In yesterday’s OpEdge entry, I analyzed how the media covered the release of the U.S. Census Bureau’s recent voluminous report. I found it strange that the New York Times decided to focus its coverage on the fact that the suburbs have seen a large increase in the percentage of foreign-born residents and not on the fact that virtually everywhere across the country, households have less income than they did five years ago.
I want to do what I call thought-process analysis, a kind of deductive reasoning that tries to construct a likely thought process that people may go through when reacting to something or given some information. What I want to analyze is how people react to reading, seeing or hearing a certain piece of news.
Let’s start with the emotional level. When you read, see or hear news, the emotional part of the reaction reduces down to a simple and immediate decision—is this good (for me) or bad (for me). That’s the first emotion and everything else plays off of that, even if you change the emotion once you get more facts.
Now taking into account all the rhetoric that politicians and pundits have thrown around recently about immigration, the economy and the American dream, ask yourself this question:
Will most people view the fact that household income has shrunk almost everywhere in the U.S. as a good thing or a bad thing?
Virtually everyone will view it as a very bad thing that household income has shrunk (except perhaps for those few who realize that the shrinkage has resulted in more profit for owners and investors and like that fact). The very idea that incomes are falling even as fewer people can find jobs is a rather severe indictment of our economic policies, which remain anchored in the idea that the unregulated free market solves all problems. The various responses that people will propose to address this trend will tend to fall on either side of the left-right divide. But in all cases, the focus will be on the “how,” because virtually everyone agrees that we have to change the “what.”
Let’s go through a similar analysis for the trend that the Times decided to feature and make into the key fact to remember about the report:
Will most people view the fact that a greater percentage of suburban residents are immigrants almost everywhere in the U.S. as a good thing or a bad thing?
No need to go to the studies—we know the verdict is mixed. Many of us just don’t care who our neighbors are as long as they cut the grass and keep the noise down. Some embrace the idea of a more diverse society. But many will see the news as another sign that immigrants are taking over and ruining our country. None of my thousand independently operating minds (joke) is in the anti-immigration campaign, and I consider the common arguments that immigrants take jobs that Americans could/would fill while depressing U.S. wages to be specious and proven false by real economic research. To my way of thinking, direct analogues to the anti-immigration stand exist in both those who deny global warming and those who believe in Creationism. Be that as it may, the collective reaction is different from the news that household income has shrunk in two ways:
- The country will be divided on how they react to the news about immigration.
- The issue is a matter of “is this good?” and not “what do we do?” Put in another way, we are discussing a religious issue, not a scientific one.
We’re wading in a little deep now so hold on steady: “How” is what science and the scientific method is all about. We know global warming exists, how do we slow it down and protect people from its harmful side effects? No one likes to see incomes shrink, how do we get them growing again?
The discussion of immigration typically conjures deep-seated and irrational beliefs that societies have always held regarding the mysterious “other.” Is immigration good or bad? To a great extent, it often depends on what you believe. Thus, the immigration story inherently revolves around “belief,” which, of course, means that we have entered the realm of religion.
Issues of belief often create a kind of intellectual gridlock that prevents action by society. We can see this syndrome most clearly in the global warming debate. Because the news media keeps alive the debate “does it exist” (similar to “is immigration good?”), we never get around to discussing the scientific question of how to address it.
In the case of the immigration issue, the Times presents a story that has no inherent value-system attached to it—more foreign-born are living in suburbs—so the natural reaction is that people use the fact to support their own deep-held beliefs. It helps them to dig in and creates intellectual gridlock.
There is a value-system inherent in the decline in incomes and everyone agrees about it—it’s bad. So the impact of replacing the real news—people are making less money—with a less newsworthy item—more immigrants in the suburbs—is to divide the country more than it is already divided on an issue that is no doubt of less importance to everyone in the long run. The dividing action leads to a kind of paralysis in the nation’s will that mirrors the gridlock that we see in Congress on a growing number of issues.