I knew when I applied to UC Berkeley that I wanted to major in mass communications. It was not a major that you could simply sign up for, however; one had to apply.
The following is the bulk of my application essay that I found while looking through old papers recently. Given the current discussions about the role of the 5th Estate in public affairs it seemed as relevant as ever — even though it was written in 1993…
I was advised that, when applying for the mass communications major, I should not say I was interested in this area because I wanted to be a Tom Brokaw. So I won’t, even though that desire is partially true: I would not mind at some point in my life to have his job. But there is more to being an effective evening news anchor than simply understanding the mechanics of reporting. There needs also to be an appreciation of the tremendous power and influence yielded by a person in such a position.
I first remember having an interest in mass media after reading Linda Ellerbee’s book And So It Goes and seeing the films Network and Broadcast News while in middle school. Through these introspective and sometimes satirical look at the news media and my own observations I began to see the force mass media could have in shaping society. I observed the phenomenon of people living the cliché of believing everything they heard or read without a second thought. The second thoughts all came later when people began to resent mass media for the messages it conveyed. As the media revealed flaws in society, much of the public chose to “shoot the messenger,” shifting the responsibility for social ills away from themselves and on to “the media,” as if it were some giant evil force that had created the often unpleasant realities it broadcast.
I don’t believe that the media deserves all the blame it gets, but it is worth exploring exactly how culpable it may be. There is little question that the media has some effect on society. If it did not, it would not be necessary to foster a free press. But as for the [idea] that the mass media is an outside, alien, oppressive force that seeks to enter innocent people’s lives and maliciously manipulate their thoughts, I strongly disagree. Should this notion be true, then who is behind this manipulation, how is the perpetrating party doing it, and what is it trying to gain? The questions I find more relevant are pondering whether mass media creates or reflects society. Might not the media be a literal embodiment of “mass” “communications”: the sum of all interpersonal communication with the people educating themselves mutually and reflexively? Or is this concept too ideal and that, due to the politics of government and money, there is in actuality an institution that seeks to exploit society via mass media?
[The study of] mass communications incorporates many areas, not only news media but also film, marketing, and even media spawned by computer technology. Though each area has its own dynamics, what connects them is that they have an impact on society. From what I have learned, people do not seem to be immune from experiencing some effect from mass communication.
Exactly what these effects are and how they influence people is what I want to study. While my primary interest in the study of mass communications has in the past been focused exclusively on news media, [as a result of the classes I’ve taken thus far] my interests have no expanded. I am now asking many more questions, bigger and better questions, and through the mass communications major I would like, if not to discover the answers, to refine the questions even further.
If I were writing the above today I might write it slightly differently, with those alluded-to questions already refined and potentially even answered. But the basic issue I remember trying to get at in this application essay was the sense that the foregone conclusions people tended to have about mass media all needed challenging and further study, as none of them were ever so clearly correct as many have always so glibly insisted.