive to his readers, he will further limit himself to that subset of the English language he and his readers have in common.

Whether or not the reporter will perceive the event as a "news story" at all will depend upon his 'news values'--those guidelines he was taught in journalism school or the newsroom. Lists of 'news values' differ somewhat but most include timeliness, proximity, significance, prominence, conflict, disaster, and human interest. 'News values' serve as filters, separating 'news' from 'non-news.' They may also be a set of blinders, narrowing the reporter's vision.

If he decides this event is "news," he selectively abstracts from it those aspects he considers "newsworthy," probably taking notes as he does so. …

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