New Course Helps Sociology Students Explore Media Influence

Author: Mike Danahey

Terence McDonnell

Almost 50 years ago, Canadian theorist Marshall McLuhan posited that “the medium is the message,” advancing the idea that each method of communication influences public discourse not only by what tales it chooses to tell but also by how it presents those stories.

This past fall, Kellogg Assistant Professor of Sociology Terence McDonnell helped University of Notre Dame College of Arts and Letters students explore how that concept plays out in today’s more complex media landscape.

In the new course, called Telling About Society: Media, Representation, and the Sociology of Knowledge, McDonnell and his students “evaluate how material and conventional aspects of medium shape communication,” he explains.

Challenging Perceptions

McDonnell taught a similar course at Vanderbilt University before coming to Notre Dame in 2011. It was inspired, in part, he says, by his own scholarship.

“My research has found how HIV/AIDS prevention media campaigns are largely ineffective, despite well-established techniques to ensure ‘successful’ campaigns,” McDonnell says.

“It is rare and exceptionally difficult to persuade people to change their beliefs and behaviors simply through a media campaign. I wanted students to realize just how hard this is.”

Despite this, McDonnell says, “The media has a great deal of power to shape us indirectly, through telling us what to think about and telling us how to think about it.

“I’ve been struck by how uncritical many students are toward the media, and the misconceptions about what media, from T.V. to Facebook, can do and can’t do. I’ve witnessed students grossly over- and under- estimating the power of media.”

Examining Influence

Need a Boost poster campaign for University Counseling Center

In this multidisciplinary class, McDonnell uses an exercise to ask students to “compare T.V. news coverage of the Kentucky Derby—which is all about wealth, celebrities, fashion, and Derby history—to Hunter S. Thompson’s narrative ‘new journalism’ account, which highlights the dark underbelly of the event by describing the drunken debauchery of the infield.

“Both of these are ‘true’ but different media, based on different conventions,” McDonnell says. “They make different choices about what to represent and what to tell us about society.”

“I often press students to ask this question of every representation of the world: If this were the only document of this event, what would we truly know about what happened? What would be left out? These representational choices are important, because they influence our collective memory of our culture and history,” he says.

The class culminated in three group projects. Each of the 15 students wrote a one-page memo about a social problem they wanted to impact and believed that a media campaign could influence. After ranking the proposals, the students broke into three groups to devise and implement campaigns.

The projects the students chose focused on preventing suicide and de-stigmatizing depression by working with the University’s counseling center; recruiting local businesses to hire former juvenile offenders to prevent recidivism; and addressing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) issues on the Notre Dame campus.

Raising Awareness

Elizabeth Metz, a senior in film, television and theater and in business marketing, says her group partnered with the counseling center on a campaign to make students aware of its services by working with coffee shops and other gathering spots on or near campus.

Senior sociology and preprofessional studies major Greg Woods was part of the five-person team that addressed LGBTQ issues. Using the theme “Stop the Silence,” he says, the effort included one-on-one interviews with members of the Core Council for Gay and Lesbian Students, hanging posters, and setting up and monitoring a Facebook account to deliver the message.

Over the course of the semester, Metz says, the class helped her understand the power media has in light of how today’s forms are converging.

“Looking at the psychology behind different campaigns was very interesting,” Metz says. “We also looked at a number of different types of media, from photos to documentaries to advertisements to novels, and analyzed what made them effective.”

McDonnell says his goal was to help students develop a healthy skepticism and a more critical view of how, and when, media shape how we understand our world.

“I will definitely teach it again,” he says. “I was really impressed by the commitment Notre Dame students have to make a difference in this world. My students went all out on their media campaigns.”

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Originally published by Mike Danahey at on April 18, 2012.