Famous, Creative, and Gay? Nyet!

In my research and study of media and communication, the topics that most consistently interest me are those that deal with Russia, which was the area of study for my master’s degree and which I picked up again for my dissertation in communication studies [“Countering Foundational Myths and Cultural Beliefs: The Reportage of Anna Politkovskaya” (UMI Dissertations Publishing, 2012. 3508924)]. I am Slavic from my mother’s side (Slovak and Bohemian), so I guess I’ve always felt an affinity for things Eastern European. The Russians have a rich, colorful, and complex history, literature, and culture; although I’m desperately behind in my readings about the region, I never turn down an opportunity to dig into them.

Recently I was researching an article about lack of tolerance of LGBT individuals in Russia for the newsletter “Dis[curse]ive” (vol. 10, issue 2, for the LGBT Interest Group of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication; should be up soon at https://glbtaejmc.wordpress.com), and in the process, I came across an interesting and amusing (in a sad way) little news piece from August 2013. It’s such a compelling story that I saved it for a discussion of diversity and international topics in my media classes, and as an example of how the mainstream media in some countries must comply with government stances on issues.

First, some quick background facts:

(1) Famed Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, whose “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker” ballets have charmed audiences for some 125 years, has long been known to have been gay. Many sources have acknowledged it through the years; Alexander Pozhansky dealt with it in his Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man (New York: Schirmer Trade Books, 1991), and his Tchaikovsky through Others’ Eyes (Indiana University Press, 1999) relied on sections from the composer’s own brother, who wrote of it.

(2) Current Russian laws and attitudes do not accept homosexual or transsexual individuals or practices. Although equal rights are written into the country’s constitution, “gay propaganda” was banned in the country through a law enacted by the Russian Parliament on June 11, 2013; President Vladimir Putin strongly condemns it, and Patriarch Kirill I of the Russian Orthodox Church links gay marriage to a coming of the apocalypse.

With that in mind, a headline in the Aug. 23, 2013, New York Times seemed almost understated: “Screenwriter Questions Whether Tchaikovsky Was Gay, Sparking Furor in Russia” (http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/23/screenwriter-questions-whether-tchaikovsky-was-gay-sparking-furor-in-russia/?ref=arts&_r=1). The article explained the situation in its lead paragraph: “A prominent Russian screenwriter working on a film about Tchaikovsky’s life that has just received state financing set off a firestorm this week by saying that the biopic would not focus on the composer’s sexuality because ‘it is far from a fact that Tchaikovsky was a homosexual.’”

The quote, the Times reported, came from Izvestia (http://www.nm-g.ru), which is a mainstream newspaper in Russia that supports the government’s word on the issues. The author of the Times article, Sophia Kishkovsky, quoted screenwriter Yuri Arabov as saying, “Only philistines think [he was gay]. . . . What philistines believe should not be shown in films” and that that he would “not sign [his] name to a film that advertises homosexuality.”

Alec Luhn, writing for The Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/25/russia-anti-gay-law-tchaikovsky-sexuality), further quoted Arabov in the Izvestia interview as saying Tchaikovsky was “a person without a family who has been stuck with the opinion that he supposedly loves men” and who suffers over these “rumours.”

“The film’s producer, Sabina Yeremeyeva, said it would not run afoul of the law against gay propaganda,” Luhn’s article added.

The attitudes of these quoted sources accord with the current stance toward homosexuality in Russia, and so they are not themselves surprising. What’s interesting, though, are the quotes in The Guardian from another Russian newspaper: the independent Novaya Gazeta. This paper and its writers have suffered over the years for their contrary stances to the Putin government, and the publication apparently didn’t hold back on this subject, either. According to writer and film columnist Larisa Malyukova, Luhn wrote, she “said that in a version of the script she saw last year, Tchaikovsky suffered over his love for a younger man. Arabov’s comments, however, suggested that the portrayal of the composer as gay had been edited out of the script.”

Further, Luhn wrote, “Malyukova suggested that Arabov’s comments are a public reaction to the political situation and do not reflect the content of the film. ‘You know what kind of ministry of culture we have,’ she said. ‘Everyone is being careful, and he’s being careful, and rightly so.’”

I think these two short articles provide a nice comparison (in English) for students to show them how state-sanctioned versus independent newspapers will report differently on the same subject, depending on the pressure from above. Novaya Gazeta certainly runs a risk with its honesty in a country that ranked #152 out of 180 in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index, issued by Reporters Without Borders (en.rsf.org; students might also be interested in noting, for comparison’s sake, that the United States came in #49 in this index, and Canada overwhelmed both countries by coming in #8).

I’ve found factoids like these to be great starting points for discussion of the value of free speech, bias, and of course ethics in our country, along with a quote by Winston Churchill, who is claimed to have said, “History is written by the victors.”

[For those of you interested in the topic of famous Russian LGBT media producers (artists, writers, musicians), Arit John’s article in The Wire (http://www.thewire.com/entertainment/2013/08/sorry-russia-tchaikovsky-was-definitely-gay/68679/) provides a short list of other names.]

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More than “Just the facts, ma’am”

As someone who, like so many others, bore the brunt of some bullying during those “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad” childhood years (junior high, in my case), I’ve been drawn to the web articles about the cyberbullying that has come to pervade the open space of the Internet, where real ideas are supposed to be exchanged among intelligent people of good will. This is where we come to learn, instead, that bullying really doesn’t stop with adulthood, and in fact, in some cases, when performed online, it can end careers and destroy lives.

Most of us don’t simply lecture to our students only about the fact that bullying takes place online; it’s important to provide in-depth discussions of individual current events cases in our media classes, to help students understand the full implications of cyberbullying. It’s much like the media and violence chapter I do in my mid-level class on media and society; I require group presentations about significant tragedies in our society (Columbine, the West Memphis Three, Matthew Shepard, the West Nickel Mines shooting, and others) and how the media represented or framed the suspects and victims, which in turn affected the public’s perceptions of the events. I remind them that these acts are not just between perpetrator and victim, but that, like a pebble in a pond, the acts ripple outward and affect many people; media provides us all of their stories.

It’s been interesting to see students’ responses to acts of online bullying on children and teens. Some are sympathetic and call for the bullies to be banished from the website; others say that bullying is the nature of the Internet, so toughen up or log off – no one is making the victims stay online. I usually counter that by asking why the victim rather than the bully should be forced off the social media site that all his or her peers use to communicate; that often throws a wrench into their thinking.

Examples of responses to online bullying are easy to find; in February, for example, a high school principal in Massachusetts, who also happens to be an Iraq War veteran, sounded off about an abusive anonymous Twitter user who was bullying other students; this principal “fired off an angry school e-mail calling the offenders ‘pathetic cowards’ and saying ‘I have more respect for the insurgents I fought in Iraq than I do for the people behind this Twitter account” (article and video at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/high-school-principal-calls-twitter-bullies-pathetic-cowards/); responses to his email varied, but the offending Twitter account disappeared. In March, sports writers reported that major league baseball pitcher Curt Schilling took matters into his own hands when his daughter “was sexually threatened on social media by horrendous Twitter trolls following her father’s congratulatory tweet about her admission to Salve Regina University” (Cam Smith, March 3, 2015; http://usatodayhss.com/2015/curt-schilling-this-wasnt-a-mistake-this-is-a-crime). Schilling identified the men quickly enough: “A New York Yankees part-time ticket sales employee that Schilling identified through [an] internet search as Sean MacDonald and a DJ at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey identified by Schilling as Adam Nagel.” After compiling the offensive tweets, Smith reported, Schilling forwarded them “to relatives and coaches of the Twitter users involved,” and “Since Schilling first outed the duo on his personal blog, 38Pitches, Nagel has been suspended from Brookdale Community College and MacDonald has been fired by the Yankees, according to NJ.com.” Trolls can do damage, then, but they can be uncovered by the Internet and face their karma as well.

I think that, in addition, students might need to think about the bullies themselves in these situations. On March 2, 2015, Patrick Smith of BuzzFeed (admittedly not the most professional news source, but an interesting article nonetheless) interviewed two young adults from Newcastle in Great Britain who were convicted in January 2014 of sending death threats via Twitter to British feminist writer Caroline Criado-Perez and Labour MP Stella Creasy (http://www.buzzfeed.com/patricksmith/isabella-sorley-john-nimmo-interview?bffb&utm_term=4ldqpgp#4ldqpgp). Smith’s interviews with offenders Isabella Sorley and John Nimmo offer an intriguing look at poor choices and, in Sorley’s case, the intersection of alcoholism and social media. “Both Nimmo and Sorley say they offended for the same reason: because they enjoyed the attention and endorphin-generating effects of becoming briefly famous, or notorious, on Twitter,” Smith wrote. “Without any planning or forethought, they joined a bandwagon that was already rolling. It was a game and they enjoyed it.” (The article also shows the effects of bullying on the victims: “In the aftermath of the tweets,” Smith wrote, “both Criado-Perez and Creasy spoke of the lasting effect of abusive messages like these, and Creasey later admitted to having installed a panic button in her home. Criado-Perez said she struggled to eat, sleep, and work at the height of the abuse.”)

Finally, to take these situations one step further out, I recommend using information from the research article “Unresponsive or un-noticed?: Cyberbystander intervention in an experimental cyberbullying context” [Computers in Human Behavior 45 (2015): 144–150]. Authors Kelly P. Dillon and Brad J. Bushman of The Ohio State University researched people who witnessed cyberbullying to see what their responses were to the threats and abusive behavior. They used the Bystander Intervention Model [Latané, B., and Darley, J. (1970). The unresponsive bystander: Why doesn’t he help? NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts] to help explain “the conditions under which individuals choose, or choose not to, help others in emergency situations. The model includes five key steps that must occur in order for a bystander to intervene: (1) notice that something is happening, (2) interpret the event as an emergency, (3) take personal responsibility for providing assistance, (4) determine actions necessary, and (5) provide help” (p. 145). They also stated that, “Bystanders to emergencies and violence, be it on or offline, have four choices in actions: (1) direct intervention, (2) indirect intervention, (3) joining in, or (4) inaction” (p. 145). Data from Dillon and Bushman’s experimental set-up, in which a bully was planted as a moderator of a chat-room, showed that “the majority of [221] participants reported noticing the [bullying] event in the chat-room (67.9%, n = 150),” but that only “A total of 23 participants (10.4%) directly intervened” (p. 148). This article would be a good discussion piece for media classes, and they can access a news release about it at http://news.osu.edu/news/2015/02/24/cyberbystanders-most-don’t-try-to-stop-online-bullies/; more advanced or research classes might want to read the actual journal article before discussing.

Media instructors can also put lessons from U.S. sources into a broader context by comparing the problem of trolling with that in other countries. The United Kingdom, for example, has an interesting site that looks into these matters: Big Brother Watch (http://www.bigbrotherwatch.org.uk). This group issued a report in February 2015 entitled “Careless Whispers: How speech is policed by outdated communications legislation” (http://www.bigbrotherwatch.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Careless-Whisper.pdf), which offers data about Internet trolling in Great Britain.

Thinking Outside the Classroom

Now that the spring semester (which, as it typically does, went from crazy to crazier) is over, I have time to think about how to add to or improve the classes I just taught, and to make the fall courses better.

One thing I’ve been doing for the past couple years has been adding relevant podcasts to my lectures. Where I live, in the North Country of New York, we have access to the wonderful North Country Public Radio station (http://www.northcountrypublicradio.org), which has an amazing sister station, WREM 88.7, which offers Radio Remix (http://www.prx.mx; my local station http://www.northcountrypublicradio.org/programs/national/remixradio.html).

I can’t sing the praises of this programming highly enough for college educators. Remix offers the best of podcasts, and the two stations are just about the only two I ever listen to in my car during my daily commute to and from campus. (Well, okay – if I’ve heard a particular broadcast a time or two before, I admit I switch over to CBC Radio 2; Canada, being a mere few miles from my New York home, has some pretty great radio itself.)

I’m a great fan of, and active proponent of listening to, National Public Radio. I advocate it in all of my journalism and media classes, to the point that the students who have had me before will give the traditional eye-roll when I bring it up at the beginning of each new semester.

But I’m not going to stop. I have learned so much during my three years of listening, and have found so much relevant to my classes, that I now drive with a notebook and pen on the passenger seat, so I can jot down quick notes about the stories I hear and go searching for them online when I get to the office or back home to my computer.

I’d like here to share a sample of the podcasts I’ve played to my classes, as an opportunity for them to hear an actual “story,” in another voice, rather than another of my lectures or attempts at discussion on our own.

First, for those of you teaching media law, I want to recommend “Life of the Law” (http://www.lifeofthelaw.org). While not all of the pieces are geared toward free speech or copyright or other media-related topics, some of them offer interesting and compelling looks at relevant material. For example, I was excited to have my students consider the idea of copyright with the episode “Who Owns That Joke?” by Mary Adkins (Sept. 23, 2014; http://www.lifeofthelaw.org/2014/09/who-owns-that-joke/). In this 14-minute segment, the students are able to connect the concept of “ideas can’t be copyrighted” with the stand-up comedy world by hearing actual examples of comedy gigs being imitated and outright stolen from other comedians. “If you’re a comedian, it’s part of your job to soak things in like a sponge,” Adkins says. “But where is the line between soaking something in like a sponge and straight-up stealing?” Examples from well-known comics allow the students to apply the concept of copyright to the real world that they know.

Another piece I’ve used from this source was for the chapter on the public’s right to privacy. The 10-minute podcast “Privacy Issues,” by Cyrus Farivar (April 22, 2014; http://www.lifeofthelaw.org/2014/04/privacy-issues/), sets the scene for the topic by describing a city that uses street cameras to record license plates on passing cars. The question, Farivar says, “as with much of law enforcement—is how to balance protecting a community with protecting our constitutional right to privacy.” This particular podcast broke lose some memories in the students of times they learned their own privacy rights had been violated, and ended up in a productive discussion of “what is legal” versus “what is ethically acceptable.”

Another treasure trove of interesting media pieces comes from the podcast “Backstory” (http://backstoryradio.org). I happened to hear the piece “As Luckies Would Have It” the very week I was teaching advertising history to my Intro to Mass Media class (but unfortunately after I’d done that section in my public relations class, though I saved it for next time). Andrew Parsons’ podcast of Jan. 30, 2015, was far more interesting than my dry and straightforward telling of the tale of Edward Bernays. This 11-minute piece is available on several different web pages (https://soundcloud.com/backstory/as-luckies-would-have-it; http://backstoryradio.org/2015/01/30/smoke/; https://beta.prx.org/stories/141892), and is packed with interesting little facts that will help students remember one of the biggest names in the field.

For those of you teaching a segment on accuracy and fact checking, I recommend the piece “Fact Check This” (http://transom.org/2012/fact-check-this/), by Rob Rosenthal on the fantastic site http://www.transom.org. This particular piece, though from May 2, 2012, is certainly not dated in the information it provides. The story? As Rosenthal begins,

“Last January, This American Life aired a program called ‘Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.’ It featured the story of  actor Mike Daisey who traveled to China to see, first hand, work conditions for employees at Foxconn, a manufacturer of components for Apple computers.

“Two months later, TAL aired an hour-long retraction of that story. In short, TAL failed to fully check Daisey’s account of what he claimed he saw in China. As part of the retraction, they pinpointed Daisey’s fabrications and apologized.”

That problematic story is a launching point for this podcast, in which Rosenthal interviews “long-time journalist John Dinges. John teaches at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism where he’s the head of the radio department. John also worked at NPR for many years serving as Deputy Foreign Editor and the Managing Editor for News. Let’s just say John knows his way around fact checking.” (The original TAL piece, for those instructors who have more time or may want to delve more deeply into the problem, is available at http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/454/mr-daisey-and-the-apple-factory, and the retraction at http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/460/retraction.)

How about those instructors trying to get students to think more deeply about journalism story ideas, rather than just hitting the minute-by-minute facts? For several years, I have been using the now-somewhat-dated piece by NPR’s media correspondent, David Folkenflik. “As Media Multiply, So Do ‘Conceptual Scoops’” first ran on June 19, 2007 (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=11194195), and although one of the examples relies on a story from the Bush administration of that time, the concept of conceptual scoops is still relevant, and although I apologize each semester for using such an old piece, I still firmly believe the lesson is relevant, and I dread the day this link disappears.

And at the risk of being labeled one of those dusty old professors who still uses the same notes from years ago, I’ll also share another “thinking outside the box” journalism story idea that I pulled from NPR a few years ago; admittedly I need to update with a new reporting piece, but this particular one struck me as so clever, I’m a little loath to let it go. Following a big Atlantic storm in 2012, during which much damage was done to coastal-area properties by high winds blowing over trees, Robert Siegel did a great related side story on July 5, 2012, entitled “When Does a Tree Go From Decorative to Dangerous?” (http://www.npr.org/2012/07/05/156325901/when-does-a-tree-go-from-decorative-to-dangerous). The anchor lead-in reads, “Most people like trees — right up until a storm like last Friday’s mid-Atlantic ‘derecho’ knocks one into their car. So when is a tree merely nice to look at and when does it become a hazard? Robert Siegel talks to Tchukki Andersen, a staff arborist at the Tree Care Industry Association, about how homeowners can safely care for their trees.”

So, I know I’ve gone on much too long here for a simple blog entry, but my enthusiasm for the topic just got the better of me. I encourage you to check out the sites I’ve listed, as well as RadioLab (http://www.radiolab.org), Snap Judgment (http://www.snapjudgment.org), Moth Radio (http://themoth.org), 99% Invisible (http:// 99percentinvisible.org), and a host of other great associated sites. Dig around, and enjoy the surfing – your students will be glad you did! (And if you find any exceptional stories to share, please share them here!)

Fear Not . . . Or Maybe We Should?

One of the issues that has been cropping up with increasing frequency in discussions (both online and face-to-face) and that is apparent in news pieces on a daily basis is that just about everything nowadays is a crisis that we, the people, should fear.

Fear forces a lot of emotions and responses, given our very human “fight or flight response”; many of these fears, however, may not be reasonable. The mind doesn’t always bow to the more logical schema of “check it out first before you give into believing that the sky is falling.” [http://bit.ly/1FLKnza for those not familiar with it]

People have their go-to sources when they want to know more about something, but unfortunately, in today’s bottom-line-driven mass media, these online sources (and any variety of gatekeepers) may not want to be too quick to dispel the notion that something is, indeed, wrong, and readers had better keep coming back and checking in to find out the latest about the subject, lest doom and destruction descend upon us all without our even knowing it. Politicians are particularly bad about this, especially during election season. A recent bout of this occurred during the November 2014 midterms, when Ebola was the thing that seemed, from many news sources, to be creeping in across all our borders, being flown in from every country around the world, and even becoming eerily airborne, despite all current knowledge that lends no solid evidence to the argument. CBS News provided a good overview of all the scare tactics being used in campaign ads, and this is a great discussion article: http://cbsn.ws/18etkul.

As I prepared during the past few weeks to write this post, I started saving copies of online articles that dealt with topics that could indeed induce fear in the average reader. In just this short time, without my going too far out of my way to search, my file soon overflowed with news and commentary about a range of topics: Ebola (still!) (http://tinyurl.com/m4yxb3d), Germany’s re-publication of Mein Kampf (http://tinyurl.com/oqep8e7), the murder of Boris Nemtsov in Russia, along with everything else that Russia is doing (http://tinyurl.com/qzvys68; http://www.themoscowtimes.com/article/515727.html), the infiltration of the nation’s capital by Muslims (http://bit.ly/1DrR5rI), online tracking/stalking by advertisers (http://tinyurl.com/llksple), stalking and spying by the technology we use in our homes (http://on.11alive.com/1z2SFi8), the al-Shabaab mall attack threats (http://bit.ly/1K5u6vp), our children’s safety at school (http://tinyurl.com/og4zvfa), and anything about ISIS (for example, http://tinyurl.com/lyojgne; http://tinyurl.com/ndsp6ym; http://tinyurl.com/n2x647c). Some of these we probably consider more legitimate than others; some concern us less because they are happening on foreign soil but have overtones of eventually happening to us.

I think publication of “fear” articles is an important topic to broach with students of mass media; it’s not new, and it’s certainly not unique to the U.S. Although in many cases the facts may be true or may be things we need to keep on our collective radar screens, it is also true that often such stories are represented by means of hyperbole that turns the articles into clickbait for sources and websites that need better numbers from their analytics and more revenue from advertisers (and in no way am I trying to belittle what anyone might truly believe here).

I have struggled with how to organize this topic briefly but logically for teachers of mass media, but I think one good way to start is to have the class contribute to decide on a functional definition of “fear” (harder than it sounds, once we get started). David L. Altheide of Arizona State University has done wonderful work on the discourse of fear and media, and I encourage anyone approaching this subject to take a look at his research papers. In his 2009 article “The Columbine Shootings and the Discourse of Fear,”1 he talked about the conflation of fear and terrorism in the U.S., which he said “may be defined as the pervasive communication, symbolic awareness, and expectation that danger and risk are a central feature of the physical and symbolic environment as people define and experience it in everyday life” (p. 1354). In this same paper, he also observed that, “Topics for public interest are creatively manipulated by various claims-makers with self-serving interests. The role of claims-makers, especially government officials, who serve as important news sources and spokespersons for this work, must also be considered” (here he references Ericson, Baranek, & Chan, 1991 — a clear example being the previously mentioned Ebola scare).2

The way to combat fear would logically be power (the “fight” response); and this takes us further into the philosophical realm, and back to the social construction of reality theory as explored by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann in their 1967 book The Social Construction of Reality (Doubleday). These researchers observed that different backgrounds can cause different groups to views situations differently, and these groups place great faith in the “facts” in which they have grounded their lives and understandings of the world. This would strongly affect the fear factor because it helps them obtain power over the situations by being able to define them; as Berger and Luckmann observed, “Those who occupy the decisive power positions are ready to use their power to impose the traditional definitions of reality on the population under their authority.” (p. 121)

And what is this ability and power to define other than what is looked upon as knowledge for that group? Thomas Hobbes’ commentary that “knowledge is power” is appropriate here, and we can then help students to also take a quick dip into Michel Foucault, with his discussions of the relationships between power and knowledge, and how social institutions use the two for societal control. Take here, for example, the rise of the Catholic Church after the fall of Rome, and their insistence that the people come to them for readings of the Bible, rather than reading the Holy Book themselves; this kept the knowledge, and therefore the power, within the Church itself.

Such a discussion of fear in media is fertile ground for exploring a host of other, related concepts for some of the lower-level groups. Here we can ask the students not only to define a gatekeeper’s role, but to consider how bias3 can play into the stories that are released. Is the gatekeeper providing only part of the information, and is he/she doing so for a specific outcome or purpose (perhaps political, financial, or ideological)? How does framing of the story affect the outcome expected by the gatekeeper? Is the gatekeeper releasing only certain aspects of the issue? Closely connected to this but also relevant would again be the agenda-setting theory. When topics that cause fear come up repeatedly in a variety of news sources, we need to take a look at why these sources want the general public to be talking about them. The same questions we asked about gatekeepers we can ask about agenda-setters. Are these power plays with a specific reason to use fear, or are the media genuinely concerned and acting on social responsibility theory?

We also might want students to think about whether the priming effect (see http://tinyurl.com/nj2dkjm for a quick review) plays a role as the gatekeeper determines how the main audience will accept the news. (For example here, we can talk about the current arguments between people who encourage vaccinations for their children and those who reject them; priming, which tells us that people have seen the topic in the news and probably come to the table with their opinions formed, will be ready to look for the arguments and state their sides. This is a great aspect of communication studies to bring up with the topic of vaccinations and fear: Who is primed for fear that lack of vaccinations will spread diseases and put children with weakened immune systems at risk versus who is primed for fear that vaccinations will cause illnesses in children who had none before?)

Finally, one more way to illuminate discussions about fear and media is with George Gerbner and his Mean World Syndrome (which says that people who watch television tend to see the world as much scarier than it really is) and Cultivation Theory, which examines the long-term effects of television on viewers. Myma Oliver, who wrote Gerbner’s news-obit for the LA Times in 2005, quoted the researcher as saying, “’You know, who tells the stories of a culture really governs human behavior” (http://bit.ly/1FLN5Vj). We might ask students to consider whether the Internet is doing the same.

Regardless of the level of the students we’re teaching, we have a plethora of resources to draw from to get them thinking about the use of fear in our media on a daily basis.

  1. American Behavioral Scientist, June 2009, 52(10): 1354-1370.
  2. Ericson, R. V., Baranek, P. M., & Chan, J. B. L. (1991). Representing order: Crime, law and justice in the news media. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.
  3. With the word “bias,” I’m going to get on my soapbox about a grammar pet peeve. PLEASE take an extra moment here to teach your students that the word “bias” plays a host of grammatical functions. When they’re using it as a noun, they can say someone “has a bias,” but as an adjective, he or she “is biased.” I see this misused all the time, and it’s a nails-on-the-chalkboard moment for me every time.

Engaging with the Hypodermic Needle Theory

“Readers are not sheep, and not every pen tempts them.” — Vladimir Nabokov

Every semester, usually in more than one course, I have the opportunity to talk to students about what a grand theory is. I bring up the hypodermic needle theory (see http://www.communicationstudies.com/communication-theories/hypodermic-needle-theory for a nice review), also known as the magic bullet theory, regularly as I venture into explaining that no one theory can describe, explain, and predict all human behavior in a tidy package when it comes to media.

This usually ends up with my showing them the usual boxes and arrows, with “sender” sending “message” to “receiver” through “channel,” ending up with some “effect” (the basic 1947 Harold Lasswell depiction). They basically understand why this theory was pretty quickly disproven: “noise” can affect whether a communication is received (the receiver multitasking; the student next to the receiver talking at the same time; the maintenance crew deciding to use the floor-scrubbing machine outside the classroom and drowning out the sound of “sender,” as they seem to do outside my classes no matter what time of day it is or in which building I’m teaching).

But to get deeper into thinking about “limited-effects” perspective in general (see http://www.cliffsnotes.com/sciences/sociology/contemporary-mass-media/the-role-and-influence-of-mass-media for a very brief explanation), I’ve found a few recent stories that can help students engage with the topic a little further (but also leave them wondering about the hypodermic needle theory when it comes to kids and certain topics with adults, as you’ll see below).

The first story I’ve been employing happened in June last year, and oddly enough it came up again this morning in my Facebook news feed, after I’d already decided to write about this topic.* The original story was from 2014 (sample of coverage at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/prosecutors-mythological-tale-drove-girls-12-to-stab-friend/). In this piece, I show the students how these two Wisconsin girls attempted to stab to death a friend of theirs because, according to this article, “they were trying to become ‘proxies’ of Slender Man, a mythological demon-like character they learned about on creepypasta.wikia.com, a website about horror stories and legends” (more at http://www.people.com/article/slender-man-myth-wisconsin-girls-murder-friend). By committing this crime, the 12-year-olds said, Slender Man would “accept them and let them live with him in his mansion in the Nicolet National Forest.”

Sadly, these girls were not unique in their fascination with this mythical man; just three months later, in September, a 14-year-old Florida girl set a fire that destroyed her family’s home (http://abcnews.go.com/US/teen-inspired-slender-man-set-house-fire-police/story?id=25262814). Apparently “she told a detective she was reading an e-book called ‘Soul Eater.’ ‘There’s a part in this book where two characters get into a fight with each other,’ Sheriff Chris Nocco said at a news conference on Thursday. ‘All of a sudden, that clicked something in her mind and she decided she was going to kill her family.’” This article also points out that this girl had been visiting a Slender Man site; “Eddie Daniels of the Pasco Sheriff’s Office told ABC News, ‘It would be safe to say there is a connection to that.’”

Now, to link this back to mass media and the Hypodermic Needle Theory (and no offense intended), I’m certainly not going to take the word of a Pasco Sheriff’s Office representative in asserting that reading Slender Man and fantasy books makes children try to kill their friends and commit acts of arson, but I will say that these stories generate some thoughtful discussion for the students and allow them to poke around in relevant theory and application. They’ve heard the endless arguments about video games “causing” kids to become violent, and how the “Jackass” movie releases resulted in an increase in injuries among people who tried and failed at some of the stunts shown in the movie. The students have formed their opinions about those media, but this is something a little different. In the first place, as I point out, these are girls being violent in a way we don’t usually see with girls. In addition, it’s an online phenomenon. “What’s going on with this?” I ask. Surely upbringing and genetics play a role, but there’s still the concept of a medium playing into it.

The limited-effects perspective allows them a way to link social behaviors with this mediated exposure to violence and, well, creepiness. I talk with them about each person’s unique levels of intelligence and education, their social interactions in their religious communities and their personal political affiliations (or those in which they were reared), and of course their personal relationships with family and friends. This leads us into discussion of the two-step flow theory (http://communicationtheory.org/two-step-flow-theory-2/) introduced by Paul Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson, and Hazel Gaudet in The People’s Choice: How the Voter Makes Up His Mind in a Presidential Campaign (1944: New York: Columbia University Press). We talk about (at least for the two girls who stabbed their friend) the fact that leaders who find ideas to latch onto do emerge, and they can have a strong influence on their followers; people in public relations depend upon this theory as they figure out new products to sell.

At this point, many students determine that age can indeed have a strong influence on how a young mind can be shaped and forced into believing a communication, whether from a leader or because of a weak set of social or personal affiliations. Clearly psychology plays a part in this, but I usually have to be careful that we don’t stray too far from talk about media communication in these discussions.

But if youth is a factor, as are these personal affiliations, how then, I asked this semester, do we explain the recent Washington Post story entitled, “Sex toy injuries surged after ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ was published” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/02/10/sex-toy-injuries-surged-after-fifty-shades-of-grey-was-published/?tid=sm_tw)? This article quoted the Consumer Product Safety Commission as saying that “emergency room care for injuries involving sex toys has approximately doubled since 2007,” and that “Much of that increase happened in 2012 and 2013, following the release of the wildly popular erotic novels in the Fifty Shades of Grey series. And the overwhelming majority of these injuries — 83 percent — require ‘foreign body removals.’”

Books are certainly a mass medium, and adults have the option to accept or reject what they’re reading; what’s up here? Do we have consider correlation versus causation in this study? Or do mediated messages about sex perhaps lower people’s resistance to the messages?

I realize that this topic may not be suitable for all college classrooms here, and again, I’m in no way trying to imply that we need to revisit the magic bullet theory in future research. It is, however, a light and funny way to get the students to revisit their beliefs — to put doubt in their minds so they have to think things through in a new way and realize that the effects of media, like the ripples of a pebble in a lake, can be far-reaching.

* For more recent information on this story, see http://abcnews.go.com/US/slender-man-interrogation-tapes-reveal-shocking-details-alleged/story?id=29117234&cid=fb_abcn_sf

On the Purpose of Journalism

During the past year or so, I’ve taken to throwing two questions at my mass media, and especially my journalism, students. The first question – well, maybe it’s the communication studies specialist in me, but I want them to start thinking about the weight of the words they use and the reality of them, so I ask them to define something that’s at the heart of what we study. So often we see words and phrases tossed around, assuming we know generally what we’re talking about, but sometimes, we really need to stop and ask ourselves what we’re saying.

“What does ‘the media’ refer to?” I ask, and they respond with the usual laundry list of “newspapers, magazines, TV shows, Internet.”

“But I don’t mean just the forms of media. What do we mean when we say ‘It’s the media’s fault,’ or ‘The media never gets it right’?”

“It means the news; people who talk about the news,” they say, but now they’re not sure about what I’m asking. So I clarify.

“So you’re saying that you equate, say, Rush Limbaugh with, oh, I don’t know – Scott Pelley? Lester Holt? And the National Enquirer with the New York Times, or your soft rock radio station news with NPR? These are all ‘media.’ Are they all getting it equally wrong?”

Then they start to see what I’m asking. We start parsing it out a bit better. We talk about those stations or channels or publications that are trying a little harder than others, but which may still not be doing it quite right, and those that have definite political slants and aren’t afraid to use them. And I talk with them a little about what drives the news, now and historically, and while they weakly talk about the need to inform the public, they also know that the financial bottom line is really what drives a lot of content.

Those of us who have studied journalism know the history of it. We can pretty well explain how Gutenberg’s press brought about so many cultural changes, but among them was a rise in commerce, in capitalism. We know that the penny press succeeded largely because of advertisers, and that magazines – especially those aimed at women – were not so much for the benefit of the magazinists to have a place to put their writings, but rather for the corporations with products to sell, who needed the audience of consumers that these publications could offer with their broad, nationwide circulations.

And in all that history, we learn, and we continue to teach, the story of the Fourth Estate that serves to oversee the actions of the three branches of government. There’s nobility in that; we talk about providing a space for the public to discuss important issues, and to provide that public with the information it needs to keep our democracy running.

We talk, too, about how our two world wars helped pull us at least somewhat away from the era of yellow journalism and more toward the investigative side of reporting, with the muckrakers helping expose and bring down corruption.

Finally, we tell them about the Hutchins Commission of the 1940s, and of social responsibility theory (a nice overview of this is at http://pressinamerica.pbworks.com/w/page/18360200/Hutchins%20Commission). It’s all about democracy, we say. It’s about objectivity and being honest and finding the real stories.

What’s interesting of late, however, is that a study came out less than a year ago that puts a bit of a kink in things, and folks have been talking about it. “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” came out in the September 2014 issue of the journal Perspectives on Politics [12(3): 564–581], and in it, Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University determined that “Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence” (abstract).

In other words, the United States is no longer a democracy; we’re now an oligarchy (and Citizens United doesn’t exactly dispel this theory).

This, then, is the second question I ask my students: “If the U.S. is no longer truly a democracy, does objective, unbiased journalism serve any real purpose in our country?” (I’ll get to the question of the possibility of “objective” or “unbiased” news in a future post.)

For the most part, I’ve gotten a lot of push-back from the students on this one. They believe the news is still important and that it tells us things we need to know (though I’d note that the concepts of gatekeeping, agenda-setting, or framing never enter the conversation unless I toss them in).

But aside from those who are a little lost about politics in general (I had a student once who described the political spectrum of beliefs as the left side being communists, the right being fascists, and the middle being liberal . . . which in some ways might be more insightful than I gave this student credit for), I have found this question to be a good one to get them thinking about what the news provides them, and how finances have such a strong influence over both the watchers and the watched.

If I can get them thinking, even a little, about the connections among the citizens, the news sources, the government, and money, I count that class as a win. And it’s encouraging to occasionally run across an article to tell the students about that’s like the one the Columbia Journalism Review just posted on February 11 with the title “Virginia lawmakers blame the media for forcing them to pass ethics reform” (http://preview.tinyurl.com/o7k435n).

I guess “the media” still gets a few things right.

With Liberty and Free Speech for All?

One media issue that has come up repeatedly over the past few years has been that of free speech rights of state-funded college and university professors using social media when they link their names to their positions within the state systems. This issue blew up in a large way several years ago at the University of Kansas (http://preview.tinyurl.com/laf6t23; http://tinyurl.com/q45mkdq), and last year we saw another instance of this at the University of Illinois (http://preview.tinyurl.com/qckjs6r). The Chronicle of Higher Education has reported about and addressed the concern many times (for example, http://chronicle.com/article/Worried-About-Message/141773; http://chronicle.com/article/AAUP-Members-Are-Warned-of/147067/; http://chronicle.com/article/Colleges-Are-Divided-on-Need/145225/), and it became national news when a Division I football coach at a state university was seen in a political TV ad for one of the state’s U.S. senators (http://cjonline.com/news/state/2014-10-31/roberts-ad-causes-backlash-k-state). I saw the subject raise its head again this week, again in Kansas (http://preview.tinyurl.com/ko9zgbk), with Jonathan Shorman’s Topeka Capital-Journal article noting, “House Bill 2234 would require the governing boards of community colleges and state universities to implement policies prohibiting employees from providing titles when authoring or contributing to newspaper opinion columns, which includes letters, op-eds and editorials [about lawmakers or other elected officials].”

This is an interesting mass media topic that we need to make students aware of, particularly when we’re talking about media law. “First Amendment rights” is a term tossed around frequently, especially when we’re dealing with journalism students who employ it regularly but often don’t understand the nuances of the concept.

In such talks, one of the first things I like to point out to media students is the content of and the rights provided by the First Amendment. Once we get past the five guarantees of the amendment, I ask, “ What does this amendment really say?” I’m usually met with, “We can say what we want,” “We have the right to express our opinions,” and “We can say anything as long as we don’t yell ‘Fire’ in a crowded theater.” “So it’s our rights — the rights of the people — that this is directed toward?” I ask, and they all nod. But then I point out to them that the actual first words of the amendment are “Congress shall make no law respecting. . . .”

This usually stops them in their tracks; although they may have read this many times, they often realize for maybe the first time that this amendment is not an absolute right, automatically handed to them as citizens, but rather a restriction placed on their legislators regarding the laws that will be put into place that will then guide their own actions.

Media law classes can move from here into deeper discussions of absolutism versus the belief that the Constitution is a living, breathing document, and how our justices interpret the Constitution using different theories; other media classes might take time to think about how this affects the words and ideas they put forth in the students’ own communications. After all, “freedom of speech” has been known to interfere with other freedoms, and someone’s rights have to take precedent over someone else’s.

But returning to the idea of whether college professors have the right of free speech when they engage social or mass media, I think there are several concepts that students should have to consider.

First, I like for them to think about whether professors, by virtue of their positions as representatives of higher learning, should be held to higher standards than other people, inasmuch as their students should be able to look up to them as examples of model citizens. Should professors be aware that, even during their free time, they are role models and examples of people who think and act logically and professionally, and should therefore be more tempered in their expressions?

I think many students will give their instructors leeway in this area (at least the students I’ve taught have); they are pretty much on board with the idea that freedom of expression is important to everyone. There has to be a place for everyone to be the person he or she is, with the same right to have their own opinions.

We can get them thinking further, however, when we ask them what is expected of professionals (including their professors) in relation to their jobs, especially when it comes to those in news media and social media. Journalists, for example, have to be heads-up regarding conflicts of interest and professional ethics both in and outside of the newsrooms (cable TV talking heads being a different matter, of course; they make their livings being overtly biased). But those who have built their careers on being “objective and non-biased,” at least as much as one can be, are always conscious of any actions that might call that objectivity into question. One woman I knew who worked at an NPR affiliate station said she was constantly aware of what she was saying, even in groups of people she was fairly confident she knew well; one slip-up, she said, could make a difference in how professionally she was taken. Another man I knew who did sports reporting for a major network told me he was telephoned by his company within minutes of posting something of a political nature on a social media forum; they were keeping close tabs on all comments, and he had to remove his immediately.

Disclosure in news media in any matter of personal interest is critical. Often even the perception of bias can be fatal to a career, especially in today’s “gotcha” climate.

Given, then, that professors at (even partially) state-funded institutions are paid by the taxes of the states’ citizens, should they be required to hold their tongues about political matters in public forums because those tax-paying citizens represent all different political beliefs?

Again, I have found that most students will stand up for professors’ rights to be regular citizens, just as they say professors have the right to vote as regular citizens. However, I remind them, the problem always comes down to whether these professors should then be able to identify themselves, in their personal “About me” sections of their social media accounts, as employees of the state universities or colleges. These positions are, after all, their jobs, just as one would indicate that she is a CPA for a certain company, or he is a mechanic at a certain car dealership. But does this connection to a state institution of higher learning automatically mean that these people speak for the agency when they offer their political opinions outside of the classroom? Or is it more that the instructors’ professional titles, assigned to them by and associated with these institutions of higher learning, bolster their credibility (their ethos) when they make the arguments and statements they do in social media forums?

Sometimes these discussions take a turn when I remind students that they are in control of their own branding from the moment they step into the online arena. Free speech matters or not, their future employers may be watching them, and the same is true for state employees. Hiring contracts at private firms give these employers the right to restrict employees’ speech outside of work, and states are beginning to have the same idea.

With no right or wrong (posted here, at least), it’s just a media concept the students need to think about.