The Confusion At An Interdisciplinary Crossroads

This is a major source of frustration and anxiety for me, as are all Gordian knots we haven’t unraveled or merely sliced through, but it’s a particularly difficult one because it points to a major social and academic complications that go beyond my personal field of study.

For me, this topic comes out of a simple question: “What do I want to do after The New School?” Question like this have difficult answers, and simple strategies. The answer to “What do I want to do after I get my BA?” was “Study media more, for a lot of very complicated reasons.” The strategy for that was “Go to The New School,” which is a lot simpler than the answer. But without any answer we come up with, our plans make very little sense.

I already know my answer. For me, the real issue of media studies is one of public consciousness and identity, public opinion and social mediation. There is an understanding I’m searching for that deals with the transformations of rhetoric across mediums, especially with the current “revolution” (so to speak) of decentralized, digital networking, DIY culture and democratized media activists. There’s lots of relevant, current examples, and this question of whether or not the public can be self-determining in the public discourse is something that goes back to the arguments of Dewey or Ogden and Richards vs Lippman or Bernays.

The problem then, is not my answer, but the strategy. Because while these are old arguments, there is an increasing interdisciplinary nature to these issues. First, we have media studies, which emerged as an institutional program at The New School in 1975, started

…with the founding of the Center for Understanding Media. Media education pioneer John Culkin sought to create a place that provided “consumer education for the minds and emotions of the audience for all media.” With its history of progressive education, The New School was a logical home for the center. Interest in the field and the center grew, and The New School created the country’s first formally established program in media studies.

Culkin was a buddy of Marshal McLuhan, who popularized media theory in 1964 with his hot/cool, “the medium is the message,” instantly televisible presentation of ideas. The related field of media ecology was institutionalized at NYU by Neil Postman in 1971, but these were both born out of earlier “mass communication” programs and a tradition that goes back to communications researchers and scholars like Walter Lippman, Paul Lazersfeld, John Dewey, etc. These are also semi-relatable (for our purposes) to journalism schools, film programs, and rhetoric studies, which have long, independent histories and traditions.

Rama Hoetzlein's timeline of Media Studies

Now, for the convergence. There has always been a pedagogical rift between theory and practice in any discipline. One goes to film school to become a filmmaker, and to graduate school to become a critic. However, I think there is an increasing drive to marry theory and practice (at least, there certainly is the effort at The New School). We want informed practice and people who have actually done the things they study. So, one does not just learn cinematography – they also study film theory and aesthetics and so on. Journalists still very much learn their non-professional profession as though it were a craft, but ethics, multimodal methods and more specialized knowledge has become increasingly important with the demise of the traditional news industry. Communications studies are usually for people who wanted to be PR people, designers, marketers, practical industry types. But again, as the media landscape changes, it becomes worthwhile to incorporate a broader scope of knowledge.

So when we have intersections of study, we may attempt to qualify everything in the terms of our discipline, or broach those walls in the favor of interdisciplinality. Media studies itself has no such option. As others have pointed out many times over, there is no central media theory. It effectively borrows from anything and everything it can. I took a trip to the Yale bookstore and found most of the authors from my readings under the Literary Criticism section. Media studies can’t qualify things inside the discipline because there isn’t one – it’s an amalgamation of many of the other things I mentioned. But there isn’t just a marriage of theory and practice going on out there: I think there are potential marriages of fields in the pursuit of exploring phenomenon like digital rhetoric, or political communication remediated in virtual environments. When citizen journalism becomes a necessary part of public discourse, academics can engage in action oriented research to effectively marry their scholarly theorizing with legitimate social practice.

So there are a great many possibilities to do further research in this area. We are dealing with a pretty recent phenomenon which has only begun to be studied. It’s already made the potential effects clear in very loud, very global ways – from the Green Revolution of Iran to OWS, I believe new media digital and networked political activism has demonstrated potentially profound impacts on multiple fields and disciplines.

So going back to my question, “What do I want to do after The New School?” I really want to study these. I really want to help create knowledge about it. I really want to develop our understanding as such phenomenon continue to unfold. The problem is, I don’t know with who or where! Someplace scenic would be nice though!

Addressing Belief Perseverance

People don’t like being told they’re wrong. Most of us want to believe what we like, and we fall prey to various forms of confirmation bias in the hopes of sheltering our tender ego. One these phenomena that happens is belief perseverance: “the persistence of one’s initial concepts, as when the basis for one’s belief is discredited but an explanation of why the belief might be true survives” (Social Psychology, Myers).

Mass media can lend itself to such  incidents regularly. Bad journalism happens when news organizations rush to release incomplete and even inaccurate information to “break” the story. Meyers uses the example of a study which demonstrated how misinformation persisted in the memories of Americans. When we hear something in the news, if we feel it’s something that we can explain and understand, and if we aren’t skeptical to begin with, we’re more likely to retain that misinformation and even adhere to it.

The researchers also classified people as sceptical if they disagreed with the official reason given for war, ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

The results showed there were far fewer sceptics in the US than in Germany and Australia. And that such sceptics were less likely to believe statements that they knew had been retracted than those people classified as non-sceptical.

Most people in Germany and Australia opposed the Iraq war in the first place. But non-skeptics in America were more positive about news on the war. As Lewandowsky said, “People do not discount corrected information unless they are suspicious about it or unless they are given some other hypothesis with which to interpret the information.”

Alternative frameworks and points of view become important  for critical thinking – not just for summary opinion, but as part of the process by which we form those opinions. But this isn’t how we address that problem – for the most part, we depend on objectivity and a supposed lack of bias. But this is impossible. Still, a slavish devotion to that illusion creates a uniformity among most news organizations (Uniformity in message control is also an extremely effective way of managing propaganda campaigns).

Lord, Lepper and Preston (1984) found that  “the cognitive strategy of considering opposite possibilities promoted impartiality.” Myers also points out that explaining why opposite theories might be true addresses belief perseverance positively. Even imagining any alternative outcome will help people in solving their belief perseverance. (Hirt & Markman, 1995; Anderson & Sechler, 1986)

This means that news organizations are actively remiss in not pursuing “alternative outcomes” or other hypotheses by submitting to existing frames. The abstraction of providing those differing scopes and shielding the public from misinformation is apparently not worth the effort it takes to invest added effort to each story that runs this risk.  Or, from an even more cynical perspective, it interferes with message control.

Journalism And Other Popular Misnomers

Communication can be perceived as a process occurring from the manipulation of agreed upon signs, symbols and sounds, etc. A typical goal of communication is to express or transmit some specific concept to another party, to achieve some goal of our own.

Communication (as a discipline) has several sub-fields, the most relevant to the big picture being “mass communication.” Even if one person is responsible for a policy of information dissemination, that individual’s thoughts are not their own; they are the product of various group decisions and organizational culture. In an traditional establishment where the status quo rules, people who reach a position of authority where they can easily affect a change are already conditioned against doing so. We call that groupthink, and people who reach the top are the most exposed to it.

Anyway, mass communication (as a practice) has three basic functions: public relations, advertising, and journalism. All of these are means by which one motivated party communicates some information with another party. Whether that information is narrowcasted or broadcasted to small or wide audience, there is one intention, which roughly sums up the purpose for what’s happening whenever someone does “journalism” or “marketing” or “public relations.”

Communicators are involved in Image construction when they engage in mediation or discourse with others. I don’t mean that they’re building an image of themselves in their audience’s perception. Rather, I mean they are building the audience’s perceptions so that it can properly receive the right images.

To explain, traditionally we imagine public relations as an industry which massages the existing image of a public entity. Damage control, bettering business to business relations, raising consumer profile through alternatives to advertising, public relations is commonly understood to improve upon the existing conception of the client so as to improve their standing (or destroy it, in the case of negative PR). But couldn’t PR also operate in a backwards manner? Say for instance, prospective clients already have a neutral image of a company. They don’t have any strong feelings about it because they don’t feel as though it’s services apply to them. Then, a PR firm works to clarify and communicate how that audience needs the services offered. Now, their perceptions can further be conditioned so that that company appears very appealing to them.

Marketing is all about image construction. What do you think of when you think about gas and gas stations? Dirty, expensive necessity, gross road food, etc? A great spot can evoke larger themes of freedom, excitement, and even patriotism and nationalism, which are associated with the gas station and prime the customer not only to buy the product, but like it too.

Journalism is probably the most elaborate  form of image construction. Currently, a lot of information production falls under the umbrella of this craft which failed to create a professional identity for itself partially because of this idea. It’s plagued with VNRs and press kit materials, with profit-motivated managers and ideologues, all corrupted by their natural tendency to frame communication in a preferred  light.  But whether journalists decide to adhere to objectivity or transparency, they are ultimately pursuing a form of image construction – whether they are following someone else’s agenda, or encouraging the more democratic perspective of making up your own mind. While the more crude attempts at the latter fall squarely under the banner of “propaganda,” sophisticated attempts at promoting critical thinking are still attempts to shape the perspective of the audience (by allowing them to do it as they please, “freeform” image).

All of these attempts at image construction are merely manifestations of prevailing orders and patterns of belief and thought. As Hans M Enzensberger described it,

“The mind industry’s main business and concern is not to sell its product: it is to ‘sell’ the existing order, to perpetuate the prevailing pattern of man’s domination by man, no matter who runs the society, and by what means. Its main task is to expand and train our consciousness – in order to exploit it.” – Industrialization of the Mind, 1962

Enzensberger attributed these practices to advertising, but I believe they apply to all forms of mass communication, however with less ominous overtones as they represent diverging causes and motivations.

To reiterate once more, image construction is a part of the process. The motivations come from various goals on behalf of the party where mass communication originates. As such, image construction itself is not inherently “good” or “bad,” it’s merely a way to describe some media effects.