Filak Furlough Tour Update: Hanging out with Indiana Wesleyan University

QUICK UPDATE: The “Filak Furlough T-shirts” are live and have a little more than a week left on their ordering clock. If you want to order one, here’s the link and here are the shirts:

Again, no proceeds go to me, but it does make me feel awesome to know people are actually out there wearing them.

Speaking of things that make me feel awesome, I got the chance to meet with two of Amy Smelser’s classes at Indiana Wesleyan University.

I realized very quickly that their college experience was different from what I’ve dealt with, in that Amy told me we had to cut off some discussion at the end of the first class because the students couldn’t be late for chapel. The only times I can recall my students praying are before the midterm and after Pub Crawl.

Indiana Wesleyan University –  Marion, IN

Busted out my “Badger Project” T-shirt as a shout out to great independent journalism via Peter Cameron and his crew.

TOPIC: Mass com theory and how to write a big honkin’ paper with it.

THE BASICS: I’ve always kind of thought of theory in the way I think about most other things I teach: It’s a tool that can do a lot of great things, or it can be pathologically misused. People can find practical value in applying and advancing it, or they can just ponder it like the Integrated Liberal Studies professor I had one year who stared at an acorn for 45 minute in a pit class, before asking, “What is this acorn’s arate… or purpose…. ?”

Theories help us gather concepts through observation and then test those concepts to determine how robust they are, if they apply to specific groups/topics and if they can help us predict future actions, thoughts or outcomes. In the field of mass com, we don’t really have one giant, overarching theory. Instead we have a lot of “medium-sized theories” that cover specific elements of communication, each of which seeks to answer a certain type of question or examine a particular problem.

The first true attempt at making a big theory was the magic-bullet theory, also known as the hypodermic needle theory. It essentially said that senders of mass com messages could inject their messages into the minds of the audience and compel these people to do as the senders saw fit. Clearly, that didn’t work, because if it did, I’d have a lot more kids at my 8 a.m. classes. After that kind of fell apart, a number of other theories emerged with varying levels of success/support. Here’s a quick look at  a “greatest hits album” of these things:


Magic Bullet/”Hypodermic Needle” Model Media messages are simple and direct, penetrating the mind of consumers and creating specified actions. You see an ad for Diet Coke and you go out and buy one.
Gatekeeping Media messages pass through a series of decision points that determine if they get to the audience. A newspaper editor decides there isn’t enough room to run a story on a high school basketball game, so no one in the community knows who won.
Agenda Setting Media establishes the key topics in our day-to-day lives. However, it doesn’t necessarily change our opinions about those events. The media’s coverage of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan keeps that story on your mind, but it doesn’t change whether you support or oppose the withdrawal.
Framing Media practitioners place emphases on specific aspects of a topic, thus coloring the way in which consumers view it. The construction of a new apartment complex is framed as “bad for the environment,” focusing our attention on ecological issues.
Spiral of Silence The more a person’s opinion is in the majority, the more likely that person is to speak out. The less a person’s opinion is in the majority, the quieter they remain about the issue. A group of your friends support Bill Smith for homecoming court. You don’t like Bill, but you keep that to yourself.
Third-person Effect People drastically overestimate the influence messages have on other people while underestimating the impact the messages have on themselves. Your roommate says the violent videogames he plays online never bother him, but he worries about “all those weirdos I play against.”

One theory that kind of stands out is that of uses and gratifications, in that it focuses less on what the media does to people and looks more at what people do with the media as well as what benefits we receive from using it.

Over the years, a number of uses, or specific things that drive our media  use, have emerged, including some of these:

Surveillance People feel a need to be aware of what is happening around them. Checking a traffic app to see if any accidents have occurred that might make your daily commute longer.
Education People have a need to become more informed on topics that matter to them. Reading a blog post to learn how to keep your plants from dying.
Entertainment People want to content to amuse them and make them feel good. Watching a YouTube video of cats that can play the piano.
Social Utility People need to feel connected to other people in society. Reading a “Book of the Month” to discuss it at an upcoming book club meeting.
Personal Identity People enjoy seeing content from people to whom they can relate. Listening to a podcast from a fellow college student who talks about how bad the food is on campus.
Escape People want to mentally free themselves from the problems they experience in their daily lives. Playing a videogame in which the main character flies through space and saves the universe.

Now, true theoreticians will likely decry the idea that this whole “tools in the toolbox” approach as cheapening the importance of higher-level work. I’d argue that in most cases, theories are only as good as their applicability, especially when it comes to mass communication. In short, if I can’t use it for something worthwhile, I’m probably not going to value it.

If you’re the kind of big thinker academic who wants to smoke three joints and argue with a squirrel if a chestnut has a soul, go for it. I’ve got work to do.

BEST QUESTION OF THE DAY: I can understand what I’m reading about the theories, but I don’t know what they do or mean. How do you figure out how a theory works?

BEST ANSWER I HAD AT THE TIME: When I can’t figure out how something works, I look at journal articles and conference papers that used the theory in furtherance of trying to test some hypotheses or answer some research questions. This helped me see how the authors saw what the theory  could do and then tried to see  if it worked in relation to what they wanted to test.

I boiled it down like this: When I’m working on a pinball machine, usually some part of the machine isn’t doing what it’s supposed to be doing. The nice thing about these machines is that they usually have several basic systems that all work in the same way on a single machine. That lets me see a working version of the part that needs repair.

So let’s say I have a really weak flipper and I don’t know what’s wrong. Fortunately for me, most of these things have two or more flippers, so I can look at how the strong, working flipper is behaving and then compare it to how the weak, non-working one is behaving and see what’s different. Maybe it’s missing a screw. Maybe a switch isn’t touching right. Maybe a coil is burnt out. In figuring this out, I can probably fix the problem.

The same thing is true about theories and those other papers. Let’s say I came across a theory called X-O Myopia Theory (totally made up, I’m pretty sure). Let’s say the theory states that the definitive nature of self-selecting exculpating choices yields a negative reaction to all constructs that would otherwise undermine that choice and thus leads to a narrowing of overall viewpoints related to choices that could follow outside the realm of the original choice.

I don’t understand what the heck that means by reading the theory stuff so I go and pull five or six articles on it and see how it behaves. In each article, the author is trying to figure out how people react to a close-ended question. In two-thirds of the studies, the question touched on a controversial topic. In all of the studies, the question was meant to eliminate personal guilt. In half the studies, the researchers found people stuck to their original choice, even when other better choices came along. In two-thirds of the studies, people continued to support their choice, even when proven wrong.

Well, from all that I can gather that this has to do  with answering questions that are true/false, right/wrong, yes/no etc. I can also figure out that the question is somehow irksome or worrisome to the person answering it and that they have a strong attachment to an answer they feel makes them look the best or avoid looking shady. I can then figure out that the theory posits that people tend to hold tight to that answer, for fear of a bunch of stuff, even if other options might be better.

This approach helps break down they mystique of theories in that “toolbox” kind of way.

ONE LAST THING: When it comes to big papers, theses, dissertations and so forth, I go back to two things I learned from two really smart people.

In my first year of the doctoral program, Charles Davis (now the dean at Georgia) was a professor at Mizzou who spoke to my class in a seminar setting. He told us that when it comes to the dissertation, we should take this approach: “Your dissertation is not, nor is it supposed to be, the best thing you ever write. It’s just meant to prove that you can write it, so knuckle down and get it done.”

In my first journalism class, Steve Lorenzo (the first teacher I ever desperately wanted to impress), was on my case about finishing an assignment on deadline. When I told him it wasn’t done yet, he told me, “Journalism is never done. It’s just due.”

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