Anchors away
It's the culture, stupid!

What did we learn this week?

Slater The gentleman to the left -- ex-Jet Blue flight attendant Steven Slater -- taught us once again that how people interpret events depends on their pre-existing feelings. 

Almost always, even more than on a rational analysis of the events themselves.  

Social scientists call this "framing."  Simply put, it means that we see the world through a series of emotional filters we have built over their lifetime. It's a mental short-cut that helps us make sense of the world. 

Consider the following set of facts: a flight attendant gets bumped in the head, drawing blood, when a passenger tries to retrieve her out-sized luggage from an overhead compartment; angry words are exchanged; the attendant gets on the intercom, announces he is quitting his job in an obscenity-laced rant, grabs two cans of beer, releases the emergency escape chute and slides to the tarmac where he is promptly arrested.  

Now, this set of facts could be interpreted in at least two ways -- (1) the flight attendant is a jerk, emblematic of the shoddy service too typical of travel by air these days, or (2) the flight attendant is a working class hero for telling off a rude passenger and quitting in flamboyant style. 

By now, you know which interpretation ruled the tabloids last week -- and even the New York Times, which ran three separate stories on the incident two days after it happened. 

The interesting question is why did this become the dominant interpretation?  

Were all these reporters mindlessly reflecting the instant Internet reaction?  (A Facebook page supporting the flight attendant went up within minutes of the first news report and had 18,000 followers within hours. By the end of the week, nearly 200,000 people said they "liked" his Facebook page. One image tracking firm even reported that Mr. Slater had higher positive ratings than Sully Sullenberger, the pilot who safely landed his disabled jet, full of passengers, in the Hudson River following a mid-air collision with birds.) 

More likely, the reporters and their editors were seeing the incident through the same emotional lens as the denizens of Facebook. 

They saw Slater's actions through a lens shaped by feelings of helplessness in the face of economic uncertainty. Many of them hate their jobs, feel squeezed because they're doing the work of laid off colleagues, but don't think they have any alternatives, and identify with Slater's "I'm mad as hell and not going to take it anymore" attitude. They admire him because they'd like to hit the chutes themselves.

Framing isn't just "spin," as in the particular twist someone gives a story. It's the way people see the events themselves, through a frame that is twisted by their previous experiences and deepest concerns.  

Next week: watch for a spate of contrarian stories as the framing effects begin to fade and more details emerge. 


Comments

I like the way you ended this, with your experienced eye. If Mr. Slater's act has raised him to hero heights -- even if he's a "bandit hero" (see story in today's New York Times) -- he will now feel the toppling forces. The slide down the plane chute was nothing compared to what's ahead.

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