James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Posts Tagged ‘corporate media’

How to be a better media user

Posted by James McPherson on March 16, 2010

Today I spoke to three groups of middle school students about media literacy, offering a few tips for becoming more knowledgeable media consumers. At the request of one of their teachers, I’ll post part of it here. Some of it I’ve gleaned from elsewhere over the years, but can’t remember where–let me know and I’ll add it. When I have more time, perhaps I’ll also come back to this and add relevant links and photos.

Four questions to ask yourself when watching/reading/hearing a media message:

1. Who controls the message? A relatively few media conglomerates control most of the media we get. And despite cries about supposed liberal media, News Corp is one of those biggies. All of them exist primarily to make money, not to enlighten, entertain, or provide a “fair and balanced” perspective.

That’s why the people who complain most about sex and violence on television are most likely to be found on Fox News, which uses the same methods to draw an audience–and which also is associated with the Fox Entertainment, the sleaziest major network on television. That’s also why MSNBC, when it couldn’t beat CNN, tried to out-Fox Fox with conservative hosts and commentators. Only after that failed did it become the liberal answer to Fox.

2. Is it real? There are a lot of ways to lie in and with the media. There are more public relations professionals than there are journalists. And everybody has access to Photoshop and a junior high student who can use it.

3. What are the underlying messages? That’s the point of one entire semester-long class that I teach, but in short, every media message offers implicit messages along with explicit messages. The messages about gender alone probably are worthy of a year’s lectures.

4. Why am I watching/reading/listening to this? Uses and gratifications theory points out that we use media for a reason, even if the reason is escapism. Thinking about the “why” can improve one’s motives (and life in general).

Four tips for making better use of the media:

1. Reduce the use of your favorite medium. Turning more often to a different medium–or to friends, family and personal observation–will likely broaden your perspective.

2. Actively watch/listen more often. Watch television with family members, rather than in separate rooms, and then talk about what you saw. Talk back to the screen. But not in a movie theatre, please.

3. Reduce the number of opinions you feel obligated to hold. Like talk show hosts, we often feel we must have an opinion on everything, whether we understand the subject or not, lest we appear either apathetic or dumb. It’s OK–and inevitable–not to be an expert about anything. And you’ll be taken more seriously when you speak about areas in which you do have some level of knowledge/expertise.

4. Consider a personal or family media code of ethics. Put it in writing: If something in the media offends you, what will you do about it? Just whine? Write a letter? Stage a protest? Are there certain kinds of shows, or certain number hours, that you won’t watch? Will you let your kid watch an hour of TV or spend an hour on the Internet if s/he then reads a book for an hour? Will you allow a television or personal computer in your child’s room?

In answer to that last question, by the way, I wouldn’t. I asked more than a hundreds kids today how many of them watch things on TV that they wouldn’t be allowed to watch if their parents knew the content (I didn’t even bother to ask about the Internet). Most of the students–a good group of kids, it seemed to me–raised their hands.

Of course, they might be forgiven for using media irresponsibly; after all, they’re kids. Most people reading this don’t have that excuse.

Posted in Education, Media literacy, Personal | Tagged: , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Post #200 of a stupid, outdated idea

Posted by James McPherson on December 18, 2008

Blogging apparently is stupid, at least for amateurs like myself (for whom this is my 200th post since I began April 22). We should be wasting our time and distributing our tidbits of wit or wisdom in other ways.

“It’s almost impossible to get noticed, except by hecklers. And why bother? The time it takes to craft sharp, witty blog prose is better spent expressing yourself on Flickr, Facebook, or Twitter,”  Paul Bouten writes for Wired. Frankly, I get very few hecklers, and when I do I politely point out the error of their ways and they don’t write back. Of course, I also get relatively few readers (more on the numbers below).

Boutin points out that professionals such as the Huffington Post have taken over the blogging universe, and that “a stand-alone commentator can’t keep up with a team of pro writers cranking out up to 30 posts a day.” Incidentally, I got this bit of news via stand-alone commentator Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit.

I’d also argue that some of the professional blogs are doing so well because they provide more meaningful news and commentary than mainstream news sites.

Well, I’m on Facebook, but mostly to keep track of colleagues and former students. I rarely write anything there, or read much of what anyone else has written. My page has a link to my blog–if anyone cares what I think, they can jump over here.

I refuse to Twitter, at least for now (keeping in mind that less than a year ago I said I’d never be a blogger). Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it rips the soul from wisdom.

Few things worth saying or knowing can adequately be expressed in 140 characters, and most of those brief bits should be said more personally: “I love you.” “Drop dead.” “I’m sorry.” “Dear Mom and Dad: Send money.” “You’re fired.” “We’re having a baby.” “It’s time for Fluffy to be put down.” “Would you like fries with that?” “Look at all the freakin’ snow.” (Despite shoveling last night before I went to bed, I woke up to a two-foot snowdrift ON MY PORCH this morning.)

Maybe it’s a result of my experience as an academic, but I disagree with the premise that blogging is primarily a tool for self-promotion. That obviously is the case for some bloggers, but most probably feel they have something meaningful to share. Many of those are correct, and it’s not up to me–or, thank God, the corporate media–to decide which, for all readers.

Though I do get an ego boost on days when readership is up, I certainly don’t write for the attention or the money. If I did, I’d be trying to pen crime novels instead of well-researched books about journalism history and politics.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m doing this primarily for the same reason I do most things outside of my home: my students. And the number of “my students” has expanded as a result I now have regular student readers who have never taken a class from me. Responses from those students and former students are the ones I value most.

This experiment has taught me some interesting things, some more surprising than others. Not surprising is that my most popular post (approximately 1,700 views so far) was a misleadingly titled sociological experiment, sought out by people using terms that have nothing to do with media or politics.

More surprising is that the second-most popular post (about 1,300), and the one still getting a few views pretty much every day is one about the U.S. Flag Code that I wrote back in July, based on one of my favorite classroom lectures about symbols.

Also still among the top eight are my August prediction that Barack Obama would handily win the presidential election and my back-to-back June posts suggesting that the vice presidential nominees should be Joe Biden and Sarah Palin–though because a link to to it appears at the bottom of a popular CNN story, yesterday’s post (about to pass 500) about the Bush administration, science and endangered species may blow past those two. Maybe it’s because of the YouTube clip from “Them.”

Aside from the flag post, generally speaking the two best topics for generating traffic have been Palin and sex. On a typical day I get between 100 and 200 page views. The most for a single day was 876, coming mostly from one of those Palin stories (also with help from CNN).

Not surprisingly, that same Palin story generated the most comments. Many posts draw no response. Others get an occasional comment even weeks later, which strikes me as a bit odd.

Admittedly, there may be a bit of egotistical lunacy behind generating an average of about 25 posts per month in addition to teaching four classes, advising a student newspaper, remodeling my kitchen (yes, I did it myself–some academics can use a hammer and saw), helping organize and host a national journalism history convention in October, and organizing a Jan Term study trip to two dozen sites in New York and Washington, D.C.

Insomnia helps. And besides, writing is one of the fun parts of my job, and a big part of why I became a reporter and then an editor. In addition, writing these things here may keep me from verbally torturing my wife and others with my reactions to the news items that intrigue me.

Another obvious reason that I would engage in such an archaic form of communication as blogging is that I’m a media historian. I live for soon-to-be-extinct technologies. I don’t own an ipod or a Kindle, but my office holds a 1953 television set; probably a hundred pounds of newspapers, magazines and photos; hundreds of books; phonograph “records” of various sizes; a VCR and dozens of videotapes; some old film cameras; a cassette tape deck and dozens of cassette tapes; numerous CD’s, a couple of reel-to-reel tapes; and even an 8-track tape or two.

Also related to history: The American flag on my office wall, a flag that was in use when I was born, has 48 stars. At that time there was no state of Alaska for the future Sarah Palin to govern. Perhaps you think of that time as “the good ol’ days.”

Dec. 28 update: CNN names “the ascendance of Twitter” its top tech trend of 2008. Sigh. The story concludes, “One thing Twitter is lacking, though, is a profitable business plan.” In that respect, it’s like the newspapers I love so much.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »