Who Reads?

In some ways, a picture really is worth a thousand words. A picture can often tell a story or communicate feelings that would take a thousand words to tell. If you are old enough to remember the 9/11 attacks, you doubtless remember the video of the buildings on fire and smoking, and people jumping to their deaths to avoid being burned alive. That video has more emotional impact than any of the stories you might have read about it. Reading is more cognitive: we understand more fully. Video is more visceral: we feel more.

When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois, I took a class in writing fiction. In group discussion I told the class about the way I would see movies in my head when I read works of fiction. The instructor and the other students thought I was crazy…. They didn’t make pictures in their heads when they read. I didn’t understand that any more than they understood my mental words-to-video conversion. My guess is that those who can’t make good mental images when they read prefer video. Video marketing has become the dominant marketing tool, and we are likely to see more of it in the future. The decline of newspapers and newsweeklies has been attributed to TV news and online news sites.

And it is not just the news. Have you noticed the way video has been increasing not only on news websites, but also on websites that aren’t “technically” news. Pretty much any information that can be presented visually is presented visually, even if that presentation is only a video image of someone reading a script from a teleprompter, which is how the evening news arrives at the devices we use to “watch” the news. If you have read a novel, for example, and then watch a movie based on the novel, you have some sense of the gains and losses when stories are converted from words to images. Some things are more difficult to visualize than others. When Herman Melville wrote Moby-Dick, for example, everyone—especially those living in seafaring communities—would have been familiar with sailing vessels and whaling ships.

The farther we get from the nineteenth-century experience of seafaring, however, the less people know about what that life was like. For those close to that time, Melville’s descriptions had recognizable verisimilitude that most readers today wouldn’t have. Most readers today would benefit from the visual presentation of a movie—assuming the filmmaker was knowledgeable and faithful to the original. If we’re talking about the nineteenth century or earlier, or even if the reference is to the 1950s or ’60s, such differences are not especially problematic. Historians and other experts can explain and clarify. Time is not the only distancing factor, however. Differences in culture, religious beliefs, and philosophies also separate people as much as differences in times.

When distance—caused by either time or culture—interferes with understanding, video clarifies: It gives us a better picture. That doesn’t mean, however, that the video is correct. The film of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein doesn’t tell quite the same story as her novel. Yet the version of the story that stuck in my head was the film version, and I had to be reminded that the film version made some significant changes to “humanize” the monster. It is significant that I had read the book several times and seen the movie only once (not counting Young Frankenstein, which tells a very different story). Fictional monsters aside, my concern is primarily with our daily news coverage. The sober analysis and depth of meaning provided by print media is being replaced by video, and while that may increase emotional involvement, it reduces intellectual engagement. I am not at all sure that’s a good thing.

What we remember tends to be influenced primarily by emotional involvement. Love a politician or hate him or her, you probably arrived at that feeling-state based on what you have seen rather than what you have read, and the parts of what you have read that evoke emotions will be better remembered than those focusing on analysis of details. It is difficult for most people to generate a strong emotional response based only on what they read. Visual images, and especially video, has a much greater visual impact. When you review the history of humanity, you quickly see how often behavior is governed by fear and hatred. Humanity has basically lurched from war to war. Millions of words were written about the Vietnam War, for example, but one photo changed people’s minds about it.

The ideal for persuasion, of course, is to promote both intellectual understanding and emotional commitment, and that is difficult to do in a single message. As you read and/or watch the daily news, ask yourself whether the authors/publishers want you to understand or feel. Be glad for those who want to do both. Those are the ones to take seriously.