Judging by TIME’s covers

The first week in our Social Role of Mass Media course the point was to discuss whether there is a social role for the mass media. This appears to be a moot point–yes, there is a social role for the mass media not only because it is everywhere, but also because the media and how it comports itself is integral to our democracy. Often I often I find myself driving this point about the media and democracy home to my high school journalism students. My argument goes something like this:

Our little experiment in democracy has not been around long and it will not be around much longer unless we take our role as citizens seriously. That means being informed. Our best shot at being informed is a free and responsible press. Just what does a free and responsible press mean? And how does a free and responsible press fill a role in a democracy?

Other questions follow. Ultimately, I make a confession. The press today is in trouble, and the ones to solve this problem will be the ones from their generation, if not someone sitting in class. While it may seem like a trick of rhetoric to engage them, to grab their attention, I am serious. I hope that get that.

From there the extended conversation that follows for the next 20 weeks–one semester–takes them through the law, some ethics, and best practices. And in each of these units they hear again and again that the press’s role is vitality important to our success as a country and their success as individuals, but it is in trouble.

Just one week into this course, I felt more capable of addressing some of the problems with the U.S. media in concrete ways than before.

And now in the second week, the material is richer still. Among the material on our reading list is this article from the Daily Kos website, “Stunning: Comparing U.S. & World Covers for TIME Magazine” by David Harris Gershon dated 23 Nov. 2011. Gershon lines up TIME covers from several of the different editions that appear across the globe in one week.

For instance, the week of 5 December 2011 covers from United States, Europe, Asia and South Pacific. The U.S. cover features “Why Anxiety is Good for You” in black against a light blue background. “Anxiety” is large and what catches the eye. A white character sketched in ink with a smile on his face and a red knotted bundle in his chest appears in the lower right corner. The other issues feature a photograph of a man in jeans, face covered by a black gas mask and fist raised in protest against a background of more protesters.

The problem, which Gershon addresses so well with images, is, how is it that the rest of the world gets “news” and U.S. readers get, well, a feel good story? No doubt what science has found out about anxiety that can help people warrants a story, but on the cover? I cannot wait to share this with my students to see what type of impression a choice like this makes. To ask them what an editorial decision likes this says about the editors who make the decision? To ask what those editors must think about America? To ask them, if they think there is a problem? To ask, what the social role of mass media with this type of mindset might be?

This line of questioning reminds me of two points from another item on our reading list: Notes on Four Theories of the Press found on David McHam’s Communication’s Law Center site. He writes “Mass media always takes on the form and coloration of the social and political structures within which the media operate” and “We understand governments — and the people who live within those governments — by understanding media.”

Keeping these two points in mind, I would ask my students what are these “social and political” entities “within which the media operate”? and what is it they understand about the government where they live? It sounds to me as if this might be a jumping off point for a rich discussion about the social role of mass media.


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