Where would society be without mass media? How would our society evolve with electronic communication? These are important questions. They demand investigation into how our world functions on a daily basis. The answers to these questions tell us how we think, act and feel every day. Without mass media and without mass communication, society would look much different. Every generation had its own leap in technology which dramatically changed the course of human existence. With each technological leap, communication and mass media evolved with it. When broadcast radio became mainstream, households across America gained access to live news and entertainment.
When computers became the main source of filing and storing information, government, media, and the general public had a new resource for communication. As technology grew, so did society’s demand and with each new image, debate, journal entry or story, came a new challenge for the media industry. Media and society have a symbiotic relationship. There is the idea that media drives society’s conversation. Can it also be true that society drives the media?
Mass media is very powerful. The industry has its finger on the pulse of the world. Twenty-four hour news cycles, readily-accessible entertainment and social media have all greatly affected the psychology of society. There is no better example of this than of body image.
In 1991, a study was performed to investigate what young girls and teenagers thought the ideal woman is. This study showed that girls believed the perfect woman is five feet, seven inches tall, 100 pounds, with blonde hair and blue eyes. (Groesz, Levine & Murnen, 2001) This image may evoke the prototypical Barbie doll. This, of course, is an almost unattainable stature for most women. How did this philosophy develop and where did adolescent girls attain that image? Is it possible this idea of the ideal woman was perpetuated by peer pressure or school? Yes. However, some of the most egregious purveyors of body image is mass media. This study, performed almost 24 years ago, shows that this has been an evolving problem that continues to go unaddressed. In fact, it can be said that it has gotten worse with the “age of information”.
Today, images of celebrities, pseudo-celebrities and models plague the internet. Photoshopping, airbrushing and other image manipulation methods can seemingly erase any flaw on the human body. It would be obvious to many people that this sort of perversion of the truth would be immensely unethical, but it goes unaddressed or unnoticed to the general population. Magazines sell these images to target markets to which they use to advertise their products. The health, fitness, and cosmetic industries, in turn, stand to profit from portraying what the perfect person should look like. (Groesz, Levine & Murnen, 2001)
Mass media also has a great influence on sexuality. Television shows, films and reality television depict a world that is often in direct opposition to reality. In 2005, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found that seven out of ten television shows depict racy or sexual content. This is almost double the sexual content that was shown only seven years earlier in 1998. (Shiver Jr., 2005) Mass media has a hand in popularizing both phenomenon, but can the chicken or egg theory be applied here? Did society already believe Barbie to be the epitome of perfection? Does the progression of social attitudes make sexual content more acceptable? If the media simply giving society what it wants? Or is the media brainwashing society into its beliefs? Professor Marissa Wagner Oehlhof of Bowling Green University is an instructor in the psychology department and teaches classes on human sexuality. She contributes much of the peer pressure on adolescents to friends, family, but also the media. (King, 2012) “We live in a sex-saturated society,” she says. Ms. Oehlhof believes the media can affect society.
“People aren’t running out and having sex because TV or radio told them, but rather this media affects our attitude…It desensitizes us to what we think and hear, makes it seem more common than it is, like it’s no big deal.” (King, 2012) If mass media can contribute to society’s psychology about ideas itself, can it also influence politics? New ways of communicating and information-seeking are constructed every day. The wireless world changes everything. Mary Cate Cary of the US News and World Report shows fives way mass media is changing the political atmosphere. First, it is acknowledged that constituents are selective in how they access information. White House Communications Director, Dan Pfeiffer says, “With the Internet, with YouTube, with TiVo, with cable TV, people are selective viewers now. [They] approach their news consumption the way they approach their iPod: You download the songs you like and listen to them when you want to listen to them.” (Cary, 2010)
This kind of technology and society’s embrace of it controls how the media approaches its job. It can also contribute to how politicians and the government create their agenda. Cary also claims the ability to share images and information changes the dynamic of the political atmosphere. She cites President Barack Obama’s penchant for using social media to communicate his message to the masses. (Cary, 2010) Cary also addresses the ability to instantly show approval or disapproval of messages or campaigns through “thumbing”, “liking” or “retweeting”; the capability of connecting with like-minded people; and even making donations to causes. (Cary, 2012) She also points to the American Red Cross, which was able to raise over $8 million for relief efforts for the earthquake in Haiti. (Cary, 2012) All of these examples are ways mass media can change the paradigm for politics. There is also the claim that mass media is biased towards on political party or the other.
It is not out of the realm of reality that many newspapers or cable news programs are much more apologetic or favorable to respective political sides. Some even openly admit it. But how much does that sway a vote? Fox News, widely considered to be conservative-leaning, began in 1996 when Rupert Murdoch launched his channel in the United States. A study showed concluded that, in conjunction with the popularity of Fox News, the 2000 Presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, could have tipped the election in Bush’s favor by half a percentage point. (Duflo, 2008) Printed media was shown to be no different. In a study conducted by Yale University researches, gave free subscriptions of newspapers to people living in the Washington D.C. area. Half the participants received a copy of the Washington Post, a Democratic-leaning publications and the other half were given a copy of the Washington Times, which is historically conservative.
Having access to the news through each of these publications upped the likelihood of potential voters by 3.5%. (Duflo, 2008) The study concluded that despite readers of the Washington Post being 11% more likely to vote Democrat, 7% of Washington Times readers were also likely to vote against the Republicans, showing that many voters do not let what they read effect how they cast ballots. (Duflo, 2008) While society may thirst for more and more information, it is also being proven that society has the ability to think critically in regards to that information. However, it does raise a new question. Is it ethical for news organizations to attempt to influence voters? After all, many cable news programs, radio broadcasts and publications are admittedly biased. This admittance shines light on the fact that the information being fed to society is not factual or being delivered in a way that may show favorability to one person or another. It can also shy people away from certain networks or newspapers that are notoriously biased. A person may automatically dismiss a story from a publication they know to be left or right-leaning.
Even though the world may never be free from bias, there are protections put in place to ensure that society will be free from oppressive thought, unethical reporting and intellectual theft. When the Founding Fathers first drafted the Constitution, they reflected on their own experiences in Great Britain. An imperial leader deciding what is best for his people, based soley on his own agenda was something they fought against. The First Amendment ensures no government of the United States oppresses its people’s freedom to think for themselves. It protects United States citizens from the government imparting its own beliefs.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. This protection means all people are fee to think, speak and believe how they feel necessary, without government intervention. It is a very important line of the Constitution and a standard to which all other rights, freedoms and protections are borne. The Founders knew that without a free society, there could be no United States of America.
Other laws that ensure legal and ethical behavior in media are copyright law and libel. Copyright laws protect intellectual property and creative works. (Vivian, 2011) These laws stretch from books and publications to music, catch phrases, and logos. Copyright laws ensure that proper credit is given to the creator and that profits cannot be made from someone else’s work. It is easy to see how this can be applied to media as lifting work from another party for ratings or financial gain is not just unethical, but also illegal.
Libel laws also protect people from being defamed or attacked in ways that can harm a person’s reputation. (Vivian, 2011) False attacks on a person can lead to lawsuits or damages being incurred on the attacking party. Libel laws make sure that accountability is being addressed when going after a particular subject.
Almost every right and protection comes with some amount of responsibility. The first amendment does not protect a person from inciting riots, viciously and falsely attacking another person or business or using someone else’s work to better their own. As technology continues to develop, it is even more important to ensure that these regulations on press, media and speech are instilled.
Mass media can seem both tangible and intangible. Images, press releases, books, publications, and entertainment are all very visible things. However, media is also fluid, evolving and significantly hinges on the intangibles and the unpredictable forces in our society. With each day that technology grows, the media is already in catch-up mode. When hard-back books became e-books, marketing techniques and accessibility had to change. When music was now played on invisible things files instead of discs, the music industry had to deploy new ways of making albums interesting. The products are all very solid objects, however, the road there is often shrouded in mystery.
As a result, mass media and society live and breathe together. Without each other, neither exists. Media affects our society every day, whether it is through self-image, politics or interests. Society itself puts a demand on media to deliver all of these products. Does the tail wag the dog? That would then force us to decide who is the tail and who is the dog.
Cary, M. 2010. 5 Ways New Media Are Changing Politics. The US News & World Report. http://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2010/02/04/5-ways-new-media-are-changing-politics Accessed on October 18, 2014 Duflo, E. 2008. Does the mass-media have political influence? Vox. http://www.voxeu.org/article/does-mass-media-influence-voters-evidence-us Accessed on October 18, 2014. Groesz, L., Levine, M., Murnen, S. March 2001. The Effect of experimental Presentation of Thin Media Images on Body Satisfaction: A Meta-Analytic Review. Department of Psychology. Kenyon College. King, D. 2012. Peers, mass media exposure can influence attitudes on sexual activity. The Big News. http://www.bgnews.com/in_focus/peers-mass-media-exposure-can-influence-attitudes-on-sexual-activity/article_cf259f12-6291-11e1-8406-001871e3ce6c.html Accessed on October 18, 2014. Shiver Jr., J. 2005. Television Awash in Sex, Study Says. Los Angeles Times. http://articles.latimes.com/2005/nov/10/business/fi-tvsex10 Accessed on October 18, 2014. Vivian, J. 2011. The Media of Mass Communication. Tenth Edition. Chapter 16. Pg. 425-436.