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Book by David Copeland explores media's impact on national agenda

When four black students from North Carolina A&T University decided to sit at a segregated lunch counter in a Greensboro, N.C., Woolworth's store 50 years ago, they didn't plan on using media to affect national change. They were simply making a principled stand in their small corner of the nation.

But when the local media and, in turn, the national media picked up the story, it led to sit-ins across the country and demonstrated to influential black leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr., the power of media to influence cultural shifts. It’s anecdotes like these that pepper Communications professor David Copeland’s new book, The Media’s Role in Defining the Nation: The Active Voice, published by Peter Lang Publishing.

“The book looks at how the media have been integral in the nation’s history and how they’ve shaped the way things go on all levels, on the local level, the state level, the national level, even the international level if you look at the implications of the American Revolution and the creating of the Constitution,” Copeland says.

For the last decade, Copeland has been studying how media have been used—intentionally or unintentionally—to debate issues and define a nation’s agenda.

“That’s the way everybody gets information, even before there was broadcast,” Copeland says. “It’s where people turned.”

The book, Copeland says, investigates the media’s impact on a continuum that traces the course of American history. He says before there were traditional media forms and professional practitioners, people used other avenues to drive an agenda and sway opinion. And that’s where the book begins.

David Copeland

Before the formal establishment of the United States of America, people in Britain used colonization literature to promote the idea of America as a land rich with resources and rife with opportunity.

As the book continues, Copeland details more noteworthy events, such as anchor Edward R. Murrow’s public flogging of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, in addition to smaller, local stories, such as the Greensboro sit-in and newspaper publisher Horace Carter’s crusade against the Ku Klux Klan in Tabor City, N.C.

“There’s this huge continuum that needed to be condensed into a smaller frame that people could look at,” Copeland says. “When we look at basic media texts, they talk about the big stuff, but they kind of miss the small stuff and so media was accomplishing the same thing with local papers in local communities.”

Copeland says he began working on the book in the summer of 2008 and finished in the fall of 2009. He looked at hundreds of secondary sources, but he says he based all his research within primary documents, such as newspapers, magazine articles, radio reports and television newscasts.

The book also chronicles the advent of the wireless radio, motion pictures, television and the Internet. Stressing the importance of emerging technologies is an especially important topic in today’s 24/7 news culture.

“I’m interested in media history, interested in America and what’s happened in the role media play,” Copeland says. “In the 24-hour news cycle, everything has become a major issue. It’s a feeding frenzy. So that agenda is driving the country, and it’s probably changed what we think of as news.”

Copeland is in his ninth year at Elon. He teaches several courses, including Media History and Capstone in Communications. He’s the AJ Fletcher Professor in the School of Communications and the director of the brand new Interactive Media master’s program. He has authored nine books and edited more than 20 volumes.

He has published extensively in media history journals and presented at media history conferences. He’s also the editor of the online journal Media History Monographs. Currently, he’s working on a book about the documentary history of news media with David Sloan at the University of Alabama and a digital media handbook with Elon Communications associate professors Brooke Barnett and Harlen Makemson.

Colin Donohue,
Staff
2/2/2010 12:24 PM