The Medium's Messenger

NU-Q Senior Associate Dean Klaus Schoenbach is helping produce a vibrant communications program 7,000 miles from Evanston

By Matt GolosinskiJuly 17, 2017

Big forces attract Klaus Schoenbach. They always have. History, physics, and mass communication have shaped his life for nearly seven decades.

Perhaps that’s unsurprising for the son of a mechanic who was one of the 30,000 people working on Wernher von Braun’s rocket program, building the V-2 missile for Germany during World War II, and whose earliest memories date from a time of historic upheaval. In 1947, his mother, grandmother, and brother were forced to leave their small farm in what was then Czechoslovakia, deported with hundreds of thousands of other Germans in the aftermath of global conflict. His father, a skilled toolmaker and amateur musician, rejoined them in West Germany in 1948 after three years as a prisoner of war in a Russian coal mine. He went to work for the US Army and then at the local Dunlop tire factory. His mother, meanwhile, made cloth buttons for a small clientele in their village. Soon after this resettlement, Klaus was born.

Today, another monumental force has attracted Schoenbach, a global media scholar fluent in three languages. That is the transformation underway in the Middle East, specifically Qatar, home since 2008 to Northwestern’s NU-Q campus in Doha’s Education City, a sprawling research and teaching hub that includes other prestigious US and European universities. This spring, Northwestern opened a 515,000-square-foot, LEED Gold-certified learning facility that houses state-of-the-art media teaching and production studios, including a fully automated, modular newsroom unique in the region that allows students to produce a variety of programs. The campus is a tangible sign of Qatar’s financial commitment to social development, including bolstering personal and economic health.

The government, through the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, has made a massive investment in education in an effort to diversify its economy, historically dependent on hydrocarbons. The project aims to produce a workforce whose diverse skills can fuel an equally diverse modern knowledge economy. It’s a marketplace expected to include substantial assets in digital media and journalism, arenas in which Northwestern’s longstanding strengths are making pioneering contributions half a world away from its Evanston campus.

“Qatar honestly wants to become more of a ‘knowledge society,’” says Schoenbach, senior associate dean and professor in residence for NU-Q, which he joined in 2014. “The country has urgent needs and fascinating aspirations and inspirations. The Arab culture is very hospitable, with a lot of genuine interest in our work and an abundance of ideas about possible research questions and issues that our students should consider exploring.”

Media Innovation with Impact

That scholarship is well underway. For several years, NU-Q faculty and students have conducted groundbreaking research about the media and news across the Middle East, producing publications and reports and an annual six-nation surveyof media in the MENA region that reveals attitudes about government censorship, press freedom, entertainment preferences, and more. Studies have included examinations of the dangerous driving habits of some Qatari males (and recommendations to improve safety), explorations of female Qatari empowerment, and the first inventory of the media and communication landscapes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

“What’s most compelling for me about our research at NU-Q is its now extensive institutional research program on media and communication in MENA countries and the tremendous diversity of individual faculty and student studies,” says Schoenbach. “It ranges from studies of Sufism in West Africa via Qatar cyber law to the visibility of women in Arab media.”

Such media scholarship may seem out of place in a region where traditional views sometimes appear at odds with the values of a free press. Schoenbach acknowledges the tensions but says Qatar is “fairly liberal” and well aware of the need to embrace innovation that can ameliorate social challenges, such as widespread obesity and diabetes brought about by the introduction of fast food and a more sedentary lifestyle.

To help build on NU-Q’s successes and help Qatar achieve its goals, Schoenbach brings to his role expertise in communication, sociology, and literature. (He also brings a lifelong passion for music, inspired by the Beatles and the German folk songs that filled his home growing up, often resulting to family singalongs while doing the dishes or in the living room where his father’s dance band rehearsed.) An avid reader of Brecht, Mann and Kafka as a teenager, Schoenbach’s interest both in media and in language led to his PhD dissertation at Germany’s University of Mainz, a monograph that focused on the journalistic norm to separate fact from opinion.

“The norm is derived from the ‘marketplace of ideas’ concept in British philosophy,” he says. “It means that the truth will reveal itself if all different viewpoints are allowed to compete fairly, without any bias from journalists. The danger for professional journalists today is that audiences may be unaware of what is true ‘journalistic’ news and what is opinion. And journalists themselves may think that biased and emotionally laden news is more popular and may, therefore, weaken the norm.”

His later research was informed by a survey of seminal American media studies from the 1940s to the 1960s. Among these was Hadley Cantril’s classic “The Invasion from Mars,” a study of how latent anxieties could spur the public’s response to the 1938 radio broadcast “War of the Worlds.” Schoenbach’s work was overseen by the prominent communication scholar Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, best known for her “spiral of silence” concept that explained key dynamics shaping public opinion as rooted in people’s natural fear of isolation. The theory has influenced views about how media create “silent majorities.” Schoenbach credits subsequent study with mentor Winfried Schulz at the University of Muenster with refining his ability “to do careful empirical research — to word clear research questions, to use the appropriate methods of data gathering and analysis.”

Schoenbach and his colleague, research administrator and journalist Liz Lance, have been organizing and enhancing NU-Q’s institutional research program while also catalyzing individual faculty research by advising them on potential high-impact scholarship as well as identifying grant opportunities, editing grant proposals, and critically reading manuscripts and papers. They also support student research.

“It’s fascinating to watch our undergraduate students develop curiosity in scholarly work and want to do it themselves,” he adds, noting the rapid increase in this research. “And all this happens in an exciting environment, a relationship-based culture with different challenges than the more rule-based one in Western countries.”

A Passion for Persuasion

Schoenbach’s road to Doha began decades ago, the year before high-school graduation, with an epiphany that shifted his academic interests from physics to journalism.

“My church sent us school kids to Mainz to get to know the university there, but also to tour the Second German Television system, where its reporters told us about their exciting work,” he recalls. “Well, that was my Damascus — I decided immediately to become a TV journalist.”

Until then, he had shared his older brother Karl’s enthusiasm for the sciences. “I tinkered with electronic parts of all kinds,” he says, adding that a frugal family budget encouraged such experimentation: “My parents simply couldn’t afford to buy me the fancy electronic devices of the time, such as the super-posh two-transistor pocket radio from Japan, or a stereo tape recorder or electric guitar.”

So, he made his own versions. Along with four friends, he started a band called the Libertines (“long before the British band!”). He sang and played rhythm guitar, earning mild disapproval from his father who imagined his son as an ideal trumpeter. As far as his mother was concerned, her boys would be better engaged by practical household chores — hanging wallpaper, painting the fence, cutting dead wood in the orchard, or feeding the pig, goat, chickens, and rabbits — before settling into careers as clerks in the local savings and loan.

Academic pursuits, though, would claim both Klaus and Karl, who went on to become a professor in electrical engineering. Klaus found he preferred life away from the cameras, inside the library, where he studied the mechanisms of persuasive communication, such as those postulated by psychologist (and Northwestern graduate) Carl Hovland.

“’Was it really possible to learn how to influence people?’ I wondered. After a year at university, I decided to study systematically the persuasive effects of media on us, as well as explore why people watched trivial entertainment on TV,” says Schoenbach.

This research later would involve global comparative studies of the impact of media on political elections, something Schoenbach continues today at NU-Q where the focus is on comparing how media use and supply in different countries impacts the dissemination of health information. This research, in unearthing hidden perceptions, can resemble a kind of excavation, one that Schoenbach finds appealing. He has always maintained a fascination with archeology, partly because 1,800 years ago his childhood village was the site of a Roman community for military veterans. The mystery of why his ancestors would, for centuries, give up Roman innovations such as hot baths, central heating, and continuous drinking water remains intriguing to him.

“My interest in archeology has been fed by a surprise: that some people were more advanced than we were for millennia afterwards,” he says.

Of course, modern advances in digital tools have dramatically altered the concept of mass communication, with channels fracturing and proliferating to offer a multitude of customized and on-demand options. Does Schoenbach see this development a boon or a bane? There’s some danger in the possibility of a “smaller public sphere” for conversation. But he also says that research indicates that people still tend to seek broader sources of information, rather than remain “fixated” on sources that only confirm individual opinion.

“We are still social beings with at least some curiosity about what’s going on outside our own niches,” he says.

Perhaps the best indication of media’s ongoing social importance is the scramble to control these communication channels — including efforts by politicians to manage the message, even resorting to tactics to curb or repress journalistic freedom. This is an old story, says Schoenbach.

“The powers that be have always tried to control communications and, later, its media,” he says. “Consider the damnatio memoriae in the Roman Empire, the attempt to erase persons from public memory.” Control of communication has become increasingly difficult, though, despite efforts to censor the Internet. “A more refined counter-strategy of some authoritarian regimes is what Herbert Marcuse called ‘repressive tolerance.’ They proudly allow open communication about grievances, but at the same time make it crystal-clear that they won't react to it at all. So, sooner or later, everybody realizes that complaining is useless.”

Yet, he says, the best professional media continue to offer great social value. They do so by uncovering and dramatizing events that are simply too important, even dangerous, to ignore: “Think of Abu Ghraib, WikiLeaks, or the Panama Papers.”