Shiri Lev-Ari and Boaz Keysar, in their article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology entitled Why don’t we believe non-native speakers? The influence of accent on credibility (2010), examine the influence difficulty in processing information arising from accent has on the credibility we ascribe to that information. They are not talking here about any prejudice that might arise due to accent being a signal of out-group status, but rather to credibility being depleted due to a difficulty in understanding non-native accents. Indeed, the ease of processing stimuli, or ‘processing fluency’, and its effect upon credibility is not effected by accent alone. For example the colour in which a statement is printed will effect how credible that statement is. Text that is coloured in a way that does not facilitate processing fluency will be less likely to be believed.
Lev-Ari and Keysar carried out two experiments to test the impact of accent on truth judgements. In one experiment they tested whether trivia statements sounded less true when said with a foreign accent than without and in the second experiment they tested whether highlighting the difficulty of processing accented speech would lead listeners to correct for the difficulty. In the first experiment accented speech was found to be rated as less truthful than native speech, while in the second attempts by participants to counteract processing difficulty were only partially successful – heavily accented speakers were still less likely to be believed.
In conclusion, the researchers found that when native speakers encountered processing difficulty due to accent they perceive statements as less truthful rather than more difficult to understand. Thus non-native speakers with an accent are seen as less credible, even when prejudice against foreigners may not play a role. Attempts by native speakers to compensate for this misattribution, when they are made aware of it, are only successful to a degree, with heavily accented speech still seen as less credible.
However it is not only non-native speakers that are subject to prejudice or misunderstanding. The reaction of game-show host, Geri Maye, in the video below, to attempts by a participant to speak a small amount of Irish, show that native speakers can also be subject to prejudice and, in this case, unsubtle ridicule and marginalisation:
The fact that an Irish person on an Irish game-show is being ridiculed for speaking Irish probably says as much about our colonial history as about any processing difficulty the host has encountered, but it does show that form of speech and the reaction to it can also say as much, if not more, about a media text as what is actually being said literally.
Although, on a lighter note, accent didn’t seem to be a barrier to credibility in the interview below, where BBC News 24 mistook a taxi driver for a computer expert and proceeded to interview him on issues about which he showed little expertise:
So actual language, as opposed to coded messages, can influence how a text is mediated and raise three questions about media output:
- How is the world represented? Is criminality attached to a certain class or ethnic group in a report on crime or violence? Is a strong rural accent representative of a particular mindset?
2. What identities are imputed to those involved in a story, whether they are reporters, interviewees or audience? For instance a reporter may adopt a ‘man in the street’ persona through use of colloquialisms or slang.
3. What is the relationship between those involved? Is an ‘expert’, for example, set apart from an audience through having an upper or middle-class accent?
If we divide life into two spheres of ‘private’ and ‘public’ we find that certain accents are more associated with these respective spheres and a certain incongruity my be felt if the accent deemed more connected with one is used to mediate a text within the other. It might seem strange, for instance, to hear Joe Duffy read the RTE news, whereas his strong working-class Dublin accent is regarded as particularly suited to the talk-show format which tends more towards the private sphere. Although it should be noted that the UK Central Office of Information (COI) says that the use of regional accents is seen as more ‘real’ compared to Received Pronunciation (RP).
Delivery, in terms of tone, rhythm and stress, can also lead to a ‘conversational’ appearance within a mediated text and this can blur the boundaries between what is within the public and private spheres. Increasingly, entertainers are presenting analysis of serious issues that would traditionally have been regarded as being within the public sphere. Des Bishop’s recent Under the Influence TV series on RTE brought the issue of alcohol abuse in Ireland to a level of conversationality that would be more associated with the private, rather than the public, sphere. Hector Ó hEochagáin has also brought a conversational approach to the issue of the relationship between the settled and traveller community in Ireland in his Hector Goes Traveller programme on RTE. The BBC educational programme The Works tried to show engineers in a creative light by using colloquialisms such as ‘booze’ or the idiomatic phrase ‘it’s a miracle’ when examining the workings of an aircraft.
So there is a tension between information and entertainment, between what is regarded as appropriate for the private and public spheres. As a result of this tension there is a tendency for public affairs journalism to become increasingly conversationalised and to be increasingly mediated as a personalised narrative, often involving celebrities. This tendency towards entertainment is further increased due to the increased marketisation of the media. As market share and advertising revenues become increasingly important, even to public service broadcasters, serious news coverage and debate is likely to appear more as entertainment rather than serious journalism. The traditional role of the fourth estate as an essential component in a functioning democracy then comes seriously into question.