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Mass media and communication

1.0 Introduction

There are many diverse and conflicting views of the role of the mass media in society. This paper will discuss the two dominant schools of thought – the pluralist and Marxist theories of mass media. In each case three sociological studies will be used to examine the validity of the definition. The most prescient case studies will be evaluated and conclusions drawn with relation to mass media and communication in general.

2.0 Mass Media and Communication

The term ‘mass’ is a reference to the large numbers of people to which traditional broadcasts are aimed. The spread of interpersonal media systems means that, “modern communication has become less mass in character”(Haralambos et al., 2000). However, the term is still relevant for many influential media systems . Therefore, mass media can be defined as:

“The methods and organisations used by specialist social groups to convey messages to large, socially mixed and widely dispersed audiences”

Haralambos et al., 2000, p935

This definition assumes that communication passes from a single point to many other points. However, from the 1980s onwards, this was increasingly irrelevant in relation to the media. Technology has enabled interpersonal media communication to become steadily more prevalent.

The definition also makes no reference to the audience’s role in the communication. Many sociologists now believe that audience responses are both highly individual, and heavily influenced by social context.

3.0 Pluralism

The pluralist view of the mass media is that society is made up of a complex of competing groups and interests , all of which interact with one another. The groups are important to an idealistic democratic society, where a benign and neutral state allows them equal access to resources and influence.

3.1 The audience and its influence on the media

The mass media are free of government control, and the audience is in turn free to choose the version of reality that they absorb. Audiences provide feedback (and hence affect media content) by conforming, accommodating or rejecting a particular medium’s view of reality.

In this way, different parts of the media cater for different parts of society. Because the media is seen as reflecting society, it does not have a significant role in changing it.

3.2 On the existence of media bias

Jones (1986) argues that radio news is “neutral, balanced and fair”. Therefore, radio news is unbiased and reports facts rather than conjecture. Jones analyses media coverage of industrial disputes. Where an “apparent bias” is reported, he claims that this is due to one side representing their argument to the media less successfully. However, it must be noted that Jones is a correspondent on BBC radio, and is thus a biased source himself.

3.3 The media as the fourth estate

The media are seen as the ‘fourth estate’, fulfilling a public service role, ensuring that facts inform ‘public opinion' and check government. The media constitute a public sphere in which an open political debate can take place.

Keane (1991) has identified man’s right to morality, liberty and justice as justification for a plural mass media . Societies such as the United States, with a constitutional commitment to the First Amendment (the right to free speech) have always placed importance on the autonomy of the mass media. In this way, the media facilitate a ‘marketplace’ of ideas.

3.4 ‘Post-Communist Media Autonomy, Pluralism and Diversity’, Gross (2002)

In this paper, Gross suggests that the widespread negative critique of eastern-European journalism is unjust and based upon unrealistic and utopian assumptions . He argues that by 2002, most post-communist states had developed a pluralistic mass media.

The cultures of Eastern Europe remain undemocratic – “a strange synthesis of pre-Communist and Communist era cultures mixed with a libertarianism that is unfettered by any responsibility”. The culture is effectively a democratic civic masquerade where "democracy" designates a form of government rather than a condition of society.

For Gross, the change in the media’s status from Communist to non-Communist contributes to the pluralism and diversity of the press in spite of the many problems it faces . However, the pluralism is based on highly political ideologies. Since the fall of communism, the media has served intellectual pluralism, but will not serve democratic pluralism until informative capacity replaces ideological convictions.

3.5 ‘Coverage of the Roma in the Mass Media in Romania’, Project on Ethnic Relations Plaks (1997)

The aim of this work was to investigate the foundation of anti-Roma (gypsy) bias in the Romanian media. The report suggests that in 1997, eight years after the fall of the communist Ceausescu government, the media is freer, but by no means pluralistic.

The media considers it normal to negatively stereotype the Roma as criminals with "inherent" deviant behavioural patterns . Romanian journalists, see their role as reflecting the views of society, and thus portray the Roma very negatively.

The one Romani newspaper that does exist is funded and regulated by the government. This regulation restricts the content, so that the audience feedback loop necessary for pluralism is depleted. The newspaper is not concerned with national issues, for which the community must rely upon the support of the Romanian press.

There is no Romani newspaper for national news, therefore, the Roma must rely on the biased press. It is clearly not in the interest of the Roma to be the subject of racism-based reporting that reinforces stereotypes. Therefore the media is not pluralistic. However, if a Roma newspaper existed for national news, then the racist press could be said to be pluralistic .

The article was written by PER, an organisation that promotes the interests of minority groups. However, honest contributions from the police, newspapers and Romani elite, improved the validity of the racist connotations prevalent throughout the piece. It was a longevity study where articles were analysed over a 6 year period. The article was written to promote relations between all parties, therefore it was keen to stress positive efforts being made by the media. Therefore, in general it was unbiased with respect to sociological analysis of media theory.

3.6 ‘Study of the 1940 US Presidential Election Campaign’, Lazarsfeld et al. (1945)

The Lazarsfeld et al. (1945) study investigates the effect of political mass communication on the 1940 US Presidential election. The work suggests that the mass media has a limited effect and that other social influences an overriding effect on opinion formation.

Lazarsfeld et al. (1945) initially assumed that messages were transmitted from the mass media to a 'mass audience', who absorb the message . However, their work suggests that only 5% of people change their voting behaviour as a result of media messages. The weak influence of the mass media was explained by overriding social influences in their ‘limited effects paradigm’ .

In a follow up work, Katz & Lazarsfeld (1955) confirm the assertion of Lazarsfeld et al. (1945) that the “media have a rather limited influence” on society. This is because the mass communication process is altered by a number of variables . The key factor is seen as being the role of opinion leaders who mediate media messages and exert strong influence over individuals with a low level of independent thought.

Katz and Lazarsfeld may be misleading when they project the characteristics of opinion leaders. Many opinion leaders will have the characteristics they mention, but it is also known that some opinion leaders in some subject areas will not have those general characteristics .

Influence tended to be horizontal across a particular socio-economic class, except that in the 'higher' social classes there was a tendency for people to find opinion leaders in the next class up. No opinion leader was an opinion leader in all aspects of life. Allowing for those differences from one class to another and from one subject area to another, argues that society “probably” can recognise in opinion leaders the characteristics that Katz and Lazarsfeld suggested, in particular that opinion leaders will be more active users of the mass media than others.

There is an era-dependent basis for the study. The work depends upon the accessibility of opinions. In the 1940s the general public would have had access to far fewer sources of information than today. Under such circumstances it is likely that opinion leaders in the community became especially influential. This was the case during the rise to power of the National Socialist (Nazi) party in Germany during the 1930s.

In spite of the increased accessibility of the media, Katz and Lazarsfeld's research is still highly influential. Advertisers and spin-doctors recognise that 'the best form of advertising is word-of-mouth advertising'. In British politics there are notable examples in the 1992 and 1997 elections. Both parties developed strategies that saw local opinion leaders armed with ‘ammunition’ to support arguments at micro levels such as the pub and workplace

4.0 Marxism

In ‘The German Ideology (1846), Marx asserts that “the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class”. Applying this to Marxism, the media are the means by which the ideas of the ruling class maintain their dominance as the ruling ideas (Haralambos & Holborn, 2000, p937).

The Marxist view was dominant in Britain and Europe from the mid 1960s to the mid 1980s, and is still used in modern research. Although less dominant now, Marxism still affects much media research.

4.1 Classical Marxism

Generally, the Marxian view of media influence depends on an understanding and elaboration of the operation of the notion of ideology.

In Marxist texts, ideology is used in an entirely negative sense to refer to a supposedly dominant ideology, which supports the interests of the dominant class. The idea of domination is central to Marxism and is seen as a tool of the dominant classes, misleading and illusory.

4.2 Critical Marxism - Political economy of the media

In the Marxist fundamentalist tradition, 'political economists' see ideology as subordinate to the economic base (Curran et al. 1982: 26). Work by Graham Murdock (Murdock & Golding, 1977; Murdock, 1982) represents the 'critical' political economy approach, locating the power of media in the economic processes and structures of media production. Ownership and economic control of the media is seen as the key factor in determining control of media messages.

4.3 Neo-Marxism (Cultural Hegemony)

For Neo-Marxists, ideology is more important than the dominant class’s pursuit of economic interest. Gramsci, rejected economism, insisting on the independence of ideology from economic determinism. Gramsci’s Marxism focuses on human subjectivity.

He uses the term hegemony to denote the predominance of one social class over others. This represents not only political and economic control, but also the ability of the dominant class to project its ideology to subordinates who must accept it as 'common sense'.

Journalists and others, that are subjected to continual subordination, threaten the dominant class. Hegemony creates an inevitable struggle between ideology and social experience. Consent must continually be won by the dominant class to dominate this ideological struggle.

4.4 News International, Haralambos & Holborn (2000)

The study is based upon the political economy of News Corporation. News Corporation is well known throughout the world for its transitional ownership of a variety of important national and global media. These include the Fox network in the United States as well as the Sky News Corporation and Times newspapers in the UK.

Haralambos & Holborn (2000) cite two major examples of political economy. When News Corporation took over Fox Television in the 1980s, it produced ‘bland ’ programmes such as ‘The Cosby Show’. However it gained its success by the transmission of anti-establishment programming . It continued to broadcast such programmes because of their high popularity with the audience. Therefore, programme content was decided by economic means.

In sharp contrast, when Fox took over ‘TV Guide’ it ignored the audience’s appreciation of the magazine’s serious journalism. In scrapping this section of the magazine it lost half a million sales in its first year. Therefore, critical marxism (see 4.2) provides a viable explanation of these media effects.

4.5 Explaining Totalitarianism, ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’ (1969/1944) by Adorno and Horkheimer, Frankfurt School

The Frankfurt School criticised economism and crude materialism. Adorno and Horkheimer (1969) developed Marx’s view that the dominant class in society not only owns the means of material production, but also controls the production of the society's dominant ideas and values, its culture. Therefore, Adorno and Horkheimer examined the industrialisation of mass-produced culture and examined the economic imperatives behind the 'culture industries'. They developing Marx's ideas on ideology and domination, with Weber's thoughts on bureaucratisation and rationality, to make the media is responsible for producing the culture industry.

The culture industry enlightens society since the dominant class gives culture its dominant ideology. Enlightenment rationality leads to domination of nature, so it leads also inevitably to domination over human beings. This can then lead to totalitarianism. For example, Goebbels controlled the German media so that for example, anti-Semitism, and the superiority of Aryans became the dominant ideology.

Capitalist modernity succeeds in dominating and mystifying the individual via advertising, mass communications media and new forms of social control. This is an élitist viewpoint that is problematic for modern media and cultural studies.

There is no faith in individual members of the proletariat to reject the ideology through independent thought processes. This failure to differentiate between them is the major shortcoming of the 'cultural effects' approach. The Frankfurt School’s argument is that the receivers of mass media messages are not generally in a position to reply. But it does not follow from this inability to reply that the receivers have no control over media messages and that the act of reception is not participatory.

4.6 ‘Latino USA: constructing a news and public affairs radio program’, Tovares (2002)

‘Latino USA’ is a community radio station broadcast across the United States and beyond. It is a news and current affairs radio station designed for the ‘multi-cultural’ Latino population, which by 2010 will become the second largest ethnic group in the USA.

According to the Marxist perspective, persons with power, that is, access to such resources as capital and technology, decide what and when to produce cultural products like Latino USA. The resources are used to promote the prevailing hegemony , so that cultural products such as Latino USA promote the beliefs, values and ideas that support the status quo, which favours persons already in power .

Tovares cites the fact, that for years Latinos have wanted their own radio program, but as the Marxist theory suggested, without capital this was not going to happen.

Gramsci's theory of hegemony shows that Latino USA reflects a relationship between cultural forms and social changes. The production of Latino USA has changed in line with the Americanisation of the Latino population. Latino USA also reflects economic changes, demographic changes and technological changes in line with Gramsci’s theory.

Tovares shows that the Gramscian model allows a variety of factors to influence the creation of cultural products. It accommodates people, restitutions, and ideology. Although this logic appears cogent, one must be wary of Tovares’ keenness to place the event within an ideological framework.

5.0 Constraints Affecting the work of Sociologists

In term of the social characteristics of a researcher, the feminist versus ‘malestream’ methodology is at the forefront of modern debate (Haralambos & Holborn, 2000). Oakley (1981) argues that there is a distinct feminine interview style and that it is superior to that of males. Harding (1986) believes in ‘feminine standpoint epistemology’. In this perspective, the way in which women experience social life gives them a unique insight into how society works. For example, Plaks (1997) in her study of the Roma, interviewed over twenty different people and bodies over a long period. Based upon the studies above, her work may have contrasted sharply to the same work carried out by a male sociologist.

Ideological constraints occur when a researcher allows his individual social philosophy (such as being classed by his peers as a Marxist) to have an overbearing influence on his research. This leads to a situation being evaluated in terms of one perspective, when an alternative perspective would be more relevant. For example, in their pluralist explanation of the mass media, Katz & Lazarsfeld (1955) are ignoring the Marxism based role of, for example, economics in influencing the general public.

The source of funding will affect many aspects of the sociologist’s work, but most critically whether the work is actually completed. A source will only continue to fund if the sociologist continues to provide work in line with their expectations (which may be sociologically balanced or biased). For example, if Gross (2002) failed to provide balance in his work, he would eventually lose his academic sponsorship.

Political constraints can take two forms. The constraint can either be imposed on the researcher or affect work that he is reviewing. For example, in the former instance, sociologists working within the former USSR would have their work constantly monitored. There would be restricted access to government bodies, and the work would have to be reviewed by government before publication. Any works which gave a negative impression of the government/Communism would be heavily amended or simply not published. For authors reviewing the former USSR, they will have to evaluate doctored statistics and reports. Therefore, they will be forced to use their own judgment – reducing the scientific nature of their report.

6.0 Conclusion

The Marxist and Pluralist perspectives provide viable explanations of the mass media for the cases above. However, for the general mass media, the Neo-Marxist and hegemonistic approaches are the most viable approaches of those discussed.

However, in order to rationally evaluate the role of the modern mass media one should use the most modern models. This means recourse to Stuart Hall’s remodelling of Gramscian Cultural Hegemony and Fairclough’s Discourse Analysis.

7.0 References

  • Adorno, S. and Horkheimer, M. (1969), Dialectic of Enlightenment, New York, Herder & Herder.
  • Chandler, D. (2000), Notes on Marxism, Aberdeen University Website, Aberdeen University.
  • Curran, J. et al. (1982), The study of the media: Theoretical Approaches (In Gurevitch et al., 1992)
  • Gurevitch et al. (1992), Culture, Society and the Media, London, Methuen.
  • Gramsci, A. (1972), Selections from the Prison Notebooks, London, Lawrence & Wishart
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