Having been tasked with exploring the differences between broadcast and text-based news stories, I could think of no better place to begin than NPR. This article from February 10, 2010 about a recent change of the status of Asperger’s syndrome is provided in both audio and webpage formats.
To begin with, the broadcast version has the advantage of immersion. Listening to a few of those afflicted with Asperger’s speak with gravity about their condition leaves an emotional trail to follow. The listener is made to feel as if part of the story. Not only can I try to empathize with the predicament children with Asperger’s face, I can assign human characteristics to that predicament. Their trials are my trials for the few moments I am listening.
The text sacrifices the humanness of the audio for more precise details. For example, the medical book at the heart of the matter (the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual) is barely mentioned in the broadcast. In the text, it’s given its due relevance to the news story. Specific changes are outlined. The effects of those changes are explored. A quick scroll down reveals a sidebar filled with facts concerning Asperger’s and even links to other disorders whose classifications have been updated.
Attending the education process provided within this news story is a classic information bias: the authority-disorder bias. Obviously the authority in this case is the DSM, the book whose recent edition raises hopeful implications for the patients it describes. The story in both forms avoids details about what methods were used by the medical board charged with updating the reference material. Catherine Lord, who sits on the board, speaks only vaguely of trying “to make the diagnosis of autism clearer and to better reflect the science.”
Disorder is implied by the story in either format. Patients who need specific care have been denied because their diagnoses failed to meet guidelines established in the DSM. The system has not been working for these people. According to the article, disorder has been resolved, and new guidelines will facilitate a procedural change in the field. This bias is “amplified” in the audio version. The confidence of expert Catherine Lord’s voice bleeds through to the listener. Her vague, P.R.-guided quote carries the quality of certainty when heard spoken. The text lacks this instinctive dimension.
While I didn’t find this article particularly intriguing, I still noticed myself using personal organizing to form an opinion on the topic. Michael John Carley’s attitude toward the reclassification was at odds with my values, particularly the importance of humility. This led me to filter out further quotes by Carley on the grounds that they were biased. It seemed to me it was more important for him to associate with distant luminaries Einstein or Newton than to embrace a new designation that might help people.
Given a topic about which I know very little, the emotional hook of a story is very important. NPR excels at tugging heartstrings, and the various sources‘ voices add a human dimension we can identify with… even if we’re not terribly interested in the story itself.