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Since becoming a prominent part of modern human society, the media has always been a source of controversy. In particular, the media has often been accused as playing a significant part in the so called “dumbing-down” of society. The term “dumbing-down” is used to describe the lack of a clear distinction between high culture and popular “Pop” culture in society today. While high culture were activities, usually relating to the classical arts, that were held in the highest regard by society in the past, and usually practiced by the rich upper-class, it has evolved to appeal to the masses now. Similarly, popular culture which are considered ephemeral and commercial, thus inferior to high culture have gone on to invade parts of our upper-class societies today. In this essay, I am going to investigate the blurring line between the differences in high and popular culture and use this as a pivot to critically assess the media’s role in this phenomenon and ultimately determine if the media is indeed responsible for the “dumbing-down” of society.
“Dumbing-down” is believed to be present in many spheres of contemporary society, from the arts to even the quality of education that our generation are getting today. This is based on the premise that the Arts such as Theatre Productions and classical music have become more and more commercialised and overly-simplified in order to appeal to larger audiences. Similarly, the study of certain university courses ranging from Sociology to Media Studies and Animal Management have been labelled as inferior to the more traditional courses such as Law, Medicine and Politics. These so called “Mickey Mouse” degrees (which coincidentally were first made public by the media tabloids), coined by the then UK education minister Margaret Hodge were deemed to be less rigorous and thus unworthy of an actual University degree.
Modern media itself is often criticised for putting ratings and audience popularity ahead of quality. Media institutions are run as businesses and are therefore more focused in creating productions that attract widespread interest and thereby maximise the chances of the “sell” rather than actual high quality productions. This can be seen through a number of examples, notably through news circulating productions such as Newspapers and News Broadcasting. The 1980s saw a sharp rise in the popularity of Tabloid Newspapers. Tabloids are based on the newspaper format seen in traditional Broadsheet Newspapers, but are smaller in size and feature exaggerated and often sensationalised stories. They often include much less “hard news” such as politics and global affairs to their Broadsheet counterparts, instead focusing on human interests and entertaining news stories (i.e. Celebrity Gossips, Scandals). There are also much fewer words and more pictures in a Tabloid than a Broadsheet. This form of “junk food news” is best described by researcher and writer Professor Bob Franklin in his book “Newszak and News Media” as being “More bitesize McNugget journalism, which is small, tasty, bright coloured and easy to digest” (Marr in Franklin, 1997: 5). Frankin came up with the term “Newszak” and asserted that there was a growing compulsion within British journalism to retreat from the publishing of “hard news” in favour of light hearted “softer news”.
The popularity of tabloids has resulted in many broadsheet newspapers adopting numerous characteristics of tabloids. This is evident in UK newspapers such as “The Independent”, “The Times” and “The Guardian” who have switched to the more compact “Berliner” format used by most tabloid newspapers. Reasons given to this change include that it allows people who commute to easily hold and read it on public transports, and that smaller-sized newspapers would allow for easier reads for other readers as well. These changes have however been criticised by loyal broadsheet readers who have argued that the loss of the traditional broadsheet format have led to a loss in quality of the publishing of news. They reiterated that with Broadsheets adopting tabloid-like characteristics, there is slowly becoming less and less differences between the 2 types of Newspapers. In a 2007 interview with then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, Blair commentated about the ongoing struggle in which Broadsheets and Tabloid face to gain readership by becoming more similar to one another. In his words “Broadsheets today face the same pressures as tabloids; broadcasters increasingly the same pressures as broadsheets. The audience needs to be arrested, held and their emotions engaged. Something that is interesting is less powerful than something that makes you angry or shocked.” (BBC News, 12 June 2007)
While the tabloid-like changes that many broadsheets have undergone is a controversial topic even today, Tabloids have also evolved and have become even more “tabloidized” in recent years. In their study of the “Tabloidization of British Tabloids”, Rodrigo Uribe and Barrie Gunter discovered that the emergence of tabloids can be attributed to “a dominance of ‘soft’ and home stories”. By analysing issues of “The Sun” and “The Mirror” that were published between the years 1991 and 2001, Uribe and Gunter learnt that tabloids themselves had become even more simplistic in recent years. They wrote that the amount of column space allocated for text had decreased substantially, whilst the size of space allocated for visuals and pictures had instead increased. (Uribe and Gunter, 2004: 399)
Looking back at what I have learnt so far, I believe that when considering whether the media is indeed responsible for the dumbing-down of society, one has to look at the problem from two different perspectives. Yes, the media, owned by giant conglomerates aim to increase financial gain and therefore create products that are popular and sellable to their target audiences. However, one must also note that the reason broadsheets started adopting tabloid-like characteristics in the first place were partly due to the rising popularity of tabloids. In a highly competitive economic market as we have today, the media was simply responding to the ever growing demand for a particular product, in this case, tabloids; and therefore evolved its production of broadsheets to satisfy audience demand. It is therefore unfair to lay the blame solely on the Media when in this particular case; I believe that society is responsible for the dumbing-down of society.
Broadcast media is another area within the media that is nowadays criticised as playing a role in the dumbing-down of society. News Broadcasting is often accused as being no longer truly informative and lacking the journalistic quality that was present in the past. With Broadcast Media prioritising audience and consumer ratings today, News Broadcastings are becoming more “entertainment” orientated, in that part of the appeal of watching the news nowadays is the entertainment value one gains from it rather than the traditional “hard news” journalistic approach seen in the past. This form of “Infotainment”, a term used to describe media programmes that combine information with entertainment is seen in numerous News Broadcasting Productions. Many have expressed concerns that the emergence of infotainment has led to an over exposure of ‘soft’ news, news that often lack importance but are entertaining to audiences at an expense of actual important serious “hard” news. A clear example of this can be seen on a February 2004 edition of CNN News where the lead story was a feature of the Super Bowl XXXVIII incident in which Janet Jackson’s breasts were exposed onstage. The story was then followed by the news of a chemical attack on a member of the US Senate. (Anderson B, 2004: 33)
The basis of “Infotainment” is the assumption that viewers are no longer concern about the informative quality of such programmes but are rather driven to watch and consume something due to superficial reasons such as the entertainment that the programme provides or even by how visually attractive the product looks. The aesthetics of modern News programmes also serves as a means of entertaining viewers. News broadcastings nowadays contain expensive visuals, flashy animations and often elaborate filming sets. The use of such technology in modern news broadcasting allows for more contemporary looking visual presentations and thus attracts audience appeal. In a vastly competitive industry in which different Media Networks vie for control over audience viewership, the quality of presentation often plays an important part of the process. Networks which benefit from higher production values often score higher in viewership numbers and audience share. This would explain why the “Big 4” television networks in the US consisting of ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX have a significant edge over other smaller networks such as The CW Television Network. In terms of actual “substance” and quality, there is little difference between one News Channel to another; rather the difference in popularity is often determined by insignificant reasons.
An excellent example that clearly illustrates the importance of “infotainment” in today’s Media is the ongoing ratings/ popularity war between two of the most popular News Networks in the US, FOX News and CNN. Though the CNN News Network has had a longer and more illustrious history (est. 1980) compared to the FOX News Network (est. 1996), ratings for CNN has fallen in recent years whilst FOX has seen a steadily increase in audience viewership. In 2009, FOX News officially supplanted CNN to become the No 1 News Network in the US. FOX’s ratings increase has been attributed to the fact that it provides opinion and personality-driven programming. FOX slanted views to favour the republican (conservative) party in the US is no secret. It is however ironic that a network that bills itself as “Fair & Balance”, whose slogan happens to be “We Report. You Decide” does not provide impartial and balanced news reporting. The appeal of FOX News lies in the entertainment it provides for its audience. The news that it broadcast is often “colourful”, and interesting to audiences. Unlike CNN that features a more global perspective on news stories, reminiscent to the more traditional broadsheet news format, FOX has been known to employ tabloid-like tactics to gain audience receptions and stir controversies. Whilst CNN is in no way a haven of quality and unbiased news reporting, there is a “fine line between biased information presented in a fair and proper manner and that of a piece of pure synthesized propaganda” (DuBach J 2005, Fox V. CNN: An Observational Comparison). An example in which FOX has deliberately created news-stirring controversy to further its political agenda can be seen in several news reports during the Obama Presidential Campaign in 2008, in which FOX News provided highly bias opinions against Obama and his campaign team, even going as far as to compare him to Joseph Stalin.
News Reporters and Journalists are no longer detached personalities from the audience but are instead groomed to become popular and celebrity-like. Rather than employing “real hard-line journalists and political analysts” (McChesney R), News networks are more interested in hiring “celebrity pontificators” to provide news commentary as a cost cutting solution that also ensures maximum audience appeal. This is evident by the growing number of so called “special guest experts” that regularly provide their views on the news at hand. News Commentators such as Bill O’Reilly, Gleen Beck and Jerry Springer have gone from being news readers to become well respected and popular television personalities that hosts their own talk shows and are regularly watched by a loyal viewership. As a matter of fact, O’Reilly’s political commentary program titled “The O’Reilly Factor” that airs on FOX News was the most watched cable show between 2007 and 2008. Despite the level of media saturation and the wealth of information we have at our disposal, it is still in the hands of each individual to decide whether consuming a particular media text is indeed beneficial. However, with audiences seemingly enjoying such a skewed and biased view on everyday news reporting, it’s no wonder that some people believe that the media is indeed responsible for the “dumbing down” of society.
The belief that the media is responsible for the “dumbing down” of society is rooted in the fear that the audience lack the perception to tell what is right and what is wrong when consuming a media text, thus believing whatever the media projects. It is therefore important to understand the concept of Audience Reception in order to determine how media viewers interpret a particular media text differently from one another. The basis of Audience reception is the understanding that there are two different kinds of audiences; active and passive audience. Active Audiences are people who are not drawn to whatever the media tells them, who constantly filter out what they see in the media and possess the strength of mind to decide whether what they see in the media is true or not. In contrast, Passive Audiences are people who are vulnerable to the words of the media and are seemingly accepting of whatever the media tells them. The belief that the media has the ability to alter audience perception and in a way control the way we make decisions and live our lives is one that has existed for decades.
The “Hypodermic Needle Model”, conceived in the 1940s was perhaps the earliest form in our attempts to understand audience reception. The model was based around the assumption that mass media (e.g. the radio and television) had a direct and often profound effect on its viewers. It was believed that the media was able to send messages directly to the viewer thus gaining some measure of control on the viewer. Today, the model is almost unanimously considered obsolete as it perceives all media consumers as passive audiences, and thus believes that the media has the same effect on all people. It perceives on the assumption that “people were uniformly controlled by their biologically based ‘instincts’ and that they react more or less uniformly to whatever ‘stimuli’ came along” (Lowery & DefFleur, 1995: 400). More to the point, the hypodermic needle theory is an outdated Audience Reception model that however flawed, reflected the social situation during that time. In an era of political upheaval and social unrest, fuelled by the World Wars, propaganda emerged as a form of communication utilized by nations to persuade the general public to unite behind the actions of their countries and allies alike. The power of propaganda was regarded as a powerful tool by many, with countries using propaganda to achieve many different aims, from enlisting more men to become soldiers to even attempting to promote public outrage.
A more efficient audience reception model which does take both passive and active audiences into account is the “Uses and Gratifications Model”. Unlike the Hypodermic Needle Model that interpreted its findings based on “what the media did to people”, the Uses and Gratifications model took a different perspective by placing focus on the viewers instead of the media and basing its findings on “what did people do with the Media”. The Model was conceived in the 1970s by critical theorists Blumber and Katz, who originally used it to investigate the social and psychological needs of people. The model was based around a more consumer/ audience centred approach whereby it was believed that people consumed media as a form of satisfying their own individual needs. Rather than basing its study that all media viewers were passive audiences who are unable to resists the words of the media (as the hypodermic needle theory had suggested), the theory was based on the belief that the audience did in fact play an active part in choosing the type of media text that they were consuming based on their individual needs. The needs of individuals were varied and included but not limited to things such as gaining entertainment (diversion) from the text t or perhaps even gaining more of an insight into themselves (personal identity). Despite the consensus that the Uses and Gratification model is a far better representation of audience reception, compared to the Hypodermic Needle Theory, it has also been criticised by many who state that viewers nowadays do not have any means of control over what the media produces. In my opinion, I would actually argue with that statement, as I believe that the audience make educated choices on the type of media they consume. I believe that the types of medium that are produced today are developed specifically to satisfy the needs of people. Due to the different trends and genres that go in and out of fashion today, media companies create productions that they know would attract a sizable audience market. Similar to how many Broadsheet Newspapers are adopting the more popular Tabloid-like format and the use of “Infotainment” in today’s News Broadcasting Programmes, the media is simply responding to the audience preferences.
In conclusion, I believe that although the media does play a part in the “Dumbing down” of society, it is not directly responsible for this, and is often conveniently made a scapegoat of the problem due to people take comfort in having someone or something to blame, in this case the media itself. Rather, I think that the media acts as a catalyst for the true culprit behind the degradation of society – humans. The “dumbing down” of society is caused by us; modern people have grown lazy, becoming interested in trivial things and finding quality activities and productions a chore to do and consume. We prefer the simplifying of things as it makes it easier for us to understand and
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