“QUESTION everything. You’re the eyes and ears of the public.”
While this rule runs through journalism, how do you teach students how to become more inquisitive and to challenge authority?
Some students appear to have been indoctrinated from childhood not to challenge authority and to accept orthodoxy.
Whether it comes to their practice or to their academic reading of the media, teaching them to question what is front of them isn’t always simple. It involves much more than standing in front of a class and telling them what they should do.
The fact you need to involve students to really get them to learn was illustrated no better than when we considered media’s ability to create mass hysteria this week.
In the run up to this year’s Halloween, I got them to listen to Orson Welles’ famous 1937 Halloween broadcast of War of the Worlds (Which you can listen to here) and asked them to consider why the broadcast caused mass hysteria. This was given context by a lecture examining the history of sound and vision for journalism.
I told them people killed themselves because of the broadcast because they were so convinced it was true and that the opening credits were before the hour so that those who tuned in on the hour thought it was the news.
I also asked them to bring other, more recent, examples of media’s ability to cause mass hysteria, and be ready to discuss what the implications are.
The following seminar opened by showing students video of Orson Welles himself discussion the reported panic shortly after his broadcast.
Immediately, the students were able to offered reasoned and interesting discussions about why people panicked. They placed it as a new technology which was suddently in people’s everyday lives, and could see why a hybrid of news constructs and fiction could be accepted as fact.
However, what they didn’t do was challange the reporting of the panic itself. That, they accepted as fact. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence from Welles himself, shown in this video recorded some 30 years after the original broadcast.
What none of the students spotted immediately was that in Welles’ later account he, himself, is exaggerating and sensationalising the public’s reaction. They don’t even pause when Welles’ describes how his friend, the actor John Barrymore, realeased his Great Danes into the wild.
They didn’t even question it when Orson Welles himself, at the end of the clip, said the point of his work was to make the public challenge what was fed to them through radio and television.
And none of them realised that I, myself, had lied to them, when repeating the myth people had been so terrified that they’d killed themselves.
As one student said, when I told them to question everything, they hadn’t thought they meant me or things told to them by teachers. In fact one of them couldn’t get his head round the fact the panic may have been exaggerated for several minutes.
What I hope now is that it will have a postive impact on their practical journalism work and make them more willing to challenge the authority of official sources. An interesting day’s work!