Acton Institute Powerblog

Media Credibility and the Amnesia Effect

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amnesiaWhy, when I realize that journalists misrepresent topics that I know something about — such as religious liberty — do I trust them to accurately cover issues that I don’t know much about?

I’ve thought about that question for years but didn’t realize that the late novelist Michael Crichton coined a related term for this: the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect.

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all.

But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

Comments

  • Good post, Joe. Wasn’t familiar with the Gell-Man Amnesia Effect. But early on in my newspapering career I was confronted with a corollary by a source, which turns out to be a variant of Knoll’s Law of Media Accuracy: “Everything you read in the newspapers is absolutely true except for the rare story of which you happen to have firsthand knowledge.”

    Thankfully, our choices of news outlets has greatly expanded in recent years. You just have to be a discriminating consumer.