It’s Time to Sacrifice Mass Media’s Sacred Cows

Most sacred cows of mass media schools need to be slaughtered, if not all put on diets.

Over the past month, I’ve examined the reluctance of many media academics to change their teachings, despite all fundamental changes underway in the global media environment. “Degrees in the Past” noted how the obstructionists aren’t necessarily elder professors but more often are professors in their 30s and 40s. In “Four Excuses That Impede Change in Media Academia,” I listed the major excuses obstructionists use to block change.

Today, I’ll look at sacred cows.

Sacred cows take up space, consume resources, and obstruct progress. In academia, space is course time. A half century ago, historian Cyril Parkinson noted that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” The academic corollary of “Parkinson’s Law” is that curricula expand to fill the course hours available for them.

Let’s say students have 40 hours per semester available. A school, then, will tend to create courses that fill all 40 hours. Some of those courses might be necessities, such as the basics of objective reporting for students majoring in journalism or the basics of advertising for advertising majors. If after those core courses there are still hours available in the curricula, faculty members will create ancillary courses to fill the remaining time. For example, an ancillary course about the history of the First Amendment might be added to any core course about legislation governing reporting, publishing, or broadcasting. Over the years, these ancillary courses become so entrenched with the core courses that they take on the appearance of the school’s core teachings.

The trouble with that occurs when the school must find room for new courses, but there are no hours available within the curricula. Faculty meetings erupt with disputes between progressives who want to add courses about publishing online and obstructionists who insist that the History of the First Amendment course not be sacrificed to make room for a course about something as ordinary as online media.

I can sympathize with the obstructionists. The history of the First Amendment is an august topic. I will be sad if a course about it is no longer offered. However, if that sacred cow has to be sacrificed to make room for a course about what is arguably the world’s second or third largest medium, then give me a knife.

More people now get their news and information from online than from any other medium except television and perhaps radio (however, in the United Kingdom and many other major countries online media already have more users than radio does). Courses about publishing online clearly are more important than ancillary courses in the curricula.

Nevertheless, I know a few major media schools still don’t teach any undergraduate courses about online media. The obstructionists in those faculties have been filibustering for years against it, insisting that their curricula continue to teach only the forms of media that have continually declining usage. Their insistence is a shame and a disservice to their students.

Moreover, most schools still teach only mass media theory, as if it were the only possible and practicable theory of media. It’s the greatest of sacred cows chewing cud in the barn of media academics.

Mass media theory arose nearly a century ago to describe and study the effects of analog media technologies. Those technologies were industrial-era inventions, such as the analog printing press and the broadcast transmitter.

Because those media technologies were limited to delivering the same edition or program to every consumer, editors had to choose stories either according to the greatest common interests or about which the editor thought he must inform all consumers. According to mass media theory, this made editors the gatekeepers of information and the agenda setters for their communities.

Back in an era when American consumers had access to only one or two daily newspapers, one or two dozen weekly or monthly magazines, only three or four television channels, and several radio stations, mass media theory was a practical method of analyzing the effects, economics, and dynamics of media.

But now consumers worldwide have online access to every daily newspaper, every magazine, every radio station, and with cable or satellite, if not online, access to hundreds of television channels, plus millions of Web sites about every specific topic or interest. No editor can be the gatekeeper or agenda setter in his community any longer. Almost every consumer is using her newfound cornucopia of access to gravitate to whichever mix of media fits her unique mix of interests. The people who used to be known as the audience are no longer monolithic or even homogenous; they’re fragmenting. And mass media readers, listeners, and viewers are evaporating.

The effects, economics, and dynamics of new media are our future and need study. Quantum mechanics replaced previous centuries’ classical physics and have given us the advantages of modern life, such as transistors, computers, lasers, CDs, DVDs, and other digital technologies. So too are new media replacing mass media. It’s time that something other than just mass media theory is taught in our schools.

I’ll be sad to see many sacred cows slaughtered, but the time to feast on them to strengthen media for the challenges ahead is at hand.

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