Every story in this issue is open to interpretation. Writers gathered facts and crafted words to convey certain messages. The editors and designer then interpreted the text with readers in mind, trying to further illuminate the writer's intent with revisions and pictures. The final interpreter is you, the reader, someone who lives in a particular place with a certain history.
How will readers react to this issue's stories on Will Steger and global warming, wolves at Camp Ripley, and fur trapping today? Readers will read the same facts but create meaning from their own perspectives.
Sometimes letters to the editor express such differing views that I wonder if people are reading the same piece. For instance, my editor's column "The Elephant in the Woods" (Sept.-Oct.) prompted one reader to write and prod me to call for political action, while another letter writer insisted that I'd fallen for the fallacy of global warming.
Why the different reactions? Emotion and beliefs color perception. One worried reader apparently believes in the power of politicians to address global warming. Another worried reader believes that people with political agendas have drummed up the problem.
Many other factors influence a reader's interpretation of a story. What a person focuses on determines what a person sees. Like background music in a movie, emotions can signal what to focus on. A particular purpose can also direct attention. Recently, I was in an audience that was asked to watch a silent video clip of pickup basketball and count players' passes. Then we were asked to simply observe a replay of the clip. Within seconds, we spotted someone in a gorilla suit crossing the basketball court. Our initial focus had blinded us to the gorilla, just as reading with a preconception might cause a reader to miss something in the story.
Another filter that affects a person's view is culture. Readers who grew up in hunting families looked at the Nov.-Dec. issue's stories and photographs of moose and grouse hunts in light of their traditions. Likewise, an adult who trapped gophers as a youngster will probably understand this issue's "Modern-day Trappers" in a different way than a reader who has never trapped.
As a sign-language interpreter, my sister bridges two cultures: deaf and hearing. Using voice and hands, she simultaneously translates English and American sign language. To relay true meaning, she must take into account the differing ways a hearing person and a deaf person might interpret the same words. For example, a hearing teacher might tell the class: "You need to know this." The interpreter, mindful of classroom norms and the teacher's tone, also conveys the implied meaning: "This will be on the test."
A code of ethics guides sign-language interpreters to remain neutral—open to receiving and translating information without revision. Ideally, writers maintain similar neutrality when researching the facts. Then they accurately fit the facts into a framework—the story. In other words, the writer makes sense of the facts—creates meaning for the reader.
Always, the sign-language interpreter's goal is to render messages faithfully, as close as possible to the communicator's spirit and intent. The careful reader strives to do the same, understanding the writer's message without altering the facts.
When scientists concluded that Pluto no longer merited its status as a planet, some teachers encouraged their students to protest Pluto's displacement. In a newspaper editorial, a physics professor and a law professor lamented the teachers' lesson. "Science is not democratic," they wrote. And "popular sentiment" should not attempt to "sway science."
The scientific method requires an open mind. Scientists continually re-examine and revise their ideas in light of new data. A wish to deny science-based conclusions about Pluto or global warming does not change the facts or the real story.
What we can change is our reaction. Everyone has an opportunity to read carefully and then create meaning.
Kathleen Weflen, editor