AN INTRODUCTION TO MEDIA STUDIES
"There are no masses; only ways of seeing other people as masses" (Raymond Williams)
In the academic discipline of media studies (usually called mass communication in the USA), old ideas often have lasting value. This interdisciplinary field encompasses the study of media effects (influence or reception), the art or aesthetics of media (genre or narrative), study of the production process (technology or journalism), and the political sociology of media consumption (viewership or ideology). Sub-disciplinary specialties exist, such as film studies, television studies, video game studies, new media studies (the Internet and all things digital or interactive), photography, and traditional print media studies.
It all began with the "mass society" theorists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who worried that part of the traditional print media (newspapers) was alienating or separating people from higher, more refined values (such as obtained from reading good books). There is still some worry about that today. Then, there were the "popular culture" theorists of the mid-to-late 20th century who worried that film, television, and new media would cultivate a taste for "low" culture (totally unrefined and tasteless entertainment). In sociology, much of the work of Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), often considered the founder of modern sociology, had to do with understanding modernity as the emergence of mass society. Jose Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955), the Spanish philosopher, was instrumental in developing an aesthetics of mass culture as being all things to all people. C. Wright Mills (1916-1962), best remembered for his book, The Sociological Imagination, characterized mass society as rule by bureaucratic elites who, in their control over communication, allowed little, if any, expression of personal opinion, only receipt thereof. Edward Shils (1963), another sociologist, is probably remembered as having given the best explanation of how America society became the quintessential mass society. Popular culture (or "pop" culture as it came to be called in the 1960s) refers to the mass production and mass consumption of ideas, attitudes, and images that can be considered "leftovers" or alternatives to high culture, or mainstream culture (Storey 2006). High culture involves those products held in the highest esteem, and generally manufactured by aristocrats, elites, or the intelligentsia. Pop culture can never be high culture, but it can sometimes appear "mainstream." However, more often than not, it diverges into a subculture with limited shelf life. Whether or not that is a good or bad thing is a normative question that should not be answered too quickly.
Negative connotations are common, and popular culture is blamed for many things. Pop culture has been described by Hannah Arendt (1993) as mass entertainment -- tepid, trivial, senseless, and asinine. It involves a "dumbing down" or debasement of the more serious matters of life. It satisfies the lowest common denominator. The masses, debauched by years of exposure to it, find comfort in it, and come to demand more of tasteless products produced on a mass scale. Arendt (1993) even argues that such products are NOT even culture at all. The Latin origin of the word "culture" means to preserve or endure. Durkheim (1897) additionally argued that culture ought to be unifying, not divisive. However, pop culture products are intended to disappear and be divisive. They make no lasting contribution to human life. They are commodities intended to be used up (Adorno 1991). They disrupt, destroy, or exploit traditional culture in order to make money or gain prestige for some media conglomerate or status-seeking celebrity. To be sure, one could argue, as Gans (1974) does, in defense of pop culture -- after all, what's wrong with a little escapism -- it fulfills a need and supplies enjoyment for those unable to afford or appreciate high culture. However, more experts, like Ross and van den Haag (1957), say that pop culture has impoverished life and is extremely harmful to society in the following ways:
life is reduced to a spectator sport where confrontation, sensation, and distortion become the norm
there is an appeal to base instincts, distracting people rather than enlightening them; fact and fiction become blurred; fiction becomes reality
it isolates people from one another, from themselves, and from experience; real life becomes trivial in the face of vicarious experience and secondhand drama
people become lulled into lethargy and obsessed with escape from their boring and unfulfilling lives
the profitability of mass culture commodifies and deindividualizes people, cheapening character and individuality
Now, the above "five dangers" are not the only ones that can be mentioned. Other dangers exist. Some people are likely to take media distortions are real history and be misled. For example, ask any television producer, and you'll find that fictional doctors on TV get thousands of letters every year asking for medical advice. Some people even send sympathy cards to the names of crime victims on TV, or at least to people with similar-sounding names extracted from phone book searches in towns where they think the crime took place. Other people prey on those who happen to have some similarity to a fictional "bad guy" portrayed in the media. Now, one can write off these examples as the behavior of lunatics who watch too much TV, but the larger point is that the media may be facilitating the opportunities for these people to precipitate their bad behavior.
Putting aside the whole topic of "effects of the media" on gullible people for a moment, there is a larger issue at stake here, and that is what the societal role of the media is in the first place. Constitutionally, the freedom of the press involves a role as "adjuster" (see Constitutional Law Lecture on Freedom of Press). The media is supposed to regulate or adjust people toward a better understanding of all their relationships with all the institutions of society --
the authoritarian theory -- the purpose is to support and advance the policies of the government in power
the libertarian theory -- the purpose is to search for the truth and act as a check on government
the social responsibility theory -- the purpose is to interpret facts and turn conflicts into discussions
the Soviet communist theory --
Besides regulation and adjustment, one of the common denominators running through all four of the above theories is the fact that the media is always entertaining. It has to entertain, to sell itself, and be profitable. This is why it delves into pop culture -- for entertainment purposes. There is a word for the blending of information with entertainment -- infotainment, and as Demers (2005) describes it: "information-based media content or programming that also includes entertainment content in an effort to enhance popularity with audiences and consumers." Infotainment is NOT journalism. Professional journalism involves research, fact-checking, the public interest, and most of all, "serious" topics. Infotainment involves "feel-good" topics and/or distractions like celebrity gossip, sports, or "sleaze" journalism of the talk show variety. Consumers have a choice when it comes to where they get their news, and ever since the late 1980s (Surette 2002), consumers have clearly expressed their preference for infotainment and all the pop culture it epitomizes. This is probably not a good thing. There is danger in the absence of "hard" news or "serious" journalism. That danger involves a concept called "cultural hegemony" which is the notion that the recipients of pop culture contribute to their own false consciousness or distorted thinking. It is a concept first developed by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) to refer to the process by which those in power secure the consent of the socially subordinated to the system that oppresses or subordinates them. The setting of the agenda by media programmers results in less focus on issues and more conformity on distorted opinion, thus serving as a tool of hegemony. In other words, a pop culture-driven media comes to control us, and the worst danger of all is that it forces us to participate in our own domination.
THE MANUFACTURE OF CRIME NEWS
Clearly, the media's role in producing crime news can be contested, and is subject to debate over whether it serves a good purpose (such as educating us about crime and therefore aiding crime prevention) or a bad purpose (such as making us more fearful of rare events and redefining what crime is and is not). It is questionable whether the "reality" of crime can be truly and fairly represented in the media. As Jewkes (2011:41) explains it, "the mediated picture of reality is shaped by the production processes of news organizations and the structural determinants of newsmaking, any or all of which may influence the image of crime, criminals, and the criminal justice system in the minds of the public." Some of the basic factors in media production processes are as follows:
audience -- all media professionals make certain assumptions about their audience, most of them by trying to assess key demographics
agenda-setting -- all media professionals prioritize some stores over others, the infamous "if it bleeds, it leads" being common practice
framing -- all media professionals adopt a particular tone (humorous, serious, or ironic) that will accompany the storyline
It's important to note, as Fowler (1991) does, that no direct or instrumental conspiracy is involved here. Nowhere in any newsroom will you find a note pinned to the wall telling workers what sort of "spin" needs to be put on today's news. Every journalist tries to serve the public interest, and every editor tries to add public appeal. So instead of conspiracy, the process is shaped by structural or background factors, such as what is in the best commercial interests of the news organization, what is technically feasible under time constraints, and most of all, what occupational conventions, customs, and/or ethos exist in the newsroom. This ethos is often a shared ideology (Wykes 2001), as the direction of occupational pressure (i.e., desire to get ahead) results in a normalization or equalization of shared interests and values. The production process of framing is almost completely ideological. News frames selected by the media come in the form of metaphors, catchphrases, myths, and other shorthand symbols that accompany or underlie a storyline by resonating a tone or theme that at best can be called the backstory. A backstory is a literary device that provides some underlying context or reference to some larger social theme. To some journalists, the back-story is more important than the main story. In literature, a back-story is an aside into character development; in pop culture, a back-story is also usually some focus on character or personality. There is also a media theme known as the counter-story (Jewkes 2011). A counter-story usually involves some attempt to push the envelope of sensationalism (or pushes the threshold of newsworthiness). It too, might involve some character or personality, and in the case of crime, a focus on the victim instead of the offender. Examples take the form of bizarre headlines, like "Sanitation Worker kills man in house for singing too loudly in shower" or "Illegal Immigrants invade Farm and Eat donkeys."
THE VALUE JUDGMENTS OF NEWS ORGANIZATIONS
The value judgments of news organizations can be called into question. Galtung and Ruge (1973) were the first to do so, calling the way journalists and editors work together to try and combine public appeal with public interest the notion of "news values." In their original piece of research, they found that something was more likely to be reported if it met the following criteria: unexpected, close to home, dramatic, and negative in essence. Subsequent research by McNair (1998) added the criteria of "newness." After all, something cannot be news unless it is new. Over the years, many researchers from many fields have discerned other criteria. Jewkes (2011:45) provides the best listing of twelve (12) of them, as follows:
threshold -- drama, risk, novelty, newsworthiness, unpredictability
predictability -- continuity, foresight, cleverness, anything that allows "stretching out" the story
simplification -- brevity, partiality, binary opposition, demonization, defamatory statement or condemnation
individualism -- rationalization, excuses, explanations, charisma, foxiness, human interest
risk -- a sense of urgency, importance, news alert, randomness
sex -- sensualist, exotic, eroticization, explicitness, sensationalistic
celebrity or high-status person -- personality quirks, character malaprops, meltdowns, name-dropping
proximity -- relevance, prominence, climate, mood, globalization
violence or conflict -- graphic images, cruelty, suffering, globalization
visual spectacle -- suitability for graphic imagery, iconic representations, spectacular, impact
children -- morality, idealism, reform, any portrayal of utopia or perfection
ideology -- voice, opinion, agenda, moral outrage, shock, political diversion
Some comment on these news values is in order. First of all, it is important to remember that, as values, they are generated by production forces or workplace factors. They are NOT expressions of idiosyncratic personality factors. While the psychological profiling of specific newscasters might make for interesting research, there is little need for going that deep to understand what makes the media "tick." All that is necessary to understand is that the news media gives the public what it wants -- easily digestible bits of information, elevated to as much drama as possible, distorted in many ways, but not so much as to boldly offend the public nor interfere with the media's business as a going concern. In fact, modern media organizations desperately want to ensure a symbiotic tie or connection between them and the public, and they do this in the form of inviting and using "citizen journalists" or in more precise terms, user-generated content (UGC). It seems that starting around 2006, almost every media outlet started relying upon cheap and fast (but not always reliable) content provided by users through various social networking technology -- mobile phone photographs, blogs, wikis, discussion forums, blogs, Twitter, and YouTube. In point of fact, they don't rely on it, but they weave it into a mix with the traditional, "packaged goods" they obtain from syndicated sources like Associated Press or their own field correspondents. Issues of fairness, quality, privacy, and liability exist with user-generated content, and no one knows exactly what selection or mix criteria are used.
A traditional newsroom is a place where reporters, editors, producers, and other staff gather to decide what will be published. Manning (2001) provides a good glimpse into the workplace culture of them, and the times-they-are-a-changing, but traditional publishing (distribution of content to the public) has always involved several discrete steps, as follows:
acquisition -- the process of obtaining content from one's own staff, freelancers (stringers), or other sources
copyediting -- the process of assessing quality and fact-checking
design -- the activities of layout, graphic design, and adding of artwork
marketing -- the process of determining audience pre-interest and legal issues
release -- the deadline stage when proofs are signed off by the chief publisher
distribution -- the determination of channels for access by syndication or subscription
The media is big business, and it is constantly growing through mergers and what business scholars call "vertical integration." This means that most companies are interested in buying the equipment or infrastructure above or below them in the supply chain; e.g., the raw material sources and/or the release outlets. A good analogy might be the concept of "conglomerate" in the manufacturing industry. A mining company, for example, would not only seek to own the coal which comes out of the ground, but the real estate around the mine as well as the vehicles which transported the coal along with the refining facilities, etc. The ultimate purpose is to synchronize supply and demand for less cost and more profit.
THE MEDIA "EFFECTS" KNOWLEDGE BASE
At the very core of media studies is a foundation of common knowledge which everyone in the field, regardless of sub-specialty, regards as the essential cornerstone of the field's focus. These are the four (4) theories of media "effects" or influence that most likely qualify as paradigms in the field. Most of these have been derived from the study of media portrayals of war or politics. They are, as follows:
the hypodermic needle model (1930s behaviorism) -- behaviorism is a philosophy that all things organisms do, including thinking and feeling, involve conditioned reflex responses to internal physiological events, so this model posits that the media sometimes injects some "shock-and-awe" magic bullet into its audience in order to achieve the most impact or effect.
the two-step flow model (Katz and Lazarsfeld 1955) -- this is a theory of opinion leadership by which the media is seen as acting as a mediator or arbitrator in passing information down from the elites to the masses.
the limited effects model (Klapper 1960) -- also called "selective exposure" or "mood management" theory and the basic idea is that people tend to seek out and only be attracted to media that reinforces the beliefs and/or prejudices they already have.
the spiral of silence model (Noelle-Neumann 1974) -- the basic idea here is that the media comes to dominate all of public opinion because people with differing beliefs tend to stay silent out of fear of being in the minority.
In conclusion, the main value of media studies is to help improve our ability to understand how people think and behave. The media have a strong socio-cultural impact on society, and although much of the work in this field is critical and demonstrative of negative or harmful impact, other evidence exists to show positive impact (such as how media is guiding social change in the underdeveloped world). Ultimately, it only has the power to misguide if people do not know any better. Most human beings are not copycats and their sense of right and wrong is NOT seriously affected by media influence (Barker 2001).
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Last updated: July 16, 2011
Not an official webpage of APSU, copyright restrictions apply, see Megalinks in Criminal Justice
O'Connor, T. (2011). "An Introduction to Media Studies," MegaLinks in Criminal Justice. Retrieved from http://www.drtomoconnor.com/4230/4230lect01.htm accessed on July 06, 2011.