How has mass communication changed society?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In the early days of television, the renowned radio and television journalist, Edward R. Murrow, gave a speech before the Radio and Television News Directors Association in Chicago. Murrow criticized TV's emphasis on entertainment and commercialism at the expense of public interest in his 'wires and lights' speech:

"During the daily peak viewing periods, television in the main insulates us from the realities of the world in which we live. If this state of affairs continues, we may alter an advertising slogan to read, "Look now, pay later."

At another time, Murrow prophetically noted, 

“We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse, and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it, and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late. ”

Murrow's career began as a radio broadcaster during World War II when he was in London. He and others were effective in reaching thousands of people with the latest happenings of the Nazis, actions which, of course, proved valuable. This new capability of reaching the masses was, indeed, a boon to Europeans. Thus, in times of crisis, societies can be informed in timely fashions so that they can prepare. For instance, the capability of mass communication has saved many people's lives when there are such things as threats to national security, extreme weather conditions, medical epidemics, etc.

On the other hand, as Murrow worried, the use of mass communication can be a tremendous force of propaganda or misinformation. As Vladimir Lenin contended, "A lie told often enough becomes the truth." Whenever Napoleon conquered a country in his campaigns, he immediately had his government take control of the newspapers so that the reports of Napoleon's conquests and government could all be portrayed favorable. For, as Napoleon argued, "What is history but a fable retold."

Mass communication also has the capability of aggrandizing what would only be perceived in real life as a small incident or occurrence. This ability of the media can be negative or positive, of course. One telling example of how television changed history by making larger a news story is the that of CBS anchorman, Walter Cronkite's reading an article that was on the back pages of the Washington Post about the break-in of the Watergate hotel and initiating on television an investigation that led to the resignation of the President of the United States. By the same token, some people's careers have been ruined unjustly because of the mass publication of photos or villifying stories.

In contemporary times, a new Pandora's Box has been opened with the mass communication afforded by such media as Facebook. While it affords people the ability to be in contact with others long distance and to even locate old friends, etc. there is a toxic social media that has certainly had negative effects such as cyberbullying and invasion of people's homes and identities. Certainly, mass communication has an arm that extends around the world. Is this arm one that has a fist at the end, an open hand, or one turned backward? Those who control mass media are responsible for this turn of the hand that be abusive, beneficial, or detrimental.

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