Faculty explore timely issues with practical applications
How much might a broadcaster expect to pay in fines if a program includes indecent content that generates public complaints to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)? What is the connection between public officials' speeches denouncing the popularity of dance halls among adolescent girls in the early 1900s and today's media coverage criticizing the ways girls use Facebook and MySpace? Two junior faculty are engaging in research that explores these timely issues.
By Jen Keavy
Assistant professors Shayla Thiel-Stern, left, and Amy Kristin Sanders joined the SJMC faculty in 2007.
(Photo: Tim Rummelhoff)
Since the 2004 Super Bowl half-time show's "wardrobe malfunction" that overexposed singer Janet Jackson, the number of indecency complaints has skyrocketed, as has the dollar amount of the fine a broadcaster can receive. Broadcasters are given the opportunity to respond to complaints, most of which come from citizens groups. If a broadcaster is found to have violated the FCC's indecency regulations, the agency can fine the media outlet $325,000 per incident, with a maximum penalty of $3 million. Before the wardrobe malfunction incident in 2004, the maximum fine per incident was about $30,000.
Sanders seeks to uncover trends in the FCC's administration of the fines: What time of day are broadcasters more likely to be fined? What type of programs are likely to be fined? Is there a "going rate" for particular indecent content? Which of the "seven dirty words" will cost broadcasters the most? Do the fines vary for public broadcasters versus privately-owned media conglomerates? During her research leave last fall semester, Sanders collected and organized the thousands of pages of documents related to the FCC's regulation of indecency.
Sanders recently was awarded a $26,161 Grant-in-Aid of Research, Artistry and Scholarship from the University of Minnesota's Office of the Vice President for Research. The grant, which will fund her research over the next 18 months, will be used to conduct a comprehensive content analysis of the documents she collected.
Although Sanders admits she isn't sure what she'll find in her study, she does know that many broadcasters will find value in the information gleaned from the research. Last year, Sanders participated in a panel discussion with NBC Universal Inc. executive vice president and deputy general counsel Susan Weiner, who expressed her excitement about the results of the study.
"Some legal scholars would suggest that the trends are tied to the political party in power or whether or not, as a broadcasting entity, you are in favor with the powers that be at the time," Sanders says. "One of the things that I think will come out of the research is some indication of what day parts draw more indecency complaints and how the fine imposed by the FCC corresponds with the timing of the incident."
Sanders says that for large broadcasters and media entities like Gannett or Hearst, the fines are a cost of doing business. They don't necessarily want to pay the fines, but it won't put them out of business. She argues that's not the case for small media operations. "$325,000 per incident could easily shut down a small public broadcaster," she says. "At a time when we are encouraging media diversity and media ownership diversity, that's a huge issue."
Sanders says that this study, like most of her research initiatives, bridges the gap between the academy and the professional world. "A lot of what I try to do with my research is not only to try and further knowledge, but to help media practitioners with the day-to-day challenges and practicing attorneys with legal arguments," she says. With this project, Sanders also hopes to fill in some of the knowledge gap caused by the dearth of complaint documentation. "No one really knows who has paid what," she adds. "NBC knows what they've paid in fines, Fox knows what they've been billed, but no comprehensive examination of complaints and corresponding fines exists."
Shayla Thiel-Stern shares Sanders' mission to pursue research activities that translate to the professional world. Thiel-Stern came to Murphy Hall in 2007 as an assistant professor specializing in new media after a three-year stint as a faculty member at DePaul University in Chicago. "I often tend to gravitate toward questions of gender differences in new media use and media representation," she says. "But we should also be thinking about research as a means of better understanding how to create journalism that the next generation will actually use."
Thiel-Stern's current research project, "Moral Panic and Girls in Public Recreational Space: Analysis of U.S. News Discourse From Dance Halls to Facebook," examines how mainstream news media have fostered and perpetuated moral panic--or an overreaction to a perceived threat to society--targeted at adolescent girls and their recreational activities. She says it seems that, over time, the media have tended to create a culture of frenzy when covering young girls and their leisure activities. Last May, Thiel-Stern received an $8,800 Grant-in-Aid of Research, Artistry and Scholarship from the University's Office of the Vice President for Research for this project.
As an outgrowth of her previous research about adolescent girls and instant messaging, Thiel-Stern began examining current news coverage regarding young girls and their use of social media. But her project soon undertook a more comprehensive approach. After a visit to the University of Minnesota's Social Welfare History Archives at Andersen Library and a conversation with its archivist, Thiel-Stern uncovered more fodder for her research. Combing through old meetings proceedings from the early 1900s, she found that people writing about the dance hall problem employed some of the same language used today when reporting on adolescent girls' use of social media.
"If you look through the literature, this idea of moral panic can be seen as being perpetuated by the media," Thiel-Stern says. "These weren't mediated discourses--they were speeches by public officials--which is the same thing happening today in terms of media-generated moral panic about girls online. ... "In today's media coverage of adolescent use of the Internet and social networking, it's typically public figures being quoted in news stories--just like in the days of the dance halls."
As Thiel-Stern delved into her topic, she soon discovered that there were what she calls "five pivotal cultural moments" for adolescent girls and their representation in the media over the course of the 20th century: the popularity of dance halls in the early 1900s, public smoking in the 1920s, the adulation of Elvis Presley in the 1950s, the debate leading up to the passing of the federal Title IX law in the 1960s and 1970s, and the use of social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace today. She says she selected these moments in time because each represents a significant point in the past century when the news media took notice and covered the topics fervently, fostering cultural moral panic. While several cultural studies scholars have linked moral panic to the marginalization of women and minorities, Thiel-Stern will be the first to examine how the trend has made an impact on media representation of adolescent girls.
Recently Thiel-Stern's 2007 book, "Instant Identity: Adolescent Girls and the World of Instant Messaging," caught the attention of a detective in the Austin, Texas, Police Department's child abuse unit, who extended an invitation to her to talk about her research. The session, to take place in April, will serve as a training opportunity to help detectives in the unit better understand how adolescents are using social networking. Thiel-Stern is excited about the training session. "It's a rare opportunity to actually translate academic research that means something to the general population," she says.
In addition to her research about youth and online media, Thiel-Stern is vitally interested in online journalism, especially the advancements being made in the Twin Cities market with MinnPost, the Twin Cities Daily Planet, The Uptake and Locally Grown Northfield. She says she hopes to spend more time exploring the connections between the work she does with youth and media and the digital journalism movement. "By and large, news organizations are not looking particularly far ahead for how to grow and sustain their audiences," she says. "I believe research on young people and digital media could be an important step to assist with future growth and sustainability."