One of the recurring themes in engineering ethics is that power and privilege entail responsibility. Those in positions of influence over millions of users of a technology should recognize the responsibilities that go along with such influence. This is especially true of individuals and organizations that control mass media such as newspapers, radio, TV, cable systems, and entities such as Google and Facebook.
In this connection, I would like to bring to your attention a principle of human nature that I have observed in action on many occasions over the years. To my (admittedly limited) knowledge, no one has taken the trouble to state this principle succinctly, so I'm going to favor you with such a statement. And because every good principle needs a name, I will modestly term it Stephan's Law. It is this:
"Every mass medium eventually advertises its controlling organization."
I will now describe the latest instance in which I observed this principle in action.
At the end of every fall semester, I attend the winter graduation ceremonies of Texas State University for the School of Engineering graduates. This takes place in a nice indoor coliseum where the basketball games are played, in which a few years ago they installed one of those giant LED TV screens colloquially called Jumbotrons. This one is mounted on a large blank wall behind the stage, and in past years has been used to show closeups of the speakers and graduates as they cross the stage to receive their diplomas. In the last couple of years, the video has also been live-streamed to the Internet. So it's fair to say that when you have a crowd attending graduation, and they watch the Jumbotron, it's a mass medium, because everybody in the coliseum sees more or less the same thing, as well as the Internet viewers. So far so good.
Up to the graduation I attended last Friday, you saw nothing on the Jumbotron that you couldn't have seen elsewhere in the coliseum: the band playing, the president speaking, graduates graduating. But yesterday, something new was added. Just after the provost introduced himself and the platform guests, he asked us all to give our attention to what followed.
All of a sudden I flashed back on a Lone Ranger video we watched the other night that was made in 1949—the very early days of U. S. television. The way that program segued to an ad was to switch from the Lone Ranger shooting at some bad guy, to a peaceful scene of a field of wheat while the narrator intoned a phrase that went something like "And now we ask for your interest and attention." Why a wheat field? Turns out that the sponsor of the Lone Ranger program was General Mills. Wheat—Wheaties—General Mills—get it? Anyway, you can tell that the producers weren't quite sure how people would take television ads, so they soft-pedaled them and gave the viewers some time to readjust their psychologies away from the Old West before hitting them with the sales pitch.
Sure enough, as I watched the Jumbotron, the provost disappeared and we all watched a three-minute ad for Texas State University. It was nicely done—a female chorus sang a bouncy holiday tune in the background, we saw familiar landmarks on campus, both still and live action, and it wound up innocuously with best holiday wishes for all. But here was a new mass medium, and although it had taken a few years, it eventually complied with Stephan's Law—it ended up advertising its controlling organization.
The first time I noticed an example of this law was when the old National Educational Television (NET) transformed into the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in the late 1960s. Back then, there was a sort of unwritten rule observed by educators that the classroom was no place for overt advertising. So for the first few years of its existence, NET carried no ads of any kind, even for itself, at least none that I recall. But once educational TV stations realized that they could take some of that valuable air time and run pledge drives for themselves, well, the horse was out of the barn, and now self-promotion is a routine part of the business of PBS.
Note that Stephan's Law makes no moral judgment. As far as that goes, I do it myself—after all, now and then I have links to my own blogs. Morality comes into play only when you take other considerations into account. For example, does the medium present itself as strictly neutral and unbiased? It's hard to be that way when you're telling people about how great you are. So in that case, there's the danger of hypocrisy. And while the amount of time that an external advertising sponsor can buy in a given medium is limited by the sponsor's resources, the organization that operates the medium has no natural limit to its own self-advertisement efforts. Something close to that limit is approached by a particular cable news channel we watch, Time Warner Cable News. Although the channel carries ads from external sponsors as well, I think about half of the non-content time on it is devoted to self-promotion. Of course, I don't have to watch that channel if I don't want to. But if I choose to, I'm going to see a whole lot of ads for Time Warner Cable in its various guises.
If I knew more of the writings of a communication studies guru like Marshall McLuhan, I would probably find that Stephan's Law was discovered centuries ago after Gutenberg put an ad in his Bible for upcoming new editions, or something along those lines. (Note to incunabula specialists: I have no idea whether Gutenberg self-advertised or not, but it wouldn't surprise me.) But in my state of happy ignorance, I present this principle to you free of charge, and challenge you to watch for the next example of it that comes to your attention. The more media there are, the more chances there are for Stephan's Law to be verified, and in this media-saturated culture, it's hard to go for very long without seeing an example of it in action.
Sources: I looked for an example on YouTube of the Lone Ranger-General Mills segue, but for reasons that may have to do with copyright, it doesn't show up there. However, some DVD collections of old Lone Ranger TV episodes have it, which is where I saw it. The word "Jumbotron" is actually a registered trademark of Sony Corporation, according to Wikipedia, but since Sony quit making those devices in 2003 the word has passed into the language to mean any large electronic display board.