Media and society


Does the media reflect or construct social reality? This question is at the heart of lively debate
among sociologists about the relationship
between media and the social world. On the one hand, there are those who argue that
mass media simply reflects the attitudes, values
and norms of the society that it’s situated within. On the other hand, there are those who suggest
that media not only provides a mirror to society, but strongly influences our social reality, to the
point that it shapes, and even constructs, our
understanding of that reality. In this lecture, I’ll explain how these sometimes
conflicting views stem from different conceptual
understandings of the functions and effects of the mass media,
and of mass communication more generally. Let’s first take a look at the idea that media
shapes and constructs reality. This perspective holds that the media is a
profoundly powerful agent with the ability to
influence social attitudes and norms. Theorists who argue for the dominant or
hegemonic approach to media believe that the
mass media distribute a limited view of the world, which conforms to the interests of the ruling
class or dominant ideologies. which conforms to the interests of the ruling
class or dominant ideologies. This model works to win popular consent and
acceptance of dominant ideologies through media
representations of the world. Directly or indirectly, the media tell us what to
think, what to believe, how our world should be
and how we should behave in the social world. This perspective suggests that media audiences
by and large accept these views. As a result, the media serve to legitimise and
reinforce prevailing structures of power. A Marxist theory of media fits within this overall
approach, and supports the idea that the mass media are instruments of control for
and by the ruling class. Marxist theories contend that existing society is
maintained and legitimated by the concentration of
media ownership in the hands of a minority elite. Advocates of this view are concerned about
media concentration, because it means that a very small number of
people have the ability to manipulate what people
see or hear, and thus shape the reality of media audiences. There are also a number of other theories about
how the media actually operates to influence the
opinions and beliefs of media audiences. The ‘hypodermic needle model,’ also sometimes
called the ‘magic bullet theory,’ was developed in
the 1920s, and states that the media acts to directly inject
beliefs and ideologies into the minds of a passive
and powerless audience. The theory suggests that the mass media could
influence society as a whole uniformly by
‘shooting’ or ‘injecting’ them with its intended messages, designed to trigger a
particular response. For example, a mass media that promotes the
message that privilege and wealth belonging
exclusively to a select group of people may then cause members of society to internalise the
divide between rich and poor, and maintains the
status quo. Another model which acknowledges the
influence that media has on society is the
agenda-setting function model. Unlike the hypodermic needle model, agenda
setting theory doesn’t necessarily tell audiences
what to believe or how to think, but it does instruct audiences as to what is
important and what they should be concerned
about – in other words, they set the agenda for social
discourse. Most often attributed to Maxwell McCombs and
Donald Shaw, agenda setting theory concludes
that mass media focuses on just a few issues and subjects, in an attempt to shepherd the public
towards perceiving those issues as more
important than other issues. For example, media owners may avoid publicising
stories about the environmental degradation or
labour exploitation of companies that provides them with a significant portion of
their advertising revenue. This will then lead to media audiences attributing
less importance to such issues. It’s clear that these approaches to the sociology
of media views the mass media as having a
significant influence on media audience’s perception of their social world
and their social reality. What then of the argument that the media does
not construct, but simply reflects society? Many argue that the media should operate as a
mirror to society, and accurately represent
society and reflect society’s values and norms. Proponents of this view contend that it is
audiences who shape and influence the content
of media through their choices of which media to consume or not
consume, and not the other way around. This approach takes a pluralist, rather than a
hegemonic perspective of the power of media. According to the pluralist model of media, society
is made up of competing social, cultural and
political groups and interests that are served by a variety of media that give
diverse and competing views. The pluralist model argues that because there is
diversity in society, there is also choice. In other words, media audiences can choose
what to believe and what not to believe.
In order to remain viable, mass media forms need to conform to the needs and expectations of
society. This approach to media positions audiences as
having a much more active and powerful role,
and places less emphasis on the influence of media on the opinions and
attitudes of individuals. For example, in the limited effects model of media,
developed by Paul Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson
and Hazel Gaudet, people’s interpersonal relationships and
communication with members of their families and
social groups are seen as having a far more significant impact than exposure to
mass media. Limited effects theory emerged from a study
conducted during the election of Franklin
Roosevelt in the United States, which found that the vast majority of people
were not influenced by political propaganda on
television, with only 5% changing their voting patterns
based on exposure to mass media. It appeared that people choose what media to
consume based on their current beliefs, which
then forces the mass media to reflect those beliefs and attitudes. Take, for example, the dominant representation of
women in media and popular culture as being
overly emotional or obsessed with shopping. From a pluralist perspective, one would argue
that such a representation is so prevalent and
prominent, not because of the ideological whims of a
minority media elite, but because the media caters to the pre-existing
values and ideologies of people who already hold
those views. Using the same example, we can also see that
media representations of women have changed
throughout the decades, as a result of changing social norms and
consumer demand. In reality, it’s likely that the relationship between
the mass media and society is somewhere in
between – mass media both shapes and is shaped by the
society in which it operates. In the culturalist theory of mass media. people are
seen as allowing themselves to be influenced by
media to a certain extent, but still exercise a large amount of agency within
that interaction to interpret media messages
through their own worldview. Culturalist theorists claim that while members of
the corporate elite may exert significant control
over the messages promoted via mass media, individual worldviews play a powerful role in
how the audience members interpret those
messages.

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