Rebecca Ann Lind
The Media Matter
From Sesame Street to Schoolhouse Rock to Dora the Explorer to fake news, filter bubbles and sexting, ours is a mediated society. Much of what we know about, care about, and think is important is based on what we see in the media. The media provide information, entertainment, escape, and relaxation and even help us make small talk. The media can help save lives, and—unfortunately—can cause harm.
For example, the AMBER Alert system uses local radio and TV stations in conjunction with electronic highway signs to rapidly disseminate information about child abductions. Communication media allowed a doctor to perform a surgical procedure with which he was unfamiliar. He saved the life of a teenager in the Democratic Republic of Congo by following the instructions texted to him by a colleague half a world away.
Digital and social media can bring people together, but they can also drive people apart. One Florida attorney said that about 90% of her divorce cases involve Facebook in some way. Cyberbullying is extensive, and can cause significant harm. However, because researchers use different definitions for the concept, the numbers of young people reporting being cyberbullied vary widely. Based on Lee’s (2017) review of the literature, on average, it’s probably safe to assume that 10–20% of college students have been cyberbullied.
If the world is shrinking, and our village becoming global, it’s because the media—both legacy media such as television and the more recent digital and social media—have brought things ever closer to us. The average American household has the television set on about eight hours a day. Worldwide, the average internet user is on social media more than five hours per day. When you consider how averages are calculated, this means that if you—as a busy college student with lots of homework and perhaps some extracurricular activities, not to mention work and/or family obligations—only have the TV on for about two hours, then some other household has it on for more than 14 hours. If you are on social media for about two hours, someone else is using it for more than eight hours. Now think about your involvement with other social institutions. How much time have you spent in the classroom in your entire life? (Because you’re in college, it’s a lot more than most Americans.) How does that compare to your time spent watching TV or on social media? How will that change as you leave the classroom but continue to watch TV and engage in social media? How many hours per day do you spend with your parents (and reflect on others who might not be as lucky) or with religious leaders? How can the media not affect us in some way?
A primary assumption underlying media research is that the media do matter—what we see, read, and hear affect us in some way. Different types of scholars, however, approach the matter of media effects differently. Social scientists try to model their research on the natural sciences and strive to maintain objectivity. They often employ experimental or survey methodologies testing for precise and narrowly defined media effects (such as how people’s opinions change as a result of media exposure, how people’s perceptions of others or about the world in general are affected by what they see/hear/read, or whether people behave more aggressively after being exposed to violent media content).
Critical/cultural researchers, on the other hand, reject not only the desirability of maintaining an objective, value-neutral position but also the very possibility of doing so. Human beings, they argue, cannot distance ourselves from our social world; indeed, only by immersing ourselves in its practices can we understand them. A subjective interpretation is thus not just desired but required to learn how the media affect the world in which we live. These are fundamentally different assumptions from those held by most social scientists. The types of media effects that critical/cultural researchers investigate are different, too. They’re much more broadly defined and often address the cumulative effects of a lifetime of exposure to media content—content that typically represents a limited range of viewpoints, ideas, and images. Ultimately, the media help maintain a status quo in which certain groups in our society routinely have access to power and privilege whereas others do not. Because the types of questions critical/cultural scholars ask are often different from those posed by social scientists, these scholars tend to prefer qualitative methodologies such as rhetorical or textual analysis, interviews, and ethnographic techniques. In addition, critical/cultural scholars extend their involvement with their research to include the ultimate goal of making the world a better place. If we can identify the ways in which our social structures function to oppress certain groups, then we can try to do something to make things more equitable.
This book contains work by both social scientists and critical/cultural scholars, although the latter group dominates. As you explore the readings, see if you can identify which perspective seems to guide the authors and how it affects the questions asked and the way the answers are sought.
Race, Gender, and Class Matter
Like it or not, we do categorize people on the basis of race/ethnicity, gender, and social class. Our perceptions of our own and others’ identities color all our interactions; they affect our expectations of others, our expectations of ourselves, and others’ expectations of us.
According to Healey and O’Brien (2015), we make snap judgments about people (and things). We live in a complex social world, and we simply don’t have time to ruminate about all the fine points of everything and everyone we encounter. So we categorize people and groups, often on the basis of nothing more than the visible more or less permanent physical markers of race and gender. Furthermore, the classifications we make affect our behavior toward others.
Why do the markers of race and gender stand out, rather than other attributes? Why are these the characteristics by which we categorize others? Because this is how we’ve been socialized. We could classify people according to length of hair, height, or even the size of their feet, but we don’t. Ultimately, we rely on these characteristics because we have been taught to do so: prejudice “is the normal result of typical socialization in families, communities, and societies that are, to some degree, racist” (Healey & O’Brien, 2015, p. 79).
It’s the same with gender—we’ve been socialized into a gender-conscious society that is also stratified (divided in a hierarchical fashion, with some social groups having more of the goods/services valued by society than others) along the lines of gender.
When our generalizations become overly simplistic, when we ignore evidence that they are incorrect, or when they become exaggerated, they have become more than mere generalizations; they’ve become stereotypes. Stereotypes reflect our (erroneous) beliefs that the few traits we stress are the most important, and that they apply to all members of the group. They deny the presence and the importance of individual characteristics. Stereotypes are an important component of prejudice, which Healey and O’Brien defined as “the tendency of an individual to think about other groups in negative ways, to attach negative emotions to those groups, and to prejudge individuals on the basis of their group membership” (2015, p. 21). Notice the two dimensions of this definition— prejudice has both a cognitive and an emotional element. Stereotypes are at the heart of the cognitive aspect of prejudice. Prejudice can lead to discrimination, although it doesn’t need to, because even a highly prejudiced person can refrain from acting on her or his negative cognitive or emotional response to certain social groups. Discrimination occurs when people are treated unequally just because they belong to a certain group. People can be treated differently for many different reasons, but any time unequal treatment is based on group membership (even the perception of group membership) the behavior is discriminatory. Stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination reflect racism, sexism, or classism (although these concepts go much deeper than that and are defined differently by different people), depending on whether the stereotypes are rooted in race/ethnicity or gender.
A final word about race and ethnicity: although both are socially constructed, some people find it helpful to distinguish between race and ethnicity. To those who do, race is primarily defined in terms of physical characteristics and ethnicity in terms of cultural characteristics. Markers of race include skin color and hair (delineating individuals as being, for example, of African, Chinese, Japanese, European descent); markers of ethnicity include religious practices, language use, mode of dress, dietary habits, and cuisine (delineating individuals as being Catholic, Hindu, Irish Americans). Those who employ this distinction tend to believe that the meanings attributed to both physical and cultural markers remain socially constructed; they are not propagating biological theories of race, which for good reason have largely been rejected.
Audience, Content, Production: Three Focal Points
Our media system is complex and incorporates a variety of interrelated components, each of which experiences many pressures from both within and without. Three of the major elements of the system are the producers, the audience, and the actual media content.1
The chapters of this book are organized around those three elements.2 Production
involves anything having to do with the creation and distribution of mediated messages: how the messages are assembled, by whom, in what circumstances, and under what constraints. Content
emphasizes the mediated messages themselves: what they present, and how; what is included, and by implication, what is excluded. Audience
addresses the people who engage, consume, or interact with mediated messages: how they use the media, what sense they make of media content, and how they are affected by the media.
The production–content–audience distinction is consistent with commonly used models of communication focusing on the source (or sender), message, channel, and receiver. Scholars have presented these models in a variety of ways and with a variety of additional elements, but at their core they focus on who creates or originates the message (Sender/Source), how the source has presented the ideas she or he wishes to communicate (Message), how the actual message is conveyed (Channel), and to whom the message is sent (Receiver).3
These SMCR-type models fit well with the social–scientific approach, and all have their roots in the work of Harold Lasswell (1948) and Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver (1949). The Shannon and Weaver mathematical model of communication has been most influential in the field.
The production–content–audience distinction is also consistent with how media studies can be approached within the critical/cultural studies perspective. These three realms are usually referred to as production, text, and reception by critical/cultural scholars and are considered points of intervention. Don’t let the overt political stance implied by that term escape you—remember the goal of critical/cultural scholars: to understand how social structures serve to oppress and repress certain social groups in order to end that oppression.
Key Concepts and Recurring Themes
As you read this book, you’ll begin to notice a pattern of recurring themes. Although these are typically defined when they’re presented, it’s important to have a sense of some of the key concepts you’ll encounter. These concepts often inform the readings even if they’re not explicitly mentioned. Thinking about these concepts right up front will help frame the readings that are to come. And speaking of framing. . .
Erving Goffman argued in his classic 1974 book that the framing of an event or activity establishes its meaning. In other words, framing is the process by which we make sense of the events around us. Frames are like story lines allowing us to interpret new information in the context of something we already understand. We use frames all the time, without even knowing it. For example, we might say to our friends that a new band is “like Nine Inch Nails with Kanye West.” Or that a singer is the “next Lady Gaga.” People pitching ideas for films or television shows often frame their ideas in terms of content the networks or studios already know and understand: “It’s a Western set in outer space.”
Journalists use frames as they prepare news stories, too, whether they know it or not. Despite journalists’ quest for the objective presentation of what we call “facts” to their audiences, Gamson (1989) claimed that “facts have no intrinsic meaning. They take on their meaning by being embedded in a frame or story line that organizes them and gives them coherence, selecting certain ones to emphasize while ignoring others” (p. 157). Because news stories always emphasize some facts over others, we should “think of news as telling stories about the world rather than as presenting ‘information,’ even though the stories, of course, include factual elements” (p. 157). A story might frame something as an economic or a moral issue, a local issue, or one with far-reaching consequences. A story might emphasize the horse race aspects of a political campaign or the important issues and stances held by the candidates. Framing is important because a great deal of research has shown that the frames employed by the media when telling a story can affect our attitudes and judgments about the issues and people involved in the story—especially, as Gitlin (1980) argued, when people don’t have firsthand knowledge of and experience with the issue at hand.
In the case of this book, the information provided in this chapter should frame the readings such that you’re on the lookout for certain concepts and that your understanding of the readings is bolstered by your knowledge of these concepts.
Symbolic annihilation is a concept often associated with sociologist Gaye Tuchman (whose 1978 work is widely cited, with good reason) but which was presented by George Gerbner in 1972 and George Gerbner and Larry Gross in 1976. The concept is rooted in two assumptions: media content offers a form of symbolic representation of society rather than any literal portrayal of society, and to be represented in the media is in itself a form of power—social groups that are powerless can be relatively easily ignored, allowing the media to focus on the social groups that really matter. It’s almost like implying that certain groups don’t really exist—even though we can’t go out and actually annihilate everyone who isn’t a cisgender, White, Christian, middle-to-upper-class male, we can at least try to avoid them in our mediated versions of reality. Tuchman (1978) focused on the symbolic annihilation of women, but the concept is applicable to any socially constructed group, whether based on gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, appearance, social class, and so on.
Tuchman argued that through absence, condemnation, and trivializatio...