By Shari Phiel
“The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words” — American author Phillip K. Dick
The human mind is capable of amazing things, but it is hardly infallible. Ask any police officer and they will tell you that people often make for unreliable witnesses. It’s not that witnesses are trying to intentionally mislead the police (usually, that is), it’s just the way we’re wired.
When I was in middle school, one of my teachers conducted an experiment by having a student rush into class, start a verbal argument with the teacher and then abruptly leave the room. She then had each student write down exactly what was seen and what was said. Not surprisingly, the 20-something different versions turned in varied wildly from the teacher starting the argument to a physical confrontation occurring.
But why is human memory and perception so fallible? Dozens of scientific studies have shown there many things that can influence our perceptions and memories. Emotions play a key role — fear, happiness, anger can all have a big effect. Maybe you had a fight with your spouse or you finally landed that big contract you’ve been after for a year. This can affect how you remember an event happening the same day or even days later.
For someone like me who already has short term memory challenges, this can present a real problem in my job — which is exactly why I use a tape recorder when covering meetings and doing interviews. Keep in mind, though, that perception, and memory doesn’t apply to just those covering the news but those in the news as well.
While attending a recent Berthoud Board of Trustees meeting, and later at a Berthoud Economic Resource Team meeting, reference was made, first by one of the trustees and then by a BERT member, to something discussed at the June 8 BERT meeting. In both instances, it was pointed out that then Town Administrator Jim White had denied the BERT group funds for postage to send out thank you letters after the business appreciation breakfast last May.
This all struck me as very odd because I was at that June meeting and remembered the conversation much differently. The trustee who made note of this conversation was not present for the meeting, so I’m guess the information was passed on to him second hand. Knowing my memory can be deficient, I pulled the audio recording to find out what was really said.
What I found was that when the subject of needing postage was raised, White noted that with the expense for the breakfast — which the trustees originally approved for $1,200 but came in closer to $2,000 — was already over budget, and an alternative might be to run the thank you as a letter to the editor rather than incurring additional costs for postage, letterhead, envelopes and staff time to send out 300 to 400 letters to all the business owners in Town.
White then added, “If you don’t do it that way, and you want to have the expense … my request is that somebody calculates the cost, bring it forward so that I can look at it, and if it’s an incidental cost, that’s one thing. But if it’s $500, which it probably wouldn’t be … then I would say take it to the board.” White didn’t deny funding to the BERT committee, but he did counsel that requests for funds have to be submitted for approval according to Town policy.
So why the different versions of the event? Like everything, there is context. This conversation occurred during the same time period that several members of the BERT committee had petitioned the trustees not to renew White’s contract, which was in the process of being negotiated. The petition was backed by some of the board members as well. Emotions were running high, tempers had flared, so it’s not really surprising to see this affect perceptions.
If human memory and perception are so fallible, then how do reporters know whom to believe? The answer is, we don’t. This is why we use multiple sources for stories along with audio and video recordings. Like the witness to a crime, bad recollection isn’t usually intentional, just the fault of how the human mind works. The next time you’re watching the news or even attending a town council meeting, remember that, like beauty, history is in the eye of the beholder.