Watch ABC's Dramatization First? The Damage Is Already Done

09/10/2006 10:20 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

"Incrimination through innuendo: Can media questions become public answers?" That was the title of an article published by a team of social psychologists in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. People who participated in the research were shown one of four different newspaper headlines about a political candidate.

1. Some of the participants read a headline that was directly incriminating. For example: "Bob Taybert Linked With Mafia."

2. Other participants read a headline in the form of a question: "Is Bob Taybert Linked With the Mafia?"

3. A third group read a denial of the charge: "Bob Taybeg Not Linked With Mafia."

4. The final set of participants read something totally innocuous: "Bob Tayberg Arrives In City."

Later in the study, the participants were asked to describe their impressions of Bob Tayberg. Unsurprisingly, the people who read the directly incriminating headline were most negative about Bob. More interestingly, the people who simply read the question about Bob (Is he linked to the Mafia?) were just as negative about him as the people who read the direct incrimination. What's more, the people who read the denial were only a shade less negative than those who read the question. (Bob seemed just fine if all he did was arrive in the city. And since Bob was not a real person, no actual reputations were damaged by the study.)

What this research suggests is that just raising a question about someone can end up smearing that person. Even linking a person with a bad act only for the purposes of denying it (Bob NOT linked with Mafia) can leave a bit of a smudge on that person's reputation.

Consider now the ongoing discussion of the ABC "dramatization," The Path to 9/11. People are protesting what they have seen or heard about the miniseries. They have made statements such as the following:

"Official A was not asleep at the switch."
"Official B was not helping the enemy."

The social psychology research suggests that the pre-miniseries debate may have already stained the reputations of some of the characters depicted in it. Whether the debaters are underscoring the points (He was asleep at the switch) or challenging them (He was not asleep at the switch), some damage may have already been done.

ABC scolds those who would air their criticisms before the editing process is complete and calls them irresponsible. Instead, the network says that people should "watch the entire broadcast of the finished film before forming an opinion about it."

So ABC wants to air its claims, to as wide an audience as possible, and only then allow viewers to debate their credibility. The network is like the attorney who slips an inflammatory nugget into the proceedings, with the excuse that its impact can easily be waived away: The judge can simply rule the statement inadmissible. There is social psychological research on that, too. The results show that mental slates are not as docile as blackboards; they can't always be wiped clean.

ABC has still another defense. The Path is not a documentary but a dramatization, and "as such, for dramatic and narrative purposes, the movie contains fictionalized scenes." Apparently, that warning is supposed to make the fictionalization acceptable - even though ABC is apparently not going to tell its audience which particular scenes were made up. Should the warning make it easier for viewers to know what to believe?

Here I can cite some of my own research, conducted with my colleague Carol Toris and also published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In a practice setting, interviewers met with job applicants. Half of the interviewers were warned that some of the applicants would fictionalize their life story. The other interviewers were given no such warnings. None of the interviewers were told which applicants or which life stories to believe. Were the forewarned interviewers better at separating the truth from the fiction? They were not. In fact, they were simply more cynical, disbelieving more of what they heard (including some of the truthful stories) than did the interviewers who were not forewarned.

So what's a person to do? Here are two hypothetical possibilities. One is to create a new set of connections - for example, "ABC is irresponsible" or "ABC is practicing politics instead of journalism." Another safer and more polite alternative would be to deny the same - "ABC is not irresponsible" or "ABC is not practicing politics instead of journalism." I do not recommend the directly incriminating statements or the denials. That's because either would tarnish the reputation of the network, and that just wouldn't be fair.