Labelling Reality Fiction

· 4 min read

Have you ever been struck by the feeling that some piece of fiction you’re reading or watching is more real than many of the stories you see on the news daily? Maybe you’ve watched something portraying real events that you knew about previously but having it presented to you in a new way makes it feel all the more real.

That was my experience watching the new HBO miniseries Chernobyl, I’d read about the Chernobyl disaster previously but the show haunted me more than it should have, and that got me wondering, why?

The Chernobyl miniseries was the catalyst for me coming into this thought process but it isn’t what I want to talk about, ‘Docudramas’ and ‘Based on True Stories’ exist all around us, but so does the news, news which is more real (though, granted, less glamorous) and should be more thought-provocative and more emotionally compelling, so why aren’t they?

Defined realness has an effect on how we as humans process information, Andrew L. Mendelson and Zizi Papacharissi explored this concept using images in their 2007 paper Reality vs. Fiction: How defined realness affects cognitive and emotional responses to photographs. According to their research in which they presented individuals with both fictional movie stills and news images labelled either are ‘Real’ or ‘Fictional’ (the labels switched for part of the sample group), they found that when presented with images labelled ‘fiction’ (regardless of which image was actually shown) that participants listed more ‘thoughts’ about the image when compared to the image labelled ‘real’. However it also showed that the emotional response to ‘real’ images was higher and that the ‘real’ images were considered more novel (new/interesting). The proposal (from Mendelson & Papacharissi and also from Worth & Gross’s 1974 Article Symbolic Strategies) for why these two responses are the case (and I am paraphrasing a lot here) is that things labelled fictional convince us that there is some deeper meaning behind the content we are being given, that is, that the author of the content (whether they’re photographer, director or writer) has crafted the content in such a way as to hint at a meaning (which would make sense if the Law of Conservation of Detail is anything to go by). By contrast, we take the news we’re presented at face value and respond accordingly (whether emotionally, or not as may sometimes be the case).

Also, for those of you (like myself) with the obvious question of “How can we be sure the participants didn’t know which images were real and fake?”, prior to the study they tested whether the manipulation of labels worked, in this test people would rate the image based on how ‘real’ it felt. The participants rated the images labelled ‘real’ as more realistic.

The image on the left is real, the image on the right is computer generated, could you tell?

You’ll remember at the start of this I asked why isn’t the news more compelling emotionally, and you’ll also probably now be pointing to the paragraphs above with questions for me. My comparison was the cold hard facts of the Chernobyl disaster compared to the HBO miniseries and my theory is that when a docudrama, that is a relatively historically correct dramatic representation is compared to the real thing, the labels that are applied to them are blurred so viewers end up with a combination of both, an emotional response and to some degree a search for deeper meaning. The ‘real’ label makes the drama and lies all that more nauseating and rage-inducing, the emotional response is stronger, even when some of that drama was likely manufactured. Our minds are grasping the labels and reacting to the perceived realness of what is presented under that label.

This extra analysis in some cases can be good, and in others it can be bad. Being aware of what lens something is being observed through, especially in a world where deepfake now exists, is an extremely useful skill for both journalists, authors and the general public alike. And if deepfake doesn’t unnerve you, I don’t know what will, especially when experiments, such as the one explored in the article Can people identify original and manipulated photos of real-world scenes? by Sophie J. Nightingale, Kimberley A. Wade and Derrick G. Watson (and yes, given the subject matter the names Nightingale and Watson had me feeling very skeptical) indicate that we are not particularly good at spotting manipulated let alone computer generated photos.

Also, I lied about the images, they’re both real, but did their percieved ‘reality’ make you look at them differently?