Saturday, June 14, 2008

readers: not that smart

Many times in the six or seven years since I decided I was going to be a journalist, I've heard people in some kind of media say something like, "Our readers/listeners/viewers are smart, they know we didn't mean [thing X]."

You know what, media person? They aren't smart. They don't know what you meant. Your readers/listeners/viewers are going to assume whatever fits their prejudices. Many lack critical thinking skills. Many are in a hurry and do not put what critical thinking skills they have to use. Many of them assume that you are evil. Whatever the reason, your readers are going to fail to see things in the way you see them, even if the way you see them seems, to you, completely freaking obvious.

How do I know readers are dumb? I'm a dumb reader. I once read an article by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker and read the final anecdote and thought, wow, he approves of how that went down? Weird! I interviewed him about the story for a class and didn't ask him about that anecdote directly, but it came up when he was talking about the editing process and how the story changed as he worked on it.

Here's what he said: "Originally when I wrote that, I didn’t make it clear...I didn’t set it up properly. So it made it sound like I thought it was good that the cop blew this guy away as opposed to, this is evidence of an ambiguity. I spent a lot of time revising the end so that it was more ambiguous. But even then there are people who - there was a flurry in the Village Voice or something over that piece. Some readers aren’t very sensitive to ambiguity and they think you’re saying something that you’re not. But, you know, that’s the way it goes."

Here's what I was thinking: "OHHH! That was supposed to be ambiguous!!?!"

Example of readers/viewers being dumb that brought this particular rant to mind right now: This post on Cute Overload. Several of the people leaving comments seem to be unclear on the concept of green screens and the fact that stuff shown in a commercial didn't necessarily happen. I think that is a basic level of sophistication that a person making commercials would assume, and I think they would assume wrongly.

I think this is part of the basic problem we humans have of seeing things from other people's perspectives. On both sides - both the reader and the media person, a category which of course now includes me. I try to be clear when I write, but I can never really know how a reader is going to read my words - and I should remember to think about it more often.


Talentedhands said...

Wait... what do you mean? I don't get it. :)

Coloradan said...

What's this about green screens!?! This evil trickery has ruined action movies for me!

This is why I like blogging for an audience of approximately 12: My readers actually are smart. And they know me. So I'm pretty sure they can figure out what I mean, although maybe I should do a reader survey or something before I make that claim.

erin*carly said...

i remember, in one of my writing classes in college, my professor told us a trick to writing: write to the reading level of the intended audience.

the new york times and the washington post ranked high. the new york post or the new york daily news . . . not so much.

i'd think your publication would be high as well.

towwas said...

Yeah, I learned in my first journalism class to aim for a 5th grade level. I think that's probably about what I write at now, too...maybe 6th grade.

I think my blog readers are smart...except for T.Hand. ;)