We gather and dispense information about our intimate environment through personal and electronic contact with family, friends, and associates. Mass media (MM) provide much of our knowledge of the larger environment. Last month’s column focused on MM as a cultural phenomenon that we must understand if it’s to inform but not unduly influence our cognitive processes. This column will focus on the techniques that (non-entertainment) MM use to shape and distort information and beliefs.

Mass media play an important role in democratic societies and competitive markets that function through the efficient persuasion of large widespread audiences. It’s no surprise then that governments seek to control MM output, and that many who use MM distort the truth when seeking support for their cause. Websites have recently become an important, relatively inexpensive, unregulated venue for disseminating information, and so we should be as aware of who’s running a website as we are of other MM venues we use, and also as leery of what’s published on it.

Mass media have now evolved to the point where conflicting media messages constantly bombard us. How do we select what to attend to and what to believe?

Our brain must constantly differentiate between what’s currently important (foreground) and peripheral (background or context). It does this through an attentional buffer (commonly called our working brain) that allows us to focus on only a few units of information for a short period of time while we determine their importance within the larger perceptual field.

Our working brain thus temporarily frames a segment of our larger perceptual environment. We attend to things that are inside the frame, and are merely aware of (or ignore) whatever is outside the frame. A short attention span is a requisite of a wary opportunistic brain that must constantly shift its focus.

Since mass media must assume a short audience attention span, MM messages tend to incorporate things humans innately attend to. Among these are rapidly moving objects, loud sounds, fluctuations (from sirens to snakes), unexpected events, and the red end of the color spectrum. Last month’s column discussed the additional attentive appeal of information related to threat, food, shelter, and sexuality.

TV commercials tend to insert one or more of these elements into the picture to capture attention — and then to surround it with the commercial message. For example, the opening shot might be of a smiling attractive woman standing next to a red automobile. Red and attractive woman have nothing to do with the worthiness of the car, but they do help gain and briefly hold the attention of potential buyers during the sales pitch.

TV commercials often tell an appealing and/or humorous story within the commercial, and the advertiser then repeats the commercial frequently in the hope that repeated viewing will eventually shift the audience focus from the story to the surrounding commercial message.

Mass media often relentlessly focus on what’s within the frame and ignore its context — and so distort its meaning and significance. The result is that repeated replays of a rare or isolated event that’s emotionally charged come across as being common in the minds of those who can’t get beyond their personal emotion into the event’s cultural context.

Thus, folks have recently chosen to drive instead of fly 500 miles because of fear caused by the September 11 air crashes, even though driving 500 miles is much more dangerous statistically. Similarly, a few cases of anthrax in billions of pieces of autumn mail caused mailed Christmas greetings to be fearsome for some folks this year.

Effective mass media messages move us from attention to persuasion – and a persuasive message must have a rational base. Unfortunately, the limited time that a MM message typically gets hinders reflective thought. The solution is to distort the message through brief appealing rhetoric that seems rational (but isn’t upon reflection). Common examples are political promises to increase services and reduce taxes, ads that indicate that a product is improved (but don’t say over what), TV drug commercials that begin with clearly promised positive results, but end with a rapid incomprehensible listing of the dangers associated with the medicine (the televised equivalent of the small print in a contract or print ad).

We often depend on informed trustworthy friends’ advice in many of our decisions. Mass media exploit this tendency by using celebrities and hired actors who look friendly and trustworthy to persuade a hopefully gullible audience. That a well known entertainer or athlete endorses a product has nothing to do with its worth – unless the product is integral to the endorser’s life or work.

It’s important to realize that those who use mass media to promote their product, service, or belief system don’t have a responsibility to tout the virtues of their competitors. We thus shouldn’t be surprised that they try to make the best possible case for what they have to offer – and often push the envelope of accuracy and honesty. Things tend to be black and white in a single unit of MM information, no shades of gray. You have to surf the relevant MM widely if you want to understand all sides of an issue before you make your choice.

The Latin phrase caveat emptor emerged long before mass media, but buyer beware is still good advice for anything that reaches us via mass media. Folks who successfully use MM to promote something unabashedly use their knowledge of how to influence our decisions. They seek rapid/impulsive and not delayed/reflective decisions. We’re not required to believe what MM present – so we shouldn’t complain if we neglected to use our rational reflective processes to determine whether the message was useful or bogus before buying into it.