SMOKE WITHOUT FIRE: A look at Influence, Trust and Media Built Perceptions




In September last year, I ran a rathercrude survey inviting readers of my blog on Pakistani news channel, Dawn to take part.  The survey was a rather tongue-in-cheek response to the tenth anniversary of George Bush’s Axis of Evil Speech, but it has thrown up some points of interest to communications professionals.

Most readers picked up on the fact that in today’s connected world, labelling an entire nation as “evil” was not a useful rhetoric.  However, I was overwhelmed with hundreds of responses.  More people completed the questionnaire than I had money to access on the free online survey and many of the comments certainly didn’t shy away from national stereotypes or allegations of evil.

As a result of the exercise, I was able to write four articles – each looking at the original three evil nations of IraqIran and North Korea and a fourth piece looking at who readers perceived as evil today.

I am aware that the research is only representative of views from a demographic that makes up my readership – that is, mainly English-speaking, news-reading, internet-accessing, probably middle class, south Asians.  Over half the respondees lived in India and many, as you would guess were from Pakistan.  There were a few exceptions.  With this caveat, however, one unexpected finding emerged, that is worthy of note and perhaps worthy of further study.

As well as asking for views on Iraq, Iran and North Korea, I also asked how people thought their perceptions of countries had been formed specifically for each “evil” nation.  There was a general acknowledgement of the influence of the news media in building perceptions, with 83% of people stating this was the case for Iraq, 76% for Iran and 91% for North Korea.  In addition, roughly half of all respondees claimed that government, authorities or politicians had shaped the way they felt about each nation.

We communications professionals can get preoccupied with unearthing “credible voices” often at a somewhat patronising “grass roots” level – so this finding throws interesting light on the research into those most trusted to deliver messages. Last year’s MORI poll showed that in the UK politicians score the lowest in terms of trust and journalists are not far from the bottom.  The story is similar if not the same in Australia, the USA.  One might assume that because journalists and politicians are untrustworthy in the UK or America, it would be the same in South Asia. Whilst the Hindustan Times failed to mention journalists, it appears that Indians concede with the west that politicians are not to be trusted.  However, despite witnessing heavy criticism of both, last year’s Gallup research showed that journalists and government officials in Pakistan were not distrusted at all – in fact they were up there with shopkeepers.

My main interest, and point to flag for further research, is whether we are able to simultaneously acknowledge that a source is untrustworthy, and yet still be influenced by it.  This indicates that whilst we may “know” a source to be flawed, we are still allowing the source to help build our perceptions of an issue, or a place.

The second point which emerged from my survey was that when assessing responses to the three nations: Iraq; Iran and North Korea, it appeared that those informed wholly or mostly by the news media were most likely to use capital letters, insulting language and be generally angry and irrational.  They were also most likely to label a nation as “evil”.  Equally those with direct personal experience – either family, friends or they had visited themselves – were more likely to offer complex views, and less likely to consider a nation under a single characteristic.  This was of far more interest to me than whether Iraq was considered more evil than North Korea or vice versa.

Two conclusions to share and debate and perhaps take further: how trust and influence sit together; and on broader terms the case for first-hand experience and whether being informed by news media provides a positive, balanced, or useful picture. The latter is a huge issue, which I write about often, and particularly for Pakistanis – who appear blighted with negative news coverage, both at home and abroad – and yet trust in it and acknowledge it has an impact on them.