Lessons from the Past: Historical Research
By Ami Berger
For three SJMC faculty, history helps define the future of mass communication
According to Cicero, the ancient Roman politician, history "illumines reality, vitalizes memory, and provides guidance in daily life." History is also providing guidance to three SJMC faculty members, whose research has led them back in time to the beginnings of advertising psychology, the development of press criticism in America, and even way back to the "olden days" before e-mail.
Don Brazeal: Tracing the genesis of e-mail
It's sometimes hard to remember how the world functioned before the advent of electronic mail. In the relatively short time since e-mail was introduced as a communication tool it has revolutionized the way we work, live, and keep in touch.
But e-mail was invented and in use well before it became accessible to the public in the early 1990s, and according to professor Donald Brazeal, the process by which e-mail became what he calls "the killer app of the Internet" provides an excellent lesson in how early decisions about technology can have unforeseen consequences down the road.
Brazeal's current research project is a study of the genesis of electronic mail, and how the technology has evolved as a conduit for mass communication. Using documents from both the government and private organizations who were the creators of Internet communications in the 1950s and 60s, Brazeal is constructing a history of the technology that focuses on how those first decision-makers affected the way we e-mail each other today.
"During the height of the Cold War, the American military was very concerned about the vulnerability of our communications systems," says Brazeal, who points out that the traditional telecommunications structure could have been destroyed immediately and easily in a nuclear attack. In response to that concern, the Department of Defense began developing a strategy for a communication system that could withstand an attack: the result was the earliest version of what we now know of as the Internet, and the development of e-mail as a way to communicate across that early network came soon after.
Originally, Brazeal says, the Internet was seen solely as a way for organizations to communicate with other organizations--for example, for universities to send massive amounts of research data to each other electronically. "In those early days, there was very little thought given to the technology as a person-to-person communications tool," Brazeal says, "and many of the limitations and frustrations we have with e-mail now are due to that original design." Brazeal points to the many adjustments have been made precisely because of the flaws of the technology's original design: the ability to attach documents or photos to e-mails, for example, is a fairly recent development that early users would not have thought necessary.
E-mail security is another area where the original design of the technology is lacking, says Brazeal. "The first designers and users of e-mail could never have dreamed that e-mail security would be such a huge issue," says Brazeal, "because when the network was first developed, it was a completely closed system--only a relatively small number of people in government and higher education had access to it. Now that e-mail is available to anyone with a computer and a phone line, we have serious problems with spam, 'phishing' scams, electronic identity theft. It's ironic," he adds, "that a system originally designed to make us more secure has resulted in a tremendous amount of personal vulnerability."
John Eighmey: Discovering the roots of advertising psychology
Professor John Eighmey first came across the name "Harlow Gale" in December 2004, while preparing materials for his spring 2005 Psychology of Advertising class. A reference to a 1900 manuscript entitled "On the Psychology of Advertising" and authored by Gale caught Eighmey's attention, since he had never heard of the author or his manuscript, written well before scholars began examining advertising techniques and their effects.
Eighmey, who holds the SJMC's Mithun Land Grant Chair in Advertising, was also surprised to see that the manuscript was published in Minneapolis. Could Gale have been associated with the University of Minnesota? "At about light speed, I called U of M archivist Lois Hendrickson," Eighmey says, "and asked if there were any holdings for Harlow Gale. She replied, 'we have four boxes of his papers.'"
Within 48 hours, Eighmey and SJMC graduate student Sela Sar were in Andersen Library reading the materials, which describe Gale's work on the psychological effects of advertising at the turn of the 20th century. They discovered that Gale, who taught psychology at the University of Minnesota from 1895 to 1903, was the first scholar to undertake experimental studies on the effects of advertising. "Gale's work prefigured a number of critical concepts in advertising evaluation that are still very much in use," Eighmey says.
Although Gale's scholarship is more than a century old, Eighmey found it relevant enough to bring into his classes--literally. Last fall, Eighmey involved his Psychology of Advertising class in a full-scale re-enactment of one of Gale's experiments on advertising effectiveness. To re-enact the study, Eighmey found and scanned copies of magazine ads Gale listed in his 1900 manuscript, put the scans in a PowerPoint presentation, and used a video projector to show each ad in a particular sequence and for a particular amount of time, just as Gale had done with subjects in a darkened room, a lamp, and cutouts of the ads over a hundred years earlier. "At the end of each exposure sequence, I polled the class to see which advertising elements they could recall," Eighmey says. "The results were then tabulated on the marker board as we continued through the re-enactment. Remarkably," he says, "the results pretty much paralleled those of Gale."
There's an important lesson there regarding historical perspectives on the study of mass communication, says Eighmey, who has now co-authored a paper with Sar entitled "Harlow Gale and the Origins of the Psychology of Advertising." "When reading the earliest research, we often find that our predecessors had particularly acute powers of observation and expression," Eighmey says. "Concepts and ideas flow from generation to generation.You really can't fully understand the larger context of an idea unless you appreciate the full meaning and implications of those original voices."
Kathy Roberts Forde: Examining the "Wayward Press"
Criticizing the press has always been a favorite American hobby, and attacking the media has become even more of a bloodsport in recent years, as high-profile cases of journalistic failure have dominated the news. Ironically, the media have found that attacking the media is good for business--the Jayson Blair scandal sold millions of magazines and newspapers, and the CIA-Valerie Plame leak case has been generating readers, viewers, and ratings for over a year.
But how does such criticism affect the practices of the press? Can external pressure or an angry public change the way journalists work--or should it? When SJMC professor Kathy Roberts Forde began asking these questions as a doctoral student at the Univerity of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, she found that no one was really looking for the answers.
"The tradition of press criticism in America is well over a century old," says Forde, who joined the SJMC faculty in the fall of 2005, "but we don't have a comprehensive historical accounting of that tradition and what the impact of press criticism has been." According to Forde, one of the most influential press critics of the twentieth century was New Yorker columnist A.J. Liebling; Liebling wrote the magazine's "Wayward Press" column from 1945 to 1963, providing commentary on the operation, conduct, content, professional standards, and ethics of the press. But Liebling's work has received little academic attention, Forde says, even though it is often cited by both press critics and scholars as a model of the genre.
Forde's current research project, an evolution of her award-winning dissertation on the Masson v. New Yorker libel case, aims to change that. Entitled "The 'Wayward Press' and the Public Sphere," Forde's research will assess the impact of Liebling's press criticism--and the New Yorker's press criticism as a whole--on both the press and the public sphere. "I'll be looking at any reactions from the journalism industry that the 'Wayward Press' columns may have generated," Forde says, "and then consider whether any substantive reforms in press operation, conduct, content, professionalAugust 29, 2006 occurred." And if they didn't? "It's entirely possible that I will find that the American press largely ignored this criticism, which would be an interesting finding, too," Forde says. "If that's the case, I would need to explain why the press criticism worked in this way."
Whatever her ultimate findings are, Forde says it's vital that young people understand the issues she's examining in her study. "Students need to understand and critically engage the deep structures and dominant values of both the press industry and the public sphere--that metaphysical place where citizens meet to debate matters of social significance and do the work of self-government," Forde says. "Such an understanding is vital to a well-functioning democracy and to future journalists' ability to serve that democracy."