"This takes place when TV news viewers' memory plays tricks on them and they end up 'remembering' the facts of a TV news story in a way that defames an innocent person portrayed in the news story," said Grimes, the Ross Beach research chair in the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Kansas State University.
"People tend to use stereotypes to remember a person's role in a news story," Grimes said. "So if a black policeman is shown arresting a white criminal, some viewers may remember the black policeman as the criminal, and the white criminal as the policeman, thus defaming the black policeman."
Grimes said instances in which this type of mistake has happened have led to several defamation suits against both TV stations and networks over the past three decades.
Grimes detailed this odd quirk of human memory in a 1996 publication in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly with research colleague Robert E. Drechsel, a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The Grimes and Drechsel study was selected last week by Lawrence Erlbaum Publishing Company editors as one of the best examples of social science research in media law over the past decade. It will be featured in a new book, published by Erlbaum, "Communication and Law: Multidisciplinary Research Approaches," which will appear later this year.
Grimes and Drechsel documented for the first time the components of human memory and information processing that result in this interesting, yet annoying, phenomenon.
An update of this study appears this month in the latest issue of the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, a refereed scholarly journal published by the Broadcast Education Association.
In this latest publication, Grimes teamed with Jeff Gibbons and Rod Vogl, psychology Ph.D. graduates, to further explore the cognitive processes that lead to this type of false memory. Gibbons, Vogl and Grimes showed that the phenomenon is a function of stereotyping, and that it can be defeated by activating what psychologists call "semantic elaboration."
"That means making viewers think about what they are seeing and hearing so that they remember the message better," Grimes said.
"We also discovered that by showing viewers a photo of a wrong-doer's face before a video new story about that wrong-doer, a viewer's tendency to mis-remember who did what to whom is aborted. This can be done by showing a still shot of the wrong-doer's face next to the news anchor as the news anchor reads the introduction to the video taped news story that contains the wrong-doer. This is an otherwise common production practice in TV news, and is known as a box-wipe."
Gibbons, Vogl and Grimes discovered that placing a box-wipe of a wrong-doer's face next to the news anchor is especially important when women or minorities are the principal actors in TV news stories in which stereotyping might put them in the role of a wrong-doer.