What I Learned In: Law of Mass Communication

By Emily Williams (@willie19)

Professor Mike Cowling’s Law of Mass Communication class was different from any of the journalism courses I’d taken at UW-Oshkosh. It wasn’t a 200-person lecture like the Introduction to Journalism class and it wasn’t a 15-student, hands-on class like Writing for the Media. Instead it was a mid-sized lecture of about 30 journalism students, all of which were not taking the course by choice, rather by requirement for a journalism degree.

I took this course during the Fall 2010 semester as a requirement for my journalism major, and despite my initial apprehension of learning about laws and regulations of journalism and communications, I soon found the class to be interesting and full of necessary information.

While the information I was absorbing wasn’t that of grammar or following the correct AP writing style, it all tied into journalism and what a journalist should be. Professor Cowling taught us everything from the American legal system to obscenity laws and what is considered erotic material. Libel, copyright, limits of expression and free press-fair trial are just a few examples of other topics discussed in the course.

Professor Cowling conducted his lectures mainly with PowerPoint presentations that followed the required course book, Mass Media Law. We were also given articles relevant to topics we were learning and also had to do a group presentation. For the presentations, three or four people were assigned a topic to research and then present to the class the next week. Some of the included grand juries, executive privilege and systems and laws specific to Wisconsin. Several legal cases were also discussed, which helped put what I learned into real-life perspective.

One of my favorite times in the class was discussing the topic of erotic material. To help make the topic more relevant to us, Professor Cowling pulled out an issue of the student newspaper, The Advance-Titan, where I work as the news editor. In this particular issue, the front-page story was about a former Playboy Playmate who was on campus to discuss her life with HIV. The graphics for this story were pink and spelled out HIV with the V symbolizing the ears of the Playboy Bunny. Across the top of this colorful headline was a naked photograph of the former Playboy Playmate – a photograph that I airbrushed and edited to make what I thought was appropriate to publish.

Professor Cowling proceeded to ask the class if they thought this image was erotic or obscene and shouldn’t have been published. Thankfully for me, the majority of the class ruled the photograph to not be obscene and that the topic of the story made sense for the image to be there. What I did find out, though, is that airbrushing away the butt crack in the photograph of the former Playboy Playmate wasn’t necessary. This day was humorous at the same time as being informational and it’s something I will always remember from this class.

Law of Mass Communications may be a required class, but it is ultimately a really helpful and insightful course. Professor Cowling is incredibly knowledgeable on the topics discussed in this class and he shows that in the way he teaches. My advice is to go into the class optimistic, knowing that what you’re learning is imperative in becoming a journalist.


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