Psychological Illiteracy

The photo above is from one of the most famous car chases in recent memory. Football player O.J. Simpson is in the white SUV fleeing the police with a gun to his head. He is wanted for the murder of his wife and her lover, and the whole world was watching, captivated. However, the country’s fascination with this chase, and the trial that followed it was completely due to the fact that the suspect was famous and the media’s subsequently extensive coverage of it.
In The Power Elite, C. Wright Mills writes, “The individual does not trust his own experience… until it is confirmed by others or by the media.” I would venture to say that the significance of this event to the people who actually witnessed it in person is enlarged due to the media coverage and the entire buzz that surrounded it afterward. If the event had gone unreported, as many police chases and/or arrests do, the significance of witnessing it would be diminished.
Today, as I was driving on Interstate 5 near Griffith Park, I saw several police cars rushing to a scene, and I wondered instantly whether it would be on the news. (I couldn’t take a picture because I was driving, unfortunately.) When I searched for it on the Internet, there was no information and my experience of it was not confirmed. It is now hardly of any importance to me at all. As Mills says, “…we often do not really believe what we see before us until we read about it in the paper or hear about it on the radio.” I think this is an example of what Mills calls, “psychological Illiteracy.” The media has the power to determine which events are significant in the minds of the masses. “Our standards of credulity, our standards of reality, tend to be set by these media rather than by our own fragmentary experience.”
Research questions:
Does racism play a role in which events receive media coverage and, consequently, take on more significance to ‘the people’?
If the media can influence the very “realness” of an event, what other ways can media coverage skew public perception?

Think about how many instances of police brutality could have occurred without any media coverage and consequently might as well not have happened due to psychological illiteracy.

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4 thoughts on “Psychological Illiteracy

  1. Nice post. It really is scary to think about how much power the media has over us. You could say: “Oh, well I never watch the news or read the paper.” It doesn’t matter; the media has influence EVERYWHERE we turn. TV commercials, online ads, and billboards are just a few of the things we see on an everyday basis. How many of our ideas and actions are influenced by these things? It’s pretty unbelievable to consider what psychological illiteracy can do to us.

    In answer to your questions, I would have to say that racism does play a role in media coverage. I say this because whenever I do watch the news and a crime story is highlighted, at least 70% of the time the suspect or perpetrator is a minority. I think the OJ Simpson chase is a perfect example of this. This was not the first ever (nor last) situation like this, but yet it was blown completely out of proportion. Considering that the Power Elite, who ultimately control the main media stations, are mostly white males would you say that repeated coverage on minority “bad guys” is a coincidence? I think not.

    I used to believe that there were multiple news stations and that individual media outlets could have different angles or viewpoints on the same stories. Now I am not so sure. The fact that there are only a few TV channels that are not owned by the same people is really disheartening. You can never truly know if you’re receiving an authentic story these days. Sadly I don’t think it will get much better as our society progresses. Our continuous reliance on technology and lack effort to receive first or second hand reports these days is a cause for alarm.

  2. I agree with catmouse40 that it is scary how much power the media has over us, however I strongly believe it is not anything new to modern day society because the power elite has always controlled the rest of society through any means necessary. This includes how people of color are continually portrayed negatively in the media.

    On October 22nd I attended the Protest against Police Brutality in downtown LA from Pershing Square to McCarther Park. I myself have been a victim of police brutality and have been pulled over by the police several times because we were “speeding”, when in reality one word describes this situation: Racial profiling. All they want to ask is what do we rep, where are we going, do we affiliate with a gang. Not once have they actually given us a speeding ticket which shows their real intentions when pulling us over. At the protest I met several families of victims who told me that their sons, daughters, sisters, nephews, stories never made the news. Why is that? Even when stories like Oscar Grant makes it to the news, who cares? Definitely not the power elite.

    To answer your question, yes racism plays a role in which events receive media coverage. The media only shows people of color in car chases, shootings, etc, because they want to perpetuate the image that they are bad and/or deviant people. In Oscar Grants case, the media managed to convince and skew the public’s perception that Mehserle meant to shoot his tazor instead of his gun. The “realness” of this event included the protection of the white Bart police officer instead of the shooting of a young black male.

  3. I also posted about psychological illiteracy and the media’s affect on criminalizing people of color (watch the video – it’s crazy!): http://soctheory.iheartsociology.com/2011/10/22/the-medias-criminalization-of-black-men/

    In response to topaz’s comment about racial profiling, officers often deny their engagement in racial profiling, even though they routinely use race as a factor when deciding whom to pull-over and search. In Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, she explains that the “justification for the implicit doublespeak–’we do not racial-profile; we just stop people based on race’–can be explained by the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence” (129). In the Supreme Court case, United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, it was ruled that the police CAN use race as a factor in “making decisions about which motorists to stop and search” (128). Because of this, “police departments believe that racial profiling exists only when race is the SOLE factor…thus, if race is one factor but not the only factor, then it doesn’t really count at all” (129). Police are able to “get away” with racial profiling because they can claim that race is not the ONLY reason for pulling someone over — they can also use gender, location, attire, etc. as additional factors. The media definitely plays a huge role in creating these images that the police use to racially-profile many more people of color than white people. You’d think that, because the police are frequently exposed to crime, they would be able to distinguish the media imagery from reality. But, because these images are so rooted in their minds, they often overlook white neighborhoods and focus on neighborhoods of color. Of course there are other factors influencing their racial discrimination, such as political influence or the relative “ease” in targeting neighborhoods of color (121), but media imagery has had a huge impact on the actions of the police. It is scary to think that the police, who are supposed to be “protecting” us, have this racial bias that is doing much more harm than good — and, as topaz explains above, this has recently been exemplified through the Oscar Grant case.

  4. Wow! I can’t believe police think racial profiling is okay as long as there is another reason for pulling a car over. It just goes to show police and the criminal system will find any excuse to keep certain races inferior. Does pulling someone over by gender, location, or attire make it okay? It seems like the police will always target certain groups more than others.

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