Would understanding psychology make you a better journalist?

This morning I was struck by this headline, a piece written by Jordan Weissman from Slate.com. ‘Why Trump’s Acceptance Speech hardly mentioned the Economy’.

It’s a well written article worth reading. Trump, one of the story’s links says he spoke for an hour and fifteen minutes, (7 out of the 64 pages);the longest acceptance speech thus far and ‘only’ ten of those minutes were dedicated to the economy or jobs.

To politicos and economists the message it portrays is either Trump is weak on economics or he doesn’t place that much attention on it compared to the cacophony of other issues, or both.

Yet consider this story from the acclaimed political writer Drew Western. Western whom sets up a scenario in his critically received book The Political Brain. Western explains how the Republicans more often than not give the Democrats a thrashing at the polls.

The reasons? Here’s one of many anecdotes. A Pennsylvania coal miner who’s placed his vote at times with Republicans, Democrats and independents, is far more likely to be persuaded to vote on immediate family issues, like the economy, than issues such as terrorism and violent crime that have a slimmer prospect of affecting his family. That makes sense. This, Western, says is the rationality model.

Psychologists, however have long considered a counterpoint to the electorates’ decision making process or crowd behaviour, aptly demonstrated in #Brexit.

After 911, and in no small measure, paradoxically, driven by the media, Western writes:

… a voter was likely to weight the likelihood of a terrorist attack as higher than a car accident, even though tenfold more people die in car accidents in 2001 than in the Twin Towers.

The Nobel Prize winner psychologist and economist Daniel Kaheman explains this as an availability bias in his best seller Thinking Slow and Fast.
Even though the chances of being attacked by a terrorist are far less probable than being hit by a car, this bias has become a strong anchor, a primer of fear. Kaheman adds.

People tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they are retrieved from memory — and this is largely determined by the extent of coverage in the media.

It’s like having a friend who’s afraid of spiders. When anything dark and small crosses his vision, he jumps. Freud, and in particular his nephew Edward Bernays recognised this irrational fear as real and exploited it within consumerism. Customers were made to desire goods rather than want them, even when they were heavily in debt.

The French psychologist Gustav Le Bon wrote in his book in 1895 The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind that people were largely irrational.

This, I wager, is the nook that Trump is honing in on but there’s a bigger question for journalists as I prepare to deliver a paper examining memory and journalism in Leicester at the International Association for Media and Communication Research. If you knew more about psychology and human behaviour would that make you a better journalist?

If you knew how PR spins, how the memory works, how the psychology of the media, which looks innocuous, is loaded with persuasive meaning — sometimes unconsciously. If I could show you how the psychology of story works, would that interest you. I refer to this new art form that does this as Cinema Journalism — a blend of the philosophy and cinematic cues and tropes of cinema and journalism. I’ll be following up with a few more posts on its form.

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