at Hebrew University
Professor, Department of Political Science
Professor, Department of Communication and Journalism
This is a required course that I give to about one hundred and fifty freshman in the department of communication at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I give a similar course to second year students in political science. There are three things that are worth knowing about Israeli students that differentiate them from students studying in the United States or Western Europe. The first is that most students are considerably older. When they finish high school, most Israeli men do at least three years of the army and most women complete two. After the army, many also take at least a year off to make some money and “see the world. Second, there is no tradition of a liberal arts education in universities in Israel. Students must choose one or two academic departments and with only a few exceptions, those are the topics they study during their three year degree. Finally, because the vast majority of readings are in English, and they have many more classes than students in other countries, professors are rarely able to assign more than twenty five pages a week for them to read.
This course is designed to get them excited about the field of political communication. This is not really difficult because Israel is an extremely politicized society. Another course goal is for students to develop a much more critical and analytical approach to the media. Finally, I try to convince them that “there is nothing so practical as a good theory.” Good theories in political communication, I tell them, are meant to explain how things really work. If they don’t, it’s time to find a new theory.
My general philosophy about class readings is somewhat unusual. I almost never talk about the readings in class. I provide the students with 90 minutes of ideas each week and the readings are meant to teach them what others have to say about the topic. While this probably means that some students are unable to totally integrate the lectures and the readings, I believe that most end up learning more.
Another important feature of the course is that I screen quite a few excerpts from the news and other forms of political communication in order to demonstrate how the theoretical principles they are learning can be applied to actual events. A good example of this is that when talking about frames I show them excerpts from news reports from different countries about Yassar Arafat’s funeral that took place in 2004. The first example comes from CNN and the second from SKY news in Britain and the third from Israel. As you might expect, the Jewish students become annoyed about any language or images that could be construed as being sympathetic to Arafat. They learn how news stories about the same events can be constructed so differently when told by an American based news organization, one centered in Britain, and the Israeli news media. While the CNN coverage framed Arafat as a controversial figure, the Sky report was considerably more reverential, and a good deal of the Israeli story came out just short of celebratory. Students I’ve seen years afterwards often tell me how much that particular class had an effect on the way they see Israeli news.
In the first two weeks, I give a general overview of the field. This is followed by the longest section that deals with the ongoing struggle over access and meaning among political actors. In keeping with my general approach to political communication, I first look at the issue from the perspective of the political actors and then talk about how journalists construct news stories. Naturally, the dramatic changes in communication technology have become an important component of these lectures. In keeping with my own expertise and the fact that I teach in Israel, I deal a lot with the role of the media in wars and peace processes. The final section looks at the role of the news media in election campaigns and once again begins by considering how politicians and their advisors plan and execute their media strategies. In this part of the course, I usually devote thirty minutes or so to show them my “greatest hits” collection of Israeli political commercials that starts in the mid-eighties. The last classes deal with what we know about the ways in which the various media can have an effect on voters.
This class was given the highest score by students in the department of communication (out of about 40 courses) last year and a similar course given in political science was also ranked number 1 (out of about 50 courses).
*Editor's note: Please also see the announcement of Professor Wolfsfeld's latest book