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Chapter 14: Media and Mass Communication
Mass media is important. It is powerful. And it can change us. Today no one reads books anymore. They watch the news instead for information.
“Come on Ted! It’s 2012. What do you expect? To meet some cute travel agent when you’re reading a newspaper in a bookstore? None of those things exist anymore.”
Barney Stinson, How I Met Your Mother
Traditional forms of printed information face an unprecedented challenge: the Internet. Cellphones are another example — it is common to own a cellphone but not a landline. The trend is toward more and more flexible communication devices.
Even mainstream (mass) media had to compete with the open-sourcing tendencies of the Internet. But mass media is still not entirely replaceable for the same reasons that universities can’t be replaced by Wikipedia alone. Mass media still influences our tastes, opinions, and beliefs.
WAYS OF LOOKING AT MASS MEDIA
Functionalists are interested in the way mass media are organized and how it contributes to equilibrium. Media is a mechanism for informing, socializing, and educating the public. (Especially in developing countries).
Media literacy and mass media consumption are important factors in “modernization”. As people consume more media, they become more knowledgeable toward the world and about cultural diversity — they are more likely to demand an open, democratic society.
But what if people consume media hostile to modernity or Westernization? Then they’d hate Westernization too!
But you can’t underestimate the importance of information flow in and of itself. e.g. To an extent, Soviet society imploded because people gathered (forbidden) information about the Western world.
(In Soviet Russia TV watches YOU!)
As Marshall McLuhan said, “the medium is the message”. Content aside, information flow by itself increases the appetite for more information.
At the very least, the media create and feed curiosity about the world. Increasingly the media are forces in “social engineering” — or brainwashing, if you’re the cynical type.
Critical theories are interested in ways powerful groups use media to perpetuate their dominant ideologies. A variant of this approach is the political economy perspective.
Critical theory is important in understanding the manipulative side of mass media. e.g. over-coverage or slanting of particular topics; which is a notion in cultivation theory by Gerbner and Gross (1976).
Cultivation theory: mass media, especially TV, have become the main source of information in society today. People who watch TV for more than four hours a day are exposed to lots of news about violence! And so they think the world is mean.
Gerbner: the overuse of TV creates a homogenous, fearful populace.
TV normalizes violence, numbing violence for some individuals, while heightening it for others. e.g. Child abductions make parents worried!
Gerbner and Gross essentially assumed that the populace is passive and uncritical: people just believe whatever they see on TV, conforming easily.
Advantages of the Gerbner and Gross (GG) approach: it is easy to apply to a wide range of texts.
Disadvantage: the theory denies people agency, ignoring the intelligence of audiences. In reality communication is more complicated. Sociologist Herbert Gans takes an approach a little bit more sophisticated than Gerbner and Gross.
Classic Studies: Deciding What’s News
We can’t be experts at everything, so we rely on the media. We are (usually) unable to challenge their story with opposing facts — in this sense, media act as filters, showing us some things and ignoring or even hiding others. Gans is the first researcher in this topic.
How do events become news? Gans did his research in late 1960s choosing CBS, NBC, Times, and Newsweek news journals. He asked participants in these four companies: how do they choose stories to become news? Gans also analyzed 3500 news stories spanning eight years. Both quantitative and qualitative data.
- News wants audiences. There’s usually an inclination to include at least some stories that appeal to mass audience. e.g. famous people, violence and bloodshed, and sex scandal. Tendency to report “negative news” — if it bleeds, it leads.
- National news is shaped by and serve the interest of people in high positions. Tell the truth or keep your job? Seems like job is more important.
Despite competition, there is large degree of consensus. All four organizations include value of individualism, belief in responsible capitalism, and desire for social order and strong national leadership.
Also, much of the news communicated to audiences is inaccurate or at least distorted. It benefits people with power over the media. No Big Brother in America? Think again.
To summarize, the decision journalists make in choosing coverage is influenced by:
- internal pressures
- tastes of the audience
- responsibility and ethics
In particular, journalists need to bear moral responsibility for the coverage they provide.
Robinson (1980) said this book succeeds in linking sociological theory and data to make a solid argument. Graber (1979) said the book offers valuable insights to the world of news making. The book also reveals role of journalists in perpetuating “the political status quo they helped create. (Robinson, 1980)”
This book is a foundation, said M. D. Murray.
(His name kind of sounds like Andy Murray; wonder if he plays tennis.)
Media broadcasting is affected by its ownership. But its ownership varies: they can be publicly owned, by governments, or privately owned, by corporates and/or conglomerates. Historically media is owned by individuals or small groups, but over time they merged into massive multimedia empires.
In US especially three out of four major TV networks are part of multimedia giants.
ABC – Walt Disney Co.
Fox – Rupert Murdoc News Corp.
NBC – General Electric
In Canada ownership too is concentrated. The Royal Commission (aka Kent Commission) was created due to newspaper closings in Winnipeg and Ottawa in 1980. Kent Commission reported in 1981 that newspaper chains are owned by conglomerates, and argued that such cross-ownership would compromise journalism’s social responsibility to the reading public.
The Kent report said:
- smaller news services are good, but may not survive
- electronic media and telecommunication endangers the press newspaper
Both of which are fully warranted concerns but the report generated little interest at the time. In fact, it was fiercely attacked by newspaper chains whose very interests it put into peril, by proposing the Press Rights Council.
As a result, the problems remain unresolved, and media still gets owned by large business enterprises.
Canadians always want to protect and preserve Canadian culture. Hmm. Go figure. USA is rich, large, influential, and corporates are more incentivized to broadcast American content — which always guarantee profit — than non-cost-effective Canadian content (CanCon).
(What kind of acronym is that?! CanCon?! It’s the sound an aluminum can makes when you drop it down an elevator shaft. No wonder these companies don’t want Canadian content. This word is just embarrassing to mention.)
- Canadian government, through the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), has to force private media companies to include CanCon.
- Canadian government has to provide financial incentives to promote CanCon.
But then broadcasters are often underfunded and many Canadian media industry workers have left for America.
Since 1969, the CRTC has been the key independent public authority on the regulation and supervision of CanCon.
Furthermore, Canada’s media are regulated by a federal Broadcasting Act, est. 1968 and amended in 1991. The purpose is to strengthen Canadian culture through related politico-economical institutions. In practice though the Act and CRTC both are more sympathetic to private media than public ones and there are always little leeways to make politicians happy.
Media and Politics
You get news from media; true. But what you get isn’t just truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth. You get a carefully assembled package of information that promotes a certain ideology. News stories are coded messages about the nature of society and social life.
Let’s look at politics. Increasingly politicians dumb down their language to appeal to the people. Due to limited time and space, providing in-depth analysis in newspapers no longer seems possible. Most journalism today is (slightly) biased toward one political party or ideology, as reflected in editorials etc.
In addition, media coverage is superficial. Media covers statistics — seemingly caring about the vox populi — but provide no close examination of competing views. This polling turns democracy into a popularity contest. (Good old high school student activity councils…) Undecided voters are less likely to engage in political debate.
Media can additional influence voting by:
- “Agenda-setting”: focusing on some issues but not others
- Report on candidate’s characteristics: such as Sarah Palin’s style of dress.
So the role of the media in politics is neither informative nor integrative. It simply serves its owners and powerful parties.
As you may remember from an earlier chapter (huh?), some have called globalization “American Imperialism”. Neo-liberal free trade treaties (e.g. NAFTA) have increased the impact of cultural goods and American media companies.
Canadians consume lots of American culture/media but not vice versa.
We must be aware of bias! In media portrayals of other cultures! Even media coverage of human rights abuses is biased. According to a study done by The Economist and Newsweek, the media are more likely to report abuses when they occur in large, economically-developed non-Western countries. Such as China or Russia. What about Congo, Sudan, Myanmar, Canada, USA? Not so much.
Jürgen Habermas (2006) said mass media is only helpful when it is not involved in its social environments. Which is never.
Classic Studies: Material Girls: Making Sense of Feminist Cultural Theory
Feminist researchers were among the first to focus on media representation of disadvantaged groups — women. The way media depicted women would influence, as well as reflect, the way women were treated in society.
Suzanna Walters wrote a book. Material Girls: Making Sense of Feminist Cultural Theory looks at well-known female icons in pop culture, such as Madonna. How does media depict women?
One of the key concepts in the book is the “male gaze”. Is the gaze inevitably male or do female gaze too? Walters also looks at the female “ways of seeing”, as well as related themes of spectatorship, audience, subjectivity, and positioning.
Walters said there is a need to integrate feminist cultural theory with other traditions, such as ethnography. We can start with real women and see how media affected their world.
Reviewers praised Walter’s book for her systematic outline of an emerging field in feminism.
(Interestingly enough, this is the only classic studies to offer a book with no criticism. I guess everyone just wants to be politically correct. But true academia may not thrive if all criticism is silenced, eh?)
The Cultural Studies Perspective
Cultural studies is interdisciplinary. Not exactly sociology but it too is grounded in the Frankfurt School’s critical theory tradition. In Canada, we have Marshall McLuhan. A good man. He wrote before the development of current cultural studies but he’s a prophet. So it’s all cool.
The cultural studies approach tries to understand “culture” by analyzing the sociopolitical context. Kind of connected to the institutional ethnography of Dorothy Smith, to be discussed later.
The political economy perspective focuses on media ownership and control; while cultural studies perspective focuses on the the media’s role in supporting and manipulating power. The cultural studies approach focuses on the messages communicated in media content, the interpretation of this content by audiences, and the struggles of some groups to change mainstream media messages or communicate their own messages in alternative media forms.
Applying the cultural studies perspective to gender issues, let’s talk about “appearance”. Women, much more than men, are subject to appearance norms. They are judged (and judge one another) according to beauty. The mass media played a central role.
Appearance norms are shared notions about beauty that attracts us to some people and repels us from others. We all apply sanctions like ridicule, exclusion, or disapproval to people who fail to meet our culture’s standards of beauty and attractiveness.
Abundant images glorify ideal mean and women. Our culture idealizes youth, a slender toned body, and symmetrical delicate facial features.
This results in the perpetuation of social disadvantage. We are unprepared for life in real world after seeing so many perfect people. Erving Goffman, using the dramaturgical approach, examines appearance and notes that we all bring social expectations to any situation. But our ability to “follow the script” is compromised by a flawed or deviant appearance. For example, a prominent facial scar undermine the actor’s performances and impede social interaction.
Any feature that has such a discrediting effect is called stigma by Goffman. It reveals a gap between virtual and actual social identity. In its most general meaning, stigma is any characteristic, behaviour, or experience that may cause the “branded” person to be rejected by others.
Additionally, appearance norms reflected in the mass media tend to promote appearance pathologies such as anorexia. Eating becomes ritualized and people become OCD. About 95% of anorexics are women. Bulimia nervosa — throwing up food after eating it — is another one. Bulimics consume large amounts of food in a short time. About 50% of people who have been anorexic develop bulimia — your body wants the food back and overcompensates.
Media Representation of Disadvantaged Groups
Groups are not only misrepresented but also underrepresented, for various reasons — especially economic ones. Producers and advertisers only want to make programs that appeal to the rich.
Also, dominant groups are more commonly presented in media because they are more commonly in positions of media control.
Media Portrayal of Women and Gender
Often mass media present women in stereotyped and conventional ways — as either the Madonna or the whore. These approaches cause real women performance anxieties.
Even in video games, a woman’s appeal still depends as much on her sexiness as on her competence.
In newspaper and TV news women are described by their looks, age, and how many children they have, while men are described by their occupation or political affiliation.
Even media advertising are gender specific: Barbie dolls for girls, and male action figures for boys. Since we strive for normality, we emulate the media.
The media slant information to conform to a particular gendered approach — “the Male Gaze”. When a story is told in a male point of view it is assumed to be objective and unbiased. But is it? The “point of view” itself subtly marks the tone of the story. The implication is that news embodies stereotypical masculine qualities of objectivity, reason, coolness, and practicality.
(I may be chauvinistic here but–what’s wrong with objectivity, reason, coolness, and practicality?)
Women tend to be treated more dismissvely than even the most inept men. e.g. Adrienne Clarkson and Michaëlle Jean.
Media influences us and perpetuates stereotypes because we tend to emulate successful, attractive, admired figures on TV. The theoretical framework that deals with this issue is feminism. Sometimes, alternative media can provide an outlet for these progressive views. Alternative media can provide us with true and critical understandings of the world.
Homogenization and Niche Marketing
How do you broadcast to people, some smart, some dumb? Easy — just dumb everything down to the dumbest level so that everyone can understand. This is mainstream media. It approaches us viscerally, at the animal or chemical level.
As Marshall McLuhan said, “the medium is the message.” The way media affects us depends on whether it is printed or visual. Cold or hot. TV is much more direct and visceral and emotionally provocative than printed books. In a sense, we are massaged psychologically in an uncritical, yet emotionally arousing way.
There are limits to the homogenization effects of mass media though. (After all, modern society isn’t milk.) Post-industrial societies with organic solidarity are necessarily diverse.
There is an opportunity for profit through segmentation: niche marketing is developed. Different media have different target audiences.
Certain commodities are visible though. Adoption of merchandise follows an S-shape: at first the courageous rich try it, then early adopters buy it, then laggards buy it, then prices fall, commodity go from luxury to commonplace, and people need a second TV, a second car, a second PS3, etc. (No idea why the textbook suddenly talks about this.)
Poor people though still can’t spend as much and so they aren’t as important in companies’ eyes.
“Captains of consciousness” mould the desires, needs, and intentions of the spending public.
Market research are more sophisticated with elaborate demographic and psychographic models.
Sociologists have played a (not always glorious) part in market research. To market household products sociologists advised companies to play on working class wives’ fears of losing their husbands to other women.
Because of niche marketing, mass media have segmented and are becoming less homogenizing.
Media, Conflict, and Crime
The media often portray people using violence to deal with problems. They also portray news in a narrow, biased, and conflictual fashion.
Both news shows and dramas depict violence in a variety of forms, including rape, murder, gunplay, fist fights, and so on.
It is still unclear how much this media influence contributes to actual violence though. As opposed to childhood trauma, etc.
Boxer et al. (2009) recently addressed this issue and says that yes, violent media does increase the likelihood of violent behaviour and aggression. But of course it is still difficult to disentangle media effects from other social influences, since different kinds of people watch different media.
This circular argument went on for 40 years and is summarized on the website Media Awareness Netwark. Cross-national research presented some evidence that media causes violence. But Jonathan Freedman calls it into doubt. Japanese media (e.g. manga and anime) were really violent! But Japan has much lower rates of murder than Canada or the US. Cultures teach us different ways of dealing with violent arousal.
1930s “frustration-aggression hypothesis”: frustration always leads to aggressive behaviour. But it is not true! People only react aggressively if they have been socialized to react aggressively.
Media and the Construction of Social Problems
The media tell us what problems to pay attention to.
As Herbert Blumer (1971) points out, social problems develop in stages:
- Social recognition: the point at which a given condition is first identified as a potential social concern.
- Social legitimating: social institutions formally recognize the issue as a serious threat to social stability.
The mass media both raises awareness and mobilizes legitimacy for the problem. e.g. During the 1990s media warned of sex offenders against children. But in actuality these offences remained the same — or even declined! The media coverage was nothing more than a socially constructed panic.
Catholic priests molest children, but media doesn’t really cover that.
In a sense all social problems are socially constructed. Hitler needs to be on the news for us to consider him as evil. So we can’t assume that “facts speak for themselves”. Many “facts” are half-truths, and many facts never surface. Bringing issues to public attention is key to the social construction of social problems.
Another Frenchman! Delightful!
Well known for his work on hyperreality (such a French thing to do). Especially American’s construction of hyperreality–a fantasy world that they believe to be real but where nothing is authentic. One does not experience life but simply watches performances and are controlled by illusions.
So uh, Baudrillard basically denied that the first Gulf War existed at all. Before the war began he said that there’d be no war. After the battles ceases he continued to assert that no war had taken place. The textbook said this illustrates his use of hyperreality but sounds to me like this dude’s just in denial.
Baudrillard also used Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism. A Marxian definition of commodity fetishism would be the transformation of subjective, emotional, bonding human relationships to objective, unemotional, nonchalant material relationships by capitalism. e.g. People weigh careers not by their passion in the field but by how much money they can earn.
Even those most sympathetic to baudrillard’s approach criticize his work, finding his style exaggerated, chaotic, and lacking systematic analysis. (Well, he’s French.)
Baudrillard is nonetheless important in calling our attention the way hyperreality pervades the media, and the way liberalism and Marxism have both ceased to function as overarching narratives. As a result, people are neither behaving like active informed citizens or proletarians yearning for revolution. Instead, they sit on their fat arses and watch TV.
Gauthier (2009) commemorated Baudrillard by saying that in him we find a seductive defiance of perception — “that reaches heights seldom seen before in the history of thought… a path that typifies the vigilance of the humanist thinker”. In other words, he admires Baudrillard’s denial of reality. Gee sociologists are weird people.
We do need to rethink our ideas, methods, and taken-for-granted assumptions though. Sefat and Kelly (2009) follows Baudrillard’s logic and concludes that sovereign nation-states may not be real.
(Though to be fair, Baudrillard’s argument goes something like this: since US is so much more powerful than the Iraq there was never any doubt that the US will win. So it’s not a war, but a domination, an abuse.)
Staples (2009, coughcough, nice name)notes that media stresses symbolism of 9/11 attacks but overlooks the global role of US power. Staples used Baudrillard’s work on the “binary of the Other” and shows how media justifies the American “culture of terror”.
Walters and Kop (2009) note that digital technology not only transforms the world but also revolutionizes people’s inner lives as well. Facebook changes lives yo. Digital revolution is qualitatively different from the printing revolution described by Marshall McLuhan in The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man
Torikian (2009) says that postmodernism is a dangerous philosophy because it questions whether there can (ever) be objective reality. Hyperreality is an attempt by postmodernist thinkers to discover the “truth behind truth”. But come on! They are veering dangerously close to the cliffs of nihilism.
Kellner (2006) notes that events following 9/11 brought Baudrillard back into the mortal world. Before, Baudrillard viewed world history as composed of “weak events” and boring politics, but after, he viewed terrorism as a sign that the world has entered a new world defined by globalization’s war with itself.
Politics become nothing more than a struggle to broadcast the most compelling images. Baudrillard’s idea of the “immanent reversal” captures the process by which triumphant display of US military success and power instead becomes powerful global symbols of defeat, showcases of American brutality and arrogance.
Baudrillard viewed signs and symbols as realities in their own right, regardless of a material reality. So absolute truth is non-existent. Is reality really real?
Rennett (2009) calls the term “reality TV” a euphemism–these programs don’t show “real life” at all. Reality TV shows a pretend world so powerful that they can “erase the original”.
(Quite right, in fact I think I read an except of that in one of the SAT readings I did.)
So Jean Baudrillard, though a bit loopy, is actually quite often cited. He deserves a place in our fusion approach to sociology, but more importantly in our hearts.
Gane (2005), parroting Baudrillard, asserts that media technologies have become the foundation of human life. So what if we question media? Kittler, parroting Claude Shannon, Warren Weaver, Marshal McLuhan, Jacque Lacan, and Michel Foucault, question materiality of information technology.
Rabot Rhymes with Parrot
Rabot (2007) argues against the trivialization of media imagery, noting the need to recognize their potential for deep social importance. New technologies can potentially “demythologize” the society.
How to Start a Revolution
Fuchs and Sandoval (2008) look at alternative media, including print, online, and broadcast forms. These alternative media critique globalized capitalism not only through content but also through organization, journalistic methods, production, distribution, etc. These media exemplify the “prosumer” concept: making people both producers and consumers, reducing oppression.
Ortiz-Negron (2008) argues that traditional lines between government business, and media have become blurred. Media influence politics and workings of government by publicizing various social problems.
Together We Can Rule the Galaxy
Berardi (2006) notes that over the last 15 years Italy has submitted to “semi-capitalism”. Government controlled conglomerate incorporating and used it to control the public.
Gather ‘Round People, Wherever You Roam
Martelli (2005) notes that two religious events, the funeral of Pope John Paul II and the World Youth Day, have received exceptional coverage. Currently, TV favours postmodern religious expression, which has a mystical, collective flavour, as opposed to modern, ascetic, individualistic faith. Post modernity brings about “de-secularization”.
Baptized in the River, I Wanna Be Delivered
Lyon (2006) notes a similar religious reawakening among Protestants, making use of modern media. Young (mainly urban) people tend to approach Christianity in non-traditional ways. Worshipping with rock music, etc.
Lau (2004), contrary to Gans, argues that news reporting is influential not only by outside forces but also by internal forces, such as actions and choices of journalists themselves.
SOC103 Notes by digitalhardhat is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.