Over the past few weeks, the University of Alabama has been the subject of major national news attention, a hotbed of student activism, and a host of social change. Major national news outlets such as The Huffington Post, The New York Times, and The Guardian have put the spotlight on the iconic SEC football school for the discriminatory behavior of its traditionally all-white Panhellenic sororities. Since The Crimson White published the original article exposing the sororities, “The Final Barrier: 50 years later, segregation still exists,” the University of Alabama has taken administrative action and seen student activism. The events at Alabama show the power that media has to expose social issues and encourage change, namely through its enforcement of social norms and its status-conferral function.
In their book, Mass communication, popular taste, and organized social action, Paul F. Lazarsfeld and Robert K. Merton argue that the media is not as powerful and effective for social change as many think. To support this argument, Lazarsfeld and Merton discuss the effects of media as a big business. The media, like all businesses, must adhere to a system of ownership. In a country where freedom of speech is championed and governmental control of media is limited, such as the United States, the media operates under a system of privately owned businesses seeking to earn a profit. As such, the end goal of media management is to earn revenue. Lazarasfeld and Merton argue that because of this social conformism is an effect of big business mass media. They contend that big business wants to maintain the status quo and therefore media rarely evokes questions or criticism about society and oftentimes does not elicit social change.
However, Lazarsfeld and Merton believe that there are exceptions and that media can help spur social action. They argue that the media has the power to perpetuate change through its enforcement of social norms and through its status-conferral function. These two ideas are complimentary and are both necessary for the media to help instigate and encourage social movements.
When the media enforces social norms, it is upholding the standards of society. To quote Lazarsfeld and Merton, “the mass media may initiate organized social action by ‘exposing’ conditions which are at variance with public moralities.” By publicly revealing behavior that goes against social norms and morals, the media is presenting the people with a choice—act against the deviation and live up to the standard or openly admit to deviating from the expected and accepted norm.
The status-conferral function of the media is the idea that being reported on by the mass media gives a movement, situation, or person a certain status. Getting mass media attention, especially from highly respected news outlets, gives the public the impression that this person or event is important and deserving of consideration. This function, Lazarsfeld and Merton argue, elicits organized social action because mass media has legitimized the person or event by giving it its support.
Both the status-conferral function and the enforcement of social norms have allowed the media surrounding the situation at the University of Alabama to evoke social change. The “Final Barrier” article by The Crimson White exposed the Panhellenic sororities (and subsequently the general culture of the school) for behaving in a way that goes against societal norms. This article immediately received national news attention from renowned newspapers, thus bringing the status-conferral function into effect.
The exposure and status given to this situation caused automatic social action. Upon public exposure, the University of Alabama took administrative action by speaking out against the discrimination, sanctioning the sororities to participate in continuous open bidding, and creating a diversity panel for the university.
In addition to administrative action, student activism has occurred as well. Kevyn Armstrong-Wright, a non-Greek honors student, helped found UA Stands—a social movement dedicated to moving the campus forward and progressing past organizational segregation. Students also organized a march across campus to symbolize their desire for change. This march, which included over 300 students and faculty members, began at the Amelia Gayle Gorgas Library and ended at the Rose Administration Building. They called it “The Final Stand at the Schoolhouse Door” to symbolize the university’s readiness to truly move past its infamous history.
Today, the University of Alabama is taking a stand for civil rights and organizational integration. Fifty years ago, the university was taking a stand for the very opposite. This change is largely due to the media. If The Crimson White had not exposed the situation and if national news outlets had not reported on it as well, the sororities very easily could have continued to discriminate their membership selection based on race. Thanks to the original article and the ones that followed, the University has been forced to take action and the students have been motivated to address the problem. The actions taken are not performances, nor are they stop-gates—they are thought out resolutions with lasting effects in mind. All of this is happening because the media acted on its power to initiate change.
The social change occurring at the University of Alabama today is possible everywhere. While the media may have some limitations due to its big business management, its ability to create change is far more powerful than big business. If big business and profit dictated all media decisions and reporting, then there would be no exception—there would only be the media that big business wanted. The media has the power to inform the people, to sway public opinion, to expose the bad and to create some good. Numerous political changes and social movements have occurred because of media exposure. And that has everything to do with power of media and nothing to do with the desires of big business.
Lazarsfeld, Paul Felix., and Robert King Merton. Mass Communication, Popular Taste and Organized Social Action. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, College Division, [196. Print.
“March to Rose Draws Hundreds.” The Crimson White. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2013.
“University of Alabama Confronts Racial Divide: ‘It’s Time to Evolve past This'” The Guardian. N.p., 21 Sept. 2013. Web. 23 Oct. 2013.
“University of Alabama Faculty Senate Forms Diversity Panel.” TuscaloosaNews.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Oct. 2013.