The Losing War of Words and Images

By Walter Fox

As a teacher of journalism and mass communications, I regularly require my students to readphoto and analyze magazines not ordinarily seen on newsstands or at supermarket checkout counters.

These are journals of opinion – publications such as the National Review, The Nation, The New Republic and The Progressive. Until they are assigned to read them, most of my students admit candidly that they did not know such journals existed, and they are surprised to discover magazines that do not need color photography and slick graphic displays to hold the reader’s attention

They are also amazed to find periodicals that have minimal advertising, and are mildly impressed when I tell them that journals of opinion are supported primarily by the subscriptions of readers who are interested in the content of the articles.

In the last few years, however, I’ve become increasingly aware of another student reaction to this assignment that is somewhat more troubling. Describing the writing that they have found in these magazines, many students use terms like “biased,” “slanted” or “opinionated.”

These are pejorative words, and they are inaccurate when used to characterize the writing normally found in journals of opinion. At first I attributed the mistake to faulty diction, but the words are used so frequently now by so many students that I am close to concluding that Americans of college age have lost the ability to deal with rational opinion, especially when it occurs within the context of political and social discourse.

By using such words, students seem to be sending me a subliminal message that they are uncomfortable when confronted by writing that goes beyond the mere statement of facts or news to express a judgment on those facts or to advocate a course of action based on that judgment.

While the writing found in these journals is occasionally polemical, it is rarely “biased” or “opinionated” in the normal sense of those words. Authors write vigorously to make their points, but the editors would not publish articles that do not offer rational arguments or facts to back up the opinions.

So I am puzzled. Why are so many students put off by this kind of writing? And why do they give it a pejorative label instead of questioning whether it makes sense, whether the facts support the conclusions and whether the arguments are sound?

In the same course I also require students to find a full-page advertisement from a mass-media publication, analyze the kind of persuasion used to sell the product and evaluate the effectiveness of the presentation.

Students have no problems with this assignment, even though in almost every case the advertisement submitted is an example of extreme psychological persuasion, exploiting fully the power of color photography and lacking even a semblance of rational argument. In at least half of the ads, students note accurately, the basis of persuasion is that the product – whether it is soap, perfume, liquor or clothing – will make the purchaser irresistible to members of the opposite sex. And most students conclude that the appeal is effective.

Now I`m not sure what the connection is between these two responses, but I`m beginning to suspect that there is one. Could it be that a generation of American students, bombarded by psychological appeals from the time they’ve been able to sit upright in front of a television set, is incapable of dealing with logical argument?

Has the overwhelming reliance on psychological persuasion to sell products that are either essentially the same, unnecessary or downright harmful devalued the role of rationality in making choices, personal or national?

If the answer to these questions is even a qualified “yes,” I suspect that the difficulties we now encounter in generating an intelligent public debate on the critical issues facing this country will only intensify. Media management as practiced in the 1988 presidential election and, more recently in the Gulf War, was an awesome demonstration of the power of images over ideas in a society conditioned by psychological argument.

Images may be effective in selling wars, political candidates and mouthwash, but they are useless in dealing with our most pressing economic and social problems. Picture opportunities are nonexistent for illustrating a national debt of $3 trillion and its impact over the next several decades on the American economy. And while network news frequently offers us shocking images of the homeless camped on our streets, malnourished children of poverty and hyperactive crack babies in maternity wards, it does not provide ideas that would enable us to address these problems in any meaningful way.

These are serious concerns, worthy of attention by the best minds and institutions of our society. But for me, as a teacher, the question is a more personal one: What role do my students see themselves playing in the body politic, which many of them seem so eager to join?

I would like to think that at some point they will tire of consuming images and at least once experience the thrill of becoming participants – however limited – in the discussion and debate of those important issues that will eventually shape their lives. But right now, as I mark their papers, the evidence offers me scant hope.


Walter Fox is a freelance writer and the author of Writing the News: A Guide for Print Journalists. This article originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune of January 29, 1992.  © 1992 Walter J. Fox Jr. (for reprint permission contact wjfoxjr@verizon.net)


 

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One thought on “The Losing War of Words and Images

  1. George T Karnezis

    Though written some time ago, this piece remains relevant, and the author’s experience is like mine as a teacher. Unless we help students appreciate and understand the relative strengths and limits of these competing media, students, and the general population will continue to resist any attempts at make them habitual readers of good texts, and will instead remain satisfied as mere spectators or mindless consumers when it comes to reflecting on public matters.

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