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Using general semantics principles in the basic news reporting classroom.

BASIC NEWS REPORTING CLASSES offer us an excellent opportunity to alert future journalists to important aspects of human perception such as those studied in the field of general semantics. Reporting required identifying and discovering enormously complex events and responsibly representing them in summary form. Even the most energetic and capable reporter, however, cannot discover all the complexity and detail available in a single observation of a single event, and describe it while still meeting deadlines. Scholars in the field of general semantics have made the study of perception central to their discipline, and acquainting novice reporting students with some of their findings can help students understand the role perception plays in reporting.

Journalism scholarship includes perception among its many areas of investigation, but the articles that focuc on perception tend to primarily identify examples of differences in the way people perceive and how these differences contribute to interpretation of events. Eberhard (1982) demonstrates that "news value" treatments differ among newswriting texts; Van Ommeren (1983) shows that knowing reporters' backgrounds changed student views about published stories; McAdams (1985) examines relationships between psycholinguistics and perception; Allen (1987) shows that journalists often do not explain how disparate pieces of information fit together; Stocking and Gross (1989) establish that people make errors in assessing risks; and Abbott and Slattery (1991) explore topics like "intuitive goods ears." Journalism scholarship does not appear to have directly focused on examining and explaining human perception as it relates to observing and interpreting human behaviors and world events.

Allen (1987, p. 21) perhaps comes closer to recognizing a need for specific focus on perception than most scholars when she observes that we need to be "...more aware of culture as a blueprint for perception..." and suggests "But neither anthropologists nor journalists nor educators nor anyone else is assuming the responsibility for sharing the contextual framewordk necessary for interpreting this morass of data..." (P. 22) Stocking and Gross (1989, p. 10) suggest we may be "unknowingly failing our students and profession" not only in failing to point out common perception errors, but also in not developing exercises that "...will provide opportunities for learning about cognitive distortions without sacrificing the basics." We propose the field of general semantics and specific focus on human perception as one contribution to meeting Stocking and Gross' requesting.

If you ask basic news reporting students (or even experienced reporters for that matter) if their stories accurately represent what actually happened in a given instance, they are likely to say yes. They are used to relying on the fact that as humans they have sophisticated powers of observation and are able to quickly process large amounts of stimuli. They might readily accept the analogy that they record events much like a camera.

Korzybski (1958), the founder of the general semantics movement, suggested even the mosot careful observer is unable to observe all stimuli within range. Bois (1978) offered an extension of Korzybski's work in a somewhat more understandable form. Both authors offered models that explained how perception necessarily differs from a given stimulus field. The models also show how perception may even result in reports that add up to more, or in some cases less, than the sum of the stimuli observed. Russell (1991, p.12) has adapted these earlier perception models and added to their range. This modified model may help basic news writing students understand that, much like a camera, their perception is limited and subject to distortion.

Available Stimuli

This human perception model illustrates how perception is incomplete and how it always differs from the observed stimulus field. The open-sided box on the left represents the infinite stimulus field containing all individual stimuli potentially observable (dots). Some of the stimuli are in free space and others are within contained areas labeled Remembered Past, Attended to Present and Anticipated Future.

The Remembered Past box represents our ability to recall some, but not all, of the events from our past. We can recall events in varying degrees of completeness, but never completely. Our recall of these events can serve as a filter of present and future events. For example, previous deception by an assumed reputable source can influence belief in a present source.

The Attended to Present box represents stimuli available for detection in the present. Again, these stimuli are not all of the stimuli available. Fewer stimuli are attended to than are available. Psychological experiments show only a few of any available stimuli may be attended to by the senses and consciously registered at any one time. Magicians and three-card monte players know this principle well, as do sources who mislead by answering with an avalanche of irrelevant facts instead of those few facts which would answer a question.

The Anticipated Future box represents stimuli thought to be probable in the future. Those things, which are inconceivable to the subject simply do not exist in this perceptual frame. But items in an anticipated future can filter both present and remembered stimuli. For example, suddenly realizing that a source, caught in a compromising position, plans to lie to protect his reputation, could contribute to reconsideration of his previous comments and also the conclusion that his present comments may be untrue.

The model presumes a balanced individual in whom the Attended to Present is larger than the other two areas. Healthy observers pay more attention to the present than to their Remembered Past or Anticipated Future.

The most important feature of the figure on the left of the model is that it has more dots than can possibly be observed. No individual can ever be expected to discover all stimuli available or even exactly the same stimuli as another observer.

What We Can Attend To

To next box represents human observers as limited in the sense that cameras are limited. Cameras, in fact, do not record everything in front of them. They are mechanical devices limited by their physical nature and outside factors such as lighting and film type. Inadequate lens power and shutter speed, for example, may distort of fail to record certain images, and objects that otherwise exhibit a wide range of color, will be recorded as monochromatic if shot with black and white film or under the wrong lighting conditions. The limits of human perception may be compared to the limitations of a camera. Limits in a reporter's perception prevent her from perceiving some stimuli. Stimuli that are merely available are less important than those an individual actually can discover. For example, a reporter who did not see a source wink his eye after responding "Of course all members of the opposition party also believe the earth is flat," might not be aware the source was answering ironically.

A significant reduction in the number of stimuli occurs between the first and second boxes. Reduction of simplification is the first act of human perception. This happens because perception does not take place primarily, but is mediated by the individual. Heil (1983), for instance, suggests perception is actually a two stage process that begins with direct perception. After this initial stage, however, cognition begins and language starts to play a role, so the perception then becomes indirect. In the direct perception stage, for example, someone might observe the physical characteristics of a rock -- its weight, its shape, color, etc. But in the second, indirect stage, that person may perceive it as a paperweight or a weapon. Direct and indirect perception can be expected to be subject to a number of influences. Beginning news reporting students might be infromed of the following influences that could affect each or both of these stages.

Experience. And individual's private experiences can influence perception. Some reporters, for example, may have experienced government officials withholding vital information in the name of national security. Discovering later that the information was, in fact, withheld to save the officials from embarrassment, may affect how those reporters view such withholding of information in the future.

Formal Education. In school we are literally taught how to perceive our world. Education in the scientific method, for example, would enable reporters to better perceive what is going on in experiments in physics, medicine, and chemistry, and better evaluate claims made in those fields.

Value System. Things believed to be important can change reporter's perception of a situation. Reporters who believe in fairness, for example, are likely to perceive there may be another side to a story even though they hear a version of it they accept as true. They may perceive the first version as more tentative, than those who do noto hold such a value.

Role or Profession. Reporters are taught it is part of their professional duty to protect the right of the public to know how their public institutions are functioning. A public official who attempts to withhold public records may therefore be perceived very differently by reporters than others who have no such professional mandate.

Language. Language can serve as an additional filter for perceived stimuli. Military spokespersons who use "protective incursion" rather than "military invasion," or "collateral damage" rather than "civilian deaths," show an understanding of the power of language to alter perceptions. Lutz (1989) offers students an excellent reference on doublespeak and its power to influence.

Other influences, such as physical condition and competing stimuli can also serve to filter perceptions, of course, but the five offered above can begin to help students in recognizing human perception is more complex than a simple stimulus-response act.


This box only has only one dot in it which represents the tendency in human perception to think in terms of classes and thereby reduce something complex into something overly simple. Classification encourage equating the characteristics of new members of a class, with characteristics of established members of the class. Perhaps, the intent is to help understand the world, but the outcome is more often to ignore important differences among members of the class. Making the comparison with known members of the class can contribute to assuming the new member is "exactly like" the known members. For example, knowing that a source is a Catholic could contribute to assuming she is opposed to abortion "because Catholics oppose abortion."


The box also only has one dot in it to represent yet an additional reduction of stimuli that are attended to. In naming, something complex is overly simplified. For example, a complex and unique individual can be reduced to "politician," or a thousand separate activities can become "war." Names represent on enormous reduction of available and observed stimuli.


This box represents an expansion of the reduction process that has occurred in the first three boxes. At this stage of perception, individuals begin to determine the meaning of their experiences. Scholars in the field of general semantics hold that meaning is something created by an interaction between the individual and stimuli. The increased number of dots in the meaning box represents the capacity of expand what was previously reduced. The additional dots in the box do not mean the available stimuli, or only those attended to have been faithfully reproduced. For example, a police officer could primarily attend to the reflection of light in a suspect's hand, and conclude the reflecting object is a gun. The officer may then assign this perceived stimuli to mean danger and that he must therefore protect himself.

Meaning is a very private construct and the meanings of stimuli are not necessarily universally shared. Assuming they are may lead to misunderstanding. Determining that a public official is acting out of caution or weakness can be as much the consequence o the observer's assigning meaning as the official's actions.

What We Can Share

The final box represents an additional reduction inthe perception process. The fewer dots in this box compared to the meaning box suggests we are unable to share all of our private meanings. This is particularly important for reporters since time and space constraints alone will always limit their ability to offer all that they know.

The lines going out of the What We Can Share box enter the available stimuli for others. This area is represented by a question mark because we have no way to be sure what others do with our stimuli. The number and nature of dots in their perceptual field is subject to their control and limits, not to the journalist's.

As a result of long experience in assigning meaning in particular situations, a reporter may understand the implications in a political candidate's refusing to debate an oppenent. Merely reporting the action, however, does not mean the reader will automatically grasp these implications.

Exposing news reporting students to the models of human perception suggested by general semanticists may help students appreciate what Harrison Salisbury (1988) recognized after many years of reporting.

[The war in Vietnam] was the first of the separating images which, as time went on, showed me that in war, as in the simplest things in life, truth is multifaceted, a crystal that refracts light in many forms and many shapes, the quicksilver of the mind. (P.123)

Basic news reporting students who can understand and appreciate that human preception is not a simple stimulus-response act, and is always incomplete can perhaps begin to demonstrate what has been called maturity and good news judgement. If they can be taught their observations are by definition incomplete, perhaps they will learn to ask even more questions and search for more sources and vantage points before concluding they have observed and reported everything.


Abbott, Clifford and Slattery, Karen. (Spring, 1991) Explicit News Writing Rules and the Intuitive "Good Ear," Journalism Educator, 45, 51-57.

Allen, Susan L. (Summer, 1987) Adding Another W Provides Reporters with Perspective, Journalism Educator, 42, 21-23.

Bois, J. Samuel (1978) The Art of Awarness. 3rd. ed. Dubuque, Iowa: William C. Brown Company Publishers.

Eberhard, Wallace B. (Spring, 1982) "News Value" Treatment Are Far From Consistent Among Newswriting Texts, Journalism Educator, 37, 9-11, 50.

Heil, John (1983) Perception and Cognition. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.

Korzybski, Alfred (1958) Science and Sanity, 4th ed. Lakeville, Connecticut: International Non-Aristotelian Library Publishing Company.

Lutz, William (1989) Beyond Ninteen Eighty Four: Doublespeak in a Post Orwellian Age. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English.

McAdams, Katherine C. (Winter, 1985) Psycholinguistics Explains Many Journalism Caveats, Journalism Educator, 39, 3-8.

Russel, Charles G. (1991) Language and Behavior. Edina, Minnesota: Burgess International Group, Inc.

Salisbury, Harrison E. (1988) A Time of Change. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.

Stocking, S. Holly and Gross, Paget H. (Spring, 1989) Understanding Errors, Biases That Can Affect Journalists, Journalism Educator, 44, 4-11.

Van Ommeren, Roger L. (Summer, 1983) Editing Students Learn Accuracy Is More Than Facts, Journalism Educator, 38, 27-28.
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Author:Many, Paul
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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