An abundance of research has shown that the mass media, while not telling us what to think (or making us think or act certain ways), clearly tell us what to think about. McCombs and Shaw did seminal work in this area in the 1970s, and their findings are still highly regarded–and have been rigorously emulated–in the academic field of mass communication through the present. This body of work has been directing our attention to—and illustrating how—some issues, values, video clips, and a milieu of daily highlights are shuffled and re-shuffled in order of importance in our minds, some decreasing and some increasing in salience and prominence among our thoughts de jure. Many take up permanent residence in our medium-term memory; others hang around only long enough to cloud our values and blur our vision of that supposedly ever-graying line between right and wrong.
“But we’re just giving people what they want!”
The entertainment industry conveniently ignores its role in causing people to develop an appetite for the lurid, the profane, and prurient. The news industry goes further with its claims.
“We’re giving people what they need.” (As if they know.)
The highly-successful, commercially marketed news product does produce a faux sense of what we need to know, far more successful than any Black Friday sales scheme, and this happens every morning and every evening on your favorite channel!
Jesus got it right!
Jesus best understood and described the human psycho-spiritual response to the world in which His disciples would continue to live after He left. With the following remarks he also laid responsibility on both the source and the receiver of unrighteousness.
(Matthew 12:33-35, NASB)
33 “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. 35 The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil.”
(Matthew 15:10-20, NASB) After Jesus called the crowd to Him, He said to them, “Hear and understand. 11 It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man.” 15 Peter said to Him, “Explain the parable to us.” 16 Jesus said, “Are you still lacking in understanding also? 17 Do you not understand that everything that goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and is eliminated? 18 But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders. 20 These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man.”
Helping our students get it…
In the classroom it is vital that we help students find the relevance and workability of conceptual approaches to media. In my mass communication classes I strive to help them understand via discussion and media clips that broadcasters and webcasters do indeed create content which “sets our agendas” toward the inane, the preposterous, and the untoward. Students’ at first are typically indifferent to the notion that most of the media’s agenda is directing us away from truly pressing issues, let alone spiritual and God-centered perspectives on those issues. (Such content is not hard to find; in fact, it’s much harder to find where it doesn’t occur.)
The second challenge in successfully engaging mass communication students about agenda setting is to instill within them the recognition that they are indeed the future content-makers in both the entertainment and information industries and, as such, have a God-given obligation to help get the “ox out of the ditch,” so to speak.
In this regard, I must strive (with God’s help) to convince them that they CAN and WILL make a positive impact on the audio-visual world and that they have a responsibility to try. They WILL be the opinion makers and agenda setters of tomorrow, and what they say and how they say it will direct the hearts and minds of the upcoming generation. No pressure, eh?
Dr. Darrell Roe (Ph.D., UGA, 1998) is an Assoc. Prof. of Mass Communication at ETBU. His specialty is analyzing the content of visual media and its effects on audiences.