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Four Laws of Media



Media has an outsized impact on our lives. As we consume media moment to moment, it is increasingly becoming the lens through which we see and understand reality. Learning about the nuances of this mediated reality can help businesses, investors, and organizations of all types advance in their field. Here are four "laws" or recurring phenomena of media dynamics that can help you wrap your arms around this mega-institution.


1. Knoll's Law

Knoll's Law of Media Accuracy states simply that most people tacitly accept what the media presents to be true, accurate and basically synonymous with reality—except in cases with which they have personal familiarity. In those instances, people who generally accept the approximate accuracy of media reporting see what they consider to be egregious errors that are so far off the mark they cannot understand how anyone, let alone a professional journalist, would come to that conclusion.


Knoll's Law has probably modulated in recent years, as trust in media has plummeted. But what people miss is that, despite their media skepticism (or even cynicism), most of what they understand to be true about current events comes from the media.


Even still, Knoll's Law illustrates that media reporting often remains abstract until it collides with our own individual lives, in which cases it becomes very concrete. People who have frequent experience with Knoll's Law—public figures, brand managers, corporate communications pros, and others—know how impactful this effect actually is.


2. The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect

The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect is a corollary to Knoll's Law which explains how any of us continue to consume, let alone trust, media even after we come across reporting we know from personal experience to be false. As the effect's name suggests, Gell-Mann Amnesia chalks this up to a kind of forgetting: it's a willful suspension of skepticism that allows us to continue to place store in reporting even moments after we have encountered reporting from the same sources we know to be false.


The great science fiction writer Michael Crichton created the concept and coined the term following discussions he had with Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann. As Crichton explained it:


"You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray's case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the "wet streets cause rain" stories. Paper's full of them.


In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know."


3. Man Bites Dog (MBD)

The Man Bites Dog Law refers to media's disproportionate coverage of unusual, counter-intuitive or grotesque stories. The name of the effect refers to the reality that while a dog biting a man is simply the usual course of things (and therefore by definition not news), a man biting a dog is the opposite: it's weird, attention-grabbing, and, as a result, newsworthy. (Or, at least, ends up the subject of news coverage.)


MBD can help us understand the incentives at work in the media, which overwhelmingly trends towards negative stories. (Evidence of this is the litter of media companies that have attempted tilt at the "positive news" business model.) After all, what makes MBD compelling is not just that it's unusual, but that it implies a threat: what is going on in this place that people are biting dogs? What is going to happen next?


4. The Streisand Effect

In 2003, Barbara Streisand, motivated by privacy issues, attempted to force a photographer and photo website to remove aerial photographs of her cliffside mansion, originally taken to document coastal erosion. Prior to Streisand's legal action, the photo had 6 downloads. After her effort, which naturally made headlines saw tens of thousands of downloads. Thus, the Streisand Effect was born, the term coined by Techdirt founder Mike Masnick.


The Streisand Effect points to the idea that an attempt to artificially create noise often indicates the presence of signal. We also know this through the saying, "The coverup is worse than the crime," which may not necessarily be true from a legal point of view, but almost always is, in terms of media coverage.


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