Mass communication and mass media permeate our society. At its most basic level, we can think of communication as the exchange of information or meaning. A medium, or media, is a technology which mediates this exchange. In this lesson, we are going to take a look at some of the key terms and theories of media studies. In particular, we’re going to explore the extent of the mass media influences or affects its audiences.
Let’s begin with a brief overview of common media studies terminology which is key to understanding the various debates and perspectives in the field. The terms we will need to understand at the end of this lesson are ‘mass media’, ‘audiences’ and ‘media effects’.
Mass Media and Mass Communications
The mass media are diversified media technologies that are intended to reach a large audience by mass communication. Mass communication and the mass media, can easily become repetitive devices that reinforce the dominant hegemony of a culture or society. In other words, while they are many modes of media and communication available to produce and transmit meaning, we often find that within a given socio-cultural context, the messages we receive via mass media are narrow and recursive in representation and ideology. Of course, it is via the same system of meaning-making and sharing that new ideologies may come to be shared thus challenging or countering hegemony at the same time.
Mass media is designed to be pervasive and powerful, and it certainly has an affect on us – what we wear, what we buy, where we buy it from, what our opinions are, may all be informed by information communicated to us via mass media. But how many of us passively accept the messages communicated to us via mass media? Perhaps we like to think of ourselves as active consumers of media, and in some cases we are. But maybe in a different setting we receive messages differently.
We are all audience members affected by the media, but the critical question is how are we affected and to what extent are we passive or active recipients of a message?
“The term audience is used to describe a large number of unidentifiable people, usually united by their participation in media use. Given the varying demographics of this group, not to mention variations between nations, the concept itself is a means by which such an unknowable group can be imagined. Naming an audience usually also involves homogenising it, ascribing to it certain characteristics, needs, desires and concerns. The audience is a construction motivated by the paradigm in which it is imagined … Audiences enable media organisations to sell advertising or to fulfil their public and statutory obligations, whether for television, radio, magazines or the press … For media institutions, the concept of audience allows the exchange of information and entertainment to become commodified.” (Hartley, 2002)
To read the full explanation of audiences see this PDF link to Hartley, J. (2002). Communication, cultural and media studies. London: Routledge.
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Media theorists concerned with the audience have tended to understand them as either being passive or active consumers of the messages they are receiving.
A passive audience does not actively engage with a media text. A passive audience is one that does not question the message that the media is sending and simply accepts the message in the way the media outlet intended. ‘Topdown’ theories of media influence tend to assume that audiences are passive. Theories such as Hypodermic Needle Theory and Agenda Setting Function assume audiences are passive.
An active audience is one that actively engages with the text. They do not simply accept every media message. They question what they see and develop their own interpretation of a media product based on their life experiences, education, family and cultural influences. Theories such as Reinforcement theory and Uses and Gratification Theory presume audiences are active.
The Media Effects
In order to more fully understand how the media affects us and the extent to which these effects are good, bad or indifferent, we will take a look at some of the key theories in media communication.
The media effects model is a particular way of understanding the media’s influence over its audience. While this model dates back to the beginnings of media and communication studies, it remains (for better or worse) the dominant approach to thinking about the relationship between mass media, mass culture and audiences.
The video below give an overview of some of the key theories. But don’t be worried if you don’t take it all in the first time you watch it, as we go though each theory in much grater detail in the rest of the lesson.
If the first video didn’t quite sink in or if you just want to clarify your understanding, read this general introduction to media effects by John Hartley (2002) before watching the summary videos of the various media theories provided below.
Please familiarise yourself with the basics of each theory and be prepared to engage in a debate about the legitimacy and relevance of each approach in class. While you are watching these short videos, be sure to pay particular attention to the agency that the audience is presumed to have in each instance. While you’re taking this information in, ask yourself if any of these theories are completely obselete or completely applicable. Which model do you believe to be most true from your experience?
Hypodermic Needle Theory (1920s – 1930s)
✭ A linear communication theory which suggests that the media has a direct and powerful influence on audiences, like being injected with a hypodermic needle.
✭ Audiences are passive and homogenous, this theory does not account for individual differences.
✭ The media has an extreme amount of power of the audience.
Agenda Setting Function Theory (1972)
✭ This theory suggests that the media can’t tell you what to think but it can tell you what to think about. Through a process of selection, omission and framing, the media focuses public discussion on particular issues.
✭ Audiences are somewhat active but, when it comes to making important decisions like who to vote for, they draw on information that is particularly salient at the time.
✭ The media has significant power of its audience.
✭ The media, particularly television, contributes to the audience’s perception of social reality. Because it is so pervasive, it dominates our view of reality, cultivating attitudes which were once acquired elsewhere.
✭ Cultivation Theorists don’t deny that audiences can be active but are susceptible to the gravitational pull of mainstream television.
✭ It presumes a significant amount of power over the audience.
Two-step Flow Theory (1948)
✭ A diffusion model of influence, suggesting that people are more likely to be influenced by ‘opinion leaders’ – people who are more connected to the media than their peers and pass on media messages.
✭ Audiences are active, particularly opinion leaders, who exist throughout society in all different classes and socioeconomic
✭ The media has a moderate amount of power over its audience.
The Propaganda Model (1989)
✭ The mass media is owned and controlled by powerful organisations which serve their own commercial interests. News is shaped by five ‘filters’: ownership, advertising, sourcing, flak, anti-Communism and fear.
✭ Media institutions encourage a preferred reading of media texts which is shaped by commercial, right wing interests.
✭ Audiences are not passive, capable of dissent and can swing the power in their favour.
Reinforcement Theory (1960)
✭ Reinforcement theory argues that the media has little power to influence people and it just reinforces our preexisting
attitudes and beliefs which have been developed by more powerful social institutions like families, schools and religion organisations.
✭ Audiences are active and exist in a society where they are influenced by important social institutions. This theory considers the total situation.
✭ The media has a moderate amount of power of its audience.
The Uses and Gratification Theory (1974)
✭ The Uses and Gratification Theory looks at how people use the media to gratify a range of needs – including the need for information, personal identity, integration, social interaction and entertainment.
✭ Audiences are active and can have power over the media. If people don’t watch a television program, it won’t rate and it will be taken off the air.
Semiotic Theory (1970s)
✭ A theory of communication which suggests that media texts are constructed using a shared code which is encoded by the sender and read by the receiver.
✭ Audiences are active because they construct meaning from texts by ‘reading’ signs. Meaning varies assigns can have both shared and individual connotations.
✭ The Audience has the majority of power.
Reception Theory (Encoding/Decoding) (1980s)
✭ Stuart Hall’s Encoding/Decoding Theory suggests that audience derive their own meaning from media texts. These meanings can be dominant, negotiated or oppositional.
✭ Audiences are active because they construct meaning from texts by ‘reading’ signs. Meaning varies as signs can have both shared and individual connotations.
✭ The audience has the majority of power.
PLEASE NOTE: the above summaries of each theory have been modified from Brett Lamb’s Media Influence: A Comparison of Communication Theories available at lessonbucket.com This website is a fabulous resource for media studies and features among other things a plain language glossary of terms and this downloadable PDF chart of communication theories.
Ok, let’s move away from theory for a moment an try to make sense of this in our everyday lives.
📝 CRITICAL RESPONSE TASK
Let’s start with a few reflection questions.
Write your answers down before moving on to the next question.
● Can you think of an example from your own life where media has influenced your opinions, decision, choices or appearance?
● Did the message have a positive, negative or neutral way effect?
● What was the medium of this communication? I.e. a magazine, TV, game, music, film, radio, blog, meme, billboard advertisement, text message, social media or something else?
Now let’s think a little broader. If we can identify instances where the media has influenced our own thought processes then we can’t deny that this effect is likely to be ubiquitous. Respond to the following questions on the class discussion forum and we will continue this conversation in your tutorial. Think critically and be as descriptive and detailed as possible with your response.
● Can you now think of 1 positive and 1 negative example of the media’s influence on society and culture more broadly?
● Who is deciding what constitutes a positive or a negative influence?
● How can we be certain that media is to blame?
● What other forces may have contributed to this effect?
● Do all messages have the same effect on an audience?
● If media is to blame, are you referring to one particular medium or all media? Or do you mean ‘the media’ as a kind of shorthand way of saying the information content of mainstream media?
● Is the content of a media message more or less important than the medium of communicating the message?
Are you a brainwashed slave?
The idea of the media ‘brainwashing’ us is quite common. But who’s this message intended for? Is he suggesting that mainstream media has this effect on all of us or just some of us? Is he right or should we be critical of this message in the same way we might be critical of statements about the effects of media violence? I’m sure we’ve all heard someone say that children who play violent video games are likely to behave more violently or that girls who read fashion magazines are more likely to have low self-esteem and body image issues. But you’ve probably also read or heard messages that falsify these claims. And since we are exposed to so many (and often contradictory) messages on a daily basis, it is difficult to know which messages we should listen to and which messages we should ignore.
Perhaps we might dismiss the legitimacy of the message above because it is handwritten on a flattened cardboard box with a black marker. Doesn’t seem very professional or credible, does it? Given the medium of communication he has chosen, do you think his message is effective?
Is his message less credible than what you might read on the front cover of a magazine for example?
What if it was one of these magazines?
So we might not be brainwashed slaves, but it’s very easy to be confused. Which is why understanding media influence and engaging critically with media content is so important.
In this final section on media effects, you are will be presented with the idea that the headlines don’t matter so much, rather it is the medium of the printed word that is of greater importance in understanding media influence. In other words, what you print in a magazine is less significance to society and culture than the magazine itself.
The Medium is the Message
🎥 VIEWING TASK
Your prescribed task for this week is to watch the Marshall McLuhan lecture below and prepare a response to it for your tutorial. McLuhan is a notable media theorist, perhaps most famous for making the statement: “the medium is the message”. In the simplest of terms, McLuhan is suggesting that it is not the “content” on these new media that shape how we interact and see the world, but the new media themselves that are of most consequence.
Here are some questions you might like to consider while you watch.
● Do you agree with this statement?
● In the lecture, McLuhan uses a variety of analogies to illustrate his concept, what are they?
● Can you give further examples that serve his argument?
● It was the mid to late 70s when McLuhan first put forward his thesis. Given all the technological change that has occurred since then, do you think his thesis is still relevant in the 21st century?
The lecture below is in three parts. It is essential that you watch the first video and strongly recommended that you watch all three videos consecutively.
To maximise your learning, grab yourself a notebook (hopefully after reading some of the active learning tips in the lecture on Blended Learning you’ve got yourself a dedicated notebook for this subject). If not, just grab something to write on and put pen to paper while you watch.