"WHO DO YOU BELIEVE?
Andrew Jarecki's documentary,
Capturing the Friedmans, is a brilliant investigation
of the concept of "credibility." We all agree that
honesty is a cherished value that is embedded deeply in our culture.
Without honesty, we would be unable to come to a conclusion on
many matters because we can't be present at all places at all
times. As a result, we must rely on the words of others. The
underlying value of honesty is in its ability to allow us to
trust, or distrust, statements made by another party about these
events. In some situations, one might be unable to grasp what
the "truth" is or determine who is telling the truth.
This is the dilemma that Capturing the Friedmans confronts.
Capturing the Friedmans
is a film that consists of numerous interviews, home videos and
snippets of news coverage from 1987 about the Friedman family
of Great Neck, New York. The father, Arnold Friedman, and his
youngest son, Jesse, were both alleged to have molested numerous
young male students enrolled in their computer class. The details
surrounding the charges constantly conflict with one another
throughout the film. At the end of the day, the viewer would
be left wondering what really happened in those computer classes
and who was telling the truth.
To better understand how we, as viewers, draw our conclusions
as to what the "truth" is, it is essential to understand
how we make judgments of credibility. There are four major factors
that assist us to evaluate whether a statement or information
given to us is true. The four factors are as follows:
To begin, an important
aspect in evaluating a statement is the content of the message.
If a statement sounds outrageous and unrealistic, the recipient
of the message would most likely disregard the statement because
there is minimal, if any, value or truth to it. For example,
in Capturing the Friedmans, the police stated that there
was pornography everywhere in the house and that the pornography
magazines were not hidden. It is difficult for a viewer to accept
this statement because it sounds ridiculous that pornography
would be highly visible around the house. If that is the case,
one wonders why haven't the parents noticed the magazines when
they picked their children up from their computer classes? Therefore,
if a statement sounds far-fetched, it is unlikely that one will
believe the statement.
1. What the message
2. Who is telling the message,
3. How the message is being told, and
4. How much you know about the subject matter.
However, if there is a doubt to the truth of its content, the
person delivering the message can be influential to one's decision.
For example, if the person communicating the message has a reputation
of being honest and reliable, I would probably believe her statement
over the same message given by a habitual liar. One might also
believe a statement given by a person of authority. For example,
when the judge and the police believed that Arnold and Jesse
were guilty, one might be more inclined to conclude that they
were guilty as well. Hence, the status and the reputation of
the person making the statement are important criteria that we
rely on when we evaluate the credibility of a statement.
In Capturing the Friedmans, there were numerous sources
of information and various people commenting on Arnold and Jesse.
Based on their different standpoints, one might draw different
conclusions from their statements. The primary people who provided
commentaries in the film were the accused themselves and their
family members. When Arnold's wife, Elaine, was under pressure
by her sons to say that Arnold was innocent and when time after
time she refused to do so, one might conclude that Arnold was
probably guilty. This is because the viewer expects the last
person to provide negative statements about the accused to be
his wife. Conversely, the viewer may also be skeptical at comments
provided by people who are close to the accused or comments given
by the accused himself. For example, the viewer might conclude
that Jesse's brother, David, and Arnold's brother, Howard, were
merely vouching for their family. Therefore, one might expect
bias in their statements and as a result, view their statements
to be unreliable.
On the other hand, viewers may be convinced if they were given
the information by the media. The media is capable of influencing
our view of the world and what we perceive to be true. Thus applying
this concept to Capturing the Friedmans, the extensive
news coverage on the Friedman case has the ability to influence
the community, including the judge and many parents, that Arnold
and Jesse are pedophiles and sexual offenders.
The form in which the message is being publicized through the
media will also have an impact to the reliability of the statement.
In other words, the medium of communication chosen has an effect
on the strength of the statement. For example, would you believe
a witness if you heard his oral testimony? Perhaps. Would you
be more influenced if you not only heard the witness' testimony,
but was also given a photograph to support what he was saying?
Most likely, you would have a more affirmative answer as to whether
you believe or disbelieve the witness' story. It is more convincing
to the recipient when there are visual images, such as photographs
and videos, to enhance or verify a statement.
In my opinion, the home videos shown in Capturing the Friedmans
revealing the close father-son relationship between Arnold and
his three sons and also David's "private" recording
of himself raving about the accusations against his father and
brother were highly convincing evidence of Arnold and Jesse's
innocence. This is because home videos are generally seen to
be authentic. The people being videotaped tend to put their masks
down and are their true selves because most of the time, they
feel comfortable with the person who is holding the camera. There
is also an unspoken expectation that the home videos are to be
privately viewed amongst family and friends and not by the public.
Therefore, there is no reason for a person to lie in a home video.
This is precisely why viewers may question whether Arnold and
Jesse did commit such horrible crimes because the home videos
seem to favour their innocence.
Finally, the amount of knowledge viewers have on the subject
matter will have an effect on the ultimate decision of whether
to believe a statement or not. Generally, the more you know about
a subject matter, the better you are able to assess the credibility
of a statement. However, there appears to be an exception for
Capturing the Friedmans. It was nearly impossible to have
a concrete conclusion from the film as to what truly happened.
In fact, the viewer's opinion and conclusion constantly changes
as new evidence surfaces. For that reason, credibility is a concept
that is not permanent and is capable of changing depending on
the amount of information known at a certain point in time. For
example, when Howard insisted that Arnold never had sexual relations
with him when they were younger, I was convinced by him until
the camera moved back and showed Howard's partner sitting beside
him. Then one wonders how truthful Howard was and how the revelation
of Howard's sexual preference changed the viewer's decision.
Perhaps Howard's sexuality inferred that a sexual relationship
between Howard and Arnold (as described in Arnold's letter to
Debbie) was possible and was not completely unrealistic. Therefore,
the additional information of Howard's sexual preference has
the power to change our views on an issue and as a result, it
caused my suspicion of Howard's story.
The amount of information the recipient has, the method of communication,
the messenger delivering the statement and the substance of the
message are four aspects that are interrelated and are all at
play together when we make judgments of credibility. In addition,
we also decide what is credible based on personal beliefs and
possibly make judgments based on what we want to believe rather
than what the evidence points to. Therefore, it is important
to take note of our own bias when we make judgments of credibility.
For example, when I compared the two former computer students'
testimonies in the film, I was swayed to accept one statement
over the other partly because of the difference in their physical
appearance. The former computer student sitting in an office
wearing business attire appeared more credible than the other
former computer student lying on his coach in his casual T-shirt
and shorts at home. As commonly known, appearances may be deceiving.
It is possible that the former computer student with the casual
attire was truthful whereas the other former student was not.
Hence, one must be careful not to allow personal bias to play
a highly influential factor when we make important decisions,
especially when a person's liberty is at stake.
Overall, there are many factors simultaneously influencing our
judgments of credibility. Our perception of what is "true"
may change throughout time as we, ourselves, change and as new
information arises. In Capturing the Friedmans, the viewer
will most likely leave the theatre wondering whether they will
ever know what the truth is and whether there is more information
for them to uncover. Whichever conclusion one might draw from
the film, it is probably just as good of a guess as mine.
Posted December 9, 2003