As a communications major, I’ve thought a lot about the way people construct, receive, and interpret messages. I will talk about the construction of messages in a later post, but for now I would like to present a process for interpreting messages. When I say message, I mean any fact, opinion, or belief transferred between human beings. Messages may come to us through any of the five senses and sometimes all of them at once. Every time you look at a billboard, read a text message, or go to a movie, you are receiving a message.
We receive so many different types of messages from so many different media each day that it is difficult to craft a universally applicable method for interpreting these messages. But I am disappointed by the common reactions I see to different messages. Most people simply like something, and therefore assume that it must be good without trying to ascertain why they like it. Of course, some messages are simpler than others and have a straight-forward interpretation. Others, however, display a wealth of creativity on the part of their creators and demand more careful scrutiny. Some messages are good, and others are bad, and we must practice distinguishing between the two.
The first step in judging the message is to determine its creator’s purpose. This may be either explicit or implicit. A speaker or essayist will usually explain up-front the argument she is trying to make. However, with a message in the form of, say, a film the purpose may be less obvious. You need to pay attention to the characters’ motivations and the lessons they learn to discern the underlying theme of the story.
Certain forms of “pop” media and art deny any purpose or agenda, masquerading as “mere entertainment.” These messages demand the most caution. Everything communicates something. Look for the assumptions each piece makes about the world and the effect these have on the receiver. Once you have determined what the message-maker is trying to “say,” you can judge whether this message is positive or negative.
The second step is to analyze the means the message-maker uses to send his message. Does it take the form of a song, a t.v. commercial, or a blog post? Suppose the message is a song what genre does fall into? Is it slow or fast? What instruments does it use? All of these are elements the message-maker uses to “encode” his message, and certain forms suit the message better than others. If the message-maker is trying to evoke a sense of grief in the recevier, does she make appropriate use of sounds or images that convey this emotion?
While it is necessary to examine the communicative media with regard to the messag-maker’s purpose, it is also important to examine the unintended consequences of those media. The media we encounter affect us in many different ways, and some effects may have nothing to do with the message-maker’s purpose. Does a video intended to show the devastation of war plant a thirst for violence in the mind of the viewer? Does a love scene awaken lustful appetites? We must be aware of these unintended consequences and take them into consideration in our evaluations.
I have listed these three components in order of importance. Of course the message itself is meaningful, but we must also judge how effectively the medium communicates that message. Finally, while the medium may have effects unrelated to the message itself, they are still powerful and worth noting. Considering all these things, we must keep in mind Paul’s words “Finally, my brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable– if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things.”