Teachers Must Not Pass along Popular "Myths" regarding the Supposed Omnipotence of the Mass Media

By Martinson, David L. | High School Journal, October-November 2006 | Go to article overview

Teachers Must Not Pass along Popular "Myths" regarding the Supposed Omnipotence of the Mass Media


Martinson, David L., High School Journal


High school teachers must not use that time devoted to the study of the mass media to "beat up" on the press or to "frighten" students with stories which exaggerate the power of the mass media industries. At the same time the potential enormous impact of the contemporary mass media must not be ignored. This means that teachers must not overstate or understate the potential impact of the media on both individuals and society. Such an equilibrium will occur only if teachers acquire at least a moderate level of intellectual sophistication germane to the subject matter being considered. Acquiring such a level of expertise requires much more than an occasional reading of the local daily newspaper or spending 30 minutes viewing the evening network newscast.

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It is essential that high school students be introduced to the prominent role the mass media plays in contemporary society. One can legitimately ask, for example, whether having students spend inordinate amounts of time studying the presidency of Abraham Lincoln is time well spent "if it would be impossible for Lincoln to be elected president in the television age" (Martinson, 1993, p. 126).

The importance of students coming to some understanding of the impact of the mass media In America is underscored by the work of media scholars like Dennis Davis. Davis suggests that the media may be "intruding" on the very way in which the political process functions. According to what is termed media intrusion theory, "television has subverted politics by undermining political party control over elections" (Baran and Davis, 2003, p. 339). It is noteworthy that "the decline of political parties ... (as well as a) drop in political affiliation and voting ... (have) occurred at the same time that television ... (has become) the dominant medium for news" (p. 339).

At the same time, however, it is also essential that students recognize that they are not pawns who can be manipulated at will by powerful media practitioners. While teachers must not minimize the power of the contemporary mass media industries, they must also avoid perpetuating those "myths" about the influence of the mass media that seem to have taken on something approaching a "life of their own."

Such myths are too often perpetuated in the secondary school classroom precisely because they have become part of what might be termed the "conventional wisdom." In addition, too often teachers are not as prepared in scholarship germane to mass communication theory as one would like. It needs to be forthrightly acknowledged, for example, that "too frequently persons are assigned to teach particular courses ... (with potentially significant mass media components) because ... (an) administrator needs to place a ... coach in a course that the administrator believes requires little academic background" (Martinson, 1993, p. 127). Consequently, since the coach "reads the daily newspaper and watches the evening news ... (that qualities him) to teach course in the mass media" (p. 127).

To successfully teach about the impact of the mass media in contemporary American society, however, requires an intellectual preparation well beyond that which one acquires by a perfunctory reading of the daily newspaper. Sparks (2002) notes, for example, that the mass media is frequently blamed for many of the "bad things" that happen in society (p. 1). When students bring guns to school and engage in acts of random violence, for instance, politicians are quick to look for easy answers--which inevitably center around blaming the mass media for glorifying violence. It takes more than a cursory reading of the daily newspaper, however, to place the question of any relationship between media content and subsequent antisocial behavior into a meaningful perspective.

The complexities of issues german to mass media impact and media education are magnified as the impact of the revolution in mass media technology begins to be felt in all aspects of daily living. …

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