Morgan, Michael. George Gerbner: A Critical Introduction to Media and Communication Theory

By Soukup, Paul A. | Communication Research Trends, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Morgan, Michael. George Gerbner: A Critical Introduction to Media and Communication Theory


Soukup, Paul A., Communication Research Trends


Morgan, Michael. George Gerbner: A Critical Introduction to Media and Communication Theory. New York: Peter Lang, 2012. Pp. viii, 176. ISBN 9781-4331-1701-5 (cloth) $129.95; 978-1-4331-0987-4 (paper) $34.95.

Throughout a long career, including 25 years as dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, George Gerbner (1919-2005) helped to define, shape, and legitimize communication study in the United States and, indirectly, throughout the world. Known best for the "cultural indicators" and "violence profile" projects, his work goes well beyond these to a larger sense of cultural investigation, exploring how mass media play a role in society. Michael Morgan, a former student and a long-time colleague, uses Gerbner's life in communication research as a springboard to understanding contemporary communication theory. This book, then, combines personal biography with critical communication theory, seeing the latter through an examination of the former.

For Gerbner, the power of the mass media resides in its cultural role--a role almost hidden because it appears so transparent. Morgan begins his account with two quotations from Gerbner that capture this sense of media power:

   People learn best not what their teachers think
   they teach or what their preachers think they
   preach, but what their cultures in fact cultivate.

   For the first time in human history a child is born
   into a home in which television is on for an average
   of about seven hours a day. And for the first
   time in human history most of the stories about
   people, life, and values are told not by parents,
   schools, churches, or others in the community
   who have something to tell, but by a group of
   distant conglomerates that have something to
   sell. (p. 1)

People do learn from their environments, from the stories they hear, something Gerbner more or less took for granted, a sense first developed by his youthful interest in folk tales. When it came to media stories, Gerbner classified these into three types: stories about how things work, about how things are, and about what to do (p. 2). We learn from fiction, from news, and from persuasion. Living in the first generation in which storytelling became "industrialized," Gerbner sought to understand the process--how it worked, how it affected people, how it changed the world. Because the industrial process--the mass production of stories--separated people from a more organic sense of story, these new stories put society at risk due to their extrinsic nature.

Drawn to a social-psychological investigation of the media, Gerbner completed his Ph.D. in 1955 with a dissertation on "a general model of communication." Influenced by Lasswell and others, he outlined a 10-step model: "(1) Someone (2) perceives an event (3) and reacts (4) in a situation (5) through some means (6) to make available materials (7) in some form (8) and context (9) conveying content (10) of some consequence" (p. 11). The model proved flexible enough to include internal and external communication; to encompass beliefs, knowledge, truth, and freedom; and to accommodate interpersonal, corporate, and governmental interests. Gerbner favored a process view of communication and regarded mass media as part of that process. Because of these media's influences on popular culture, Gerbner explored a number of methodologies to critically understand them. Using what today we would call both qualitative and quantitative tools, he eventually struck on a detailed content analysis method, correlated with sociological indicators.

Consistent with the interest in stories, Gerbner began his research career with an examination of communication and education: "the educational implications of the revolution in communication and popular culture" in the 1950s and 1960s (p. 26). In exploring this connection, he began to work out a theoretical model of media influence, one that sought to capture the complexity of a world that went beyond the contemporary media influence models. …

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