Q: How have you seen the field of communication and media studies change over the last five years?
A: The past five years have seen the pace of change in the media world increase tremendously. Consider that in 2006 Facebook was only two years old and open only to students in colleges, some high schools (by invitation only) and employees of a number of companies. That year Facebook decided to allow everyone to join who was age 13 and older with a valid email address. Five years later Facebook has about 600 million users, including (according to Social Media Today) about 42% of the U.S. population.
While Facebook’s rise is astonishing for the number of people it now reaches, it is at the same time representative of the enormous changes taking place. The site—actually, a universe of sites—points to the many new ways that people in numerous societies are communicating with one another via digital media. Discussion of Facebook and other relatively new companies such as Google, LinkedIn, FourSquare, Slingbox, and Roku inevitably raise terms that would not have shown up in media classes just a number of years ago but are now required learning—for example, social media, social search, location tracking, location-based marketing, buzz, and time shifting.
These developments and many more relating to the emerging digital landscape have incited many exciting developments in media studies. Researchers from all corners of the field have been trying to understand the implications of these developments for so many aspects of culture and society. Many academics point out how the new developments can be linked to enduring questions relating communication and culture—questions that involve how individuals relate to other individuals, how institutions relate to citizens, how storytelling producers and distributors create and circulate ideas of who we are as a society and why that is important. Other academics note the changes that the digital media seem uniquely to bring to the world. Youngsters under thirteen years old who lie to Facebook about their age can for the first time in history create identities to which people on the other side of the earth can respond. Dissidents can organize via mobile text messages while governments try to track and quash them. Storytellers frustrated with not being able to reach certain kinds of audiences via traditional media have new, more open platforms on which to try. Definitions of “global media” are changing as the global, the national, and the local intermix in new digital ways. News and entertainment companies that have held audiences’ attention for decades now find that they are losing them—and the advertising money that has come with them. Among the issues these trends raise are those related to the very future of journalism, a profession that writers have long associated with the health of a democratic state.
Q: Why is it important for students to study media and communication?
A: Students need to study media and communication because knowing and understanding the changes is critical to acting as an informed citizen and consumer in today’s world. The transformations taking place throughout the world of media today permeate virtually every aspect of our lives in ways that academics would consider fiction just a couple of decades ago.
• Not long ago “talking back to your television set” was a literary conceit. Today, addressable televisions make two-way communication quite common. Literally telling your TV set what material you want—via a technology such as Google Voice—is already quite possible and will probably be common in not too many years.
• Media designations such as newspapers, magazines, television, and radio are becoming metaphors in the digital age. The traditional differences between newspapers and magazines are not at all obvious in the Web or tablet worlds. The term internet radio invokes very different technologies in a way that points to a desire of those using it to capture the essence of both for audiences in the new age.
• Until quite recently the transistor radio, a one-way device, wa s the most pervasive media technology throughout the world. The mobile phone, a two-way device, has taken its place. The ramifications for individuals and their societies are enormous, as researchers are beginning to point out.
• Marketing in general and advertising in particular are changing dramatically as a result of the ability to interact with customers and potential customers via digital media. The new technologies provide the ability to track individuals, note their behavior in a variety of virtual and actual locations, and based on that information try to sell to them via messages specifically tailored them. These capabilities are revolutionizing marketing. They are also raising questions about privacy and related issues that have mobilized concerned citizens and their elected representatives. Not incidentally, the technologies that allow marketers to observe people in the digital space without their knowing it can also be us by governments. That ability raises more issues relating to privacy and freedom in the emerging media world.
Today’s college students have grown up with these media, but they don’t really understand them. Unfortunately (scandalously?) very few high school students take courses about the media. While virtually all of them watch TV, they don’t really know how to describe a TV network and the way it works. Although virtually all of them go online, most have no idea how to define a cookie, a web beacon, or a Flash cookie. They don’t know the difference between opt-in and opt-out privacy regulations. And they haven’t thought about the challenges the digital world they take for granted poses to journalism as well as other forms of publishing. They do not, in short, understand some of the key forces shaping some of the key issues of our time.
Q: What motivated you to write Media Today?
A: I wrote Media Today out of an interest to circulate broadly a framework for understanding the media system that I had used (and still use) in teaching Mass Media and Society to classes at Purdue University and the University of Pennsylvania. The framework combines three broad components: an emphasis on the media’s important contribution to creating culture via news, entertainment, educational materials, and advertising; a model to help students easily and systematically learn how to deconstruct media industries into their features of production, distribution, exhibition, and financing in order to analyze how they work and their relationship to governments; and a set of propositions about media literacy that points to ways to look at media and culture as well as media industries through the eyes of citizens concerned for the health of society. I’m gratified that professors at many other colleges and universities have agreed with my approach, and I thank those who have contributed to it.
What I find particularly interesting about creating each new edition of Media Today is how the digital world suffuses every industry I discuss. The first edition dealed with “the Internet” as a separate chapter with only sparse references to it elsewhere. In the newest edition, “the internet” and digital media more generally are everywhere. You can’t discuss books, newspapers, television, the movies, advertising, public relations—anything media-related—without touching on digital issues. The developments are fascinating, challenging to keep up with, socially important, and important to our field and students.
Q: What do you enjoy most about teaching media and communication studies?
A: What I enjoy most is that by its very nature the curriculum is constantly changing. No semester is quite the same. I love discussing cultural trends, showing students similarities and differences among various formulas in TV dramas, tropes in hip-hop music, genres of movies. I feel gratified when I can tie what students are following in the media-current-events readings (I require them to read Media Daily News) to ideas in the textbook. And I like getting notions from students about what to put into the next edition.
Q: What media do you consume on a daily basis?
A: I work hard to keep up with what’s going on in the media world. One way I do that is via a “daily briefing” that my graduate assistants email to me every day. They copy articles from several online newsletters and send them to me in one document that ranges from 60 to 80 pages. It’s a lot of reading, and sometimes it flows over to the weekend. But it helps me keep up.
Beyond that, I watch a fair amount of television, paying particular attention to prime time medical shows (a topic that is the subject of a book I recently wrote, Playing Doctor). And my wife and I go to the movies almost every weekend. I try to choose the movie I think will be the lead box-office grosser of the weekend, though my wife oftentimes nixes horror movies no matter how popular I think they will be. Apart from that, I try to keep up broadly with hip-hop, like listening to Broadway-show music, and get local, national and international news from a variety of sources.
►Qualifying professors, request your complimentary exam copy of Media Today, 4th Edition.