The Mass Media is a unique feature of modern society; its development has accompanied an increase in the magnitude and complexity of societal actions and engagements, rapid social change, technological innovation, rising personal income and standard of life and the decline of some traditional forms of control and authority.
There is an association between the development of mass media and social change, although the degree and direction of this association is still debated upon even after years of study into media influence. Many of the consequences, either detrimental or beneficial, which have been attributed to the mass media, are almost undoubtedly due to other tendencies within society. Few sociologists would refute the importance of the mass media, and mass communications as a whole, as being a major factor in the construction and circulation of social understanding and social imagery in modern societies. Therefore it is argued that the mass media is used as “an instrument”, both more powerful and more flexible than anything in previous existence, for influencing people into certain modes of belief and understanding within society.
The question of medias influence on society and its cultural framework has often been debated upon from leading theorists to anyone with any form of media connections, but to contemplate that a character in Coronation Street or Eastenders can have an influence on an audience members attitude, beliefs or interpretations of society is a very simplistic and debatable version of the truth. The media does influence, but using more diverse and subtle roles of impact. Some theorists suggest that it is even a case of society influencing the media and not the more widespread and presumed version.
In the early 1930’s, the Payne Studies study took place into the effects and influences of the mass media on the society as a whole using, at times, theories or beliefs that dated back to the late nineteenth century. This is regarded as one of the first in the area of or notion that the mass media has an affect on the societal attitudes and beliefs of that time.
This was soon follow around about a decade later in 1941 by Katz, Berelson, and Lazarsfeld who also decided to research into the topic of media effects, a research which produced the now commonly known ‘Minimum Effects Model’. The main aspect of this research being to investigate any possible link or factor that may influence voting behaviour. As has been described in numerous literature it’s ‘discovery’ was that the mass media played little or no part in the process of the formation of any political opinion, attitude or preference.
They came to the conclusion that the biggest factor influencing people was not the media, but other people. By the 1960’s, there was a revival of Marxist attitudes, and so the work of Katz, Lazarsfeld, and Berelson was largely dismissed in favour of re-examining the model of research into media effects, due to the modifications the mass media had undergone in the post 1941 period, to consider another way in which to investigate the influence and the effects of the media.
Influence, society and individuals
As Jane Root wrote in the book “Open The Box”, which delves into the possibilities of media influence, “It has a role in defining what we think of as a natural…it helps to map out who we think we are”. To look at the medias effect and influence, there is an underlying need to define influence as we understand it in relation to society and it’s overall effect.
Media is a major piece within society that is often linked to the notion of social influence. Society understands the notion or concept of being influenced as an “external force” (the media) linking itself or connecting with a personal action or viewpoint of the recipient. (John Corner: 2000: 378)
The forces of influence that have been described as a major power in media effects are those that are circumstantial and directed, those which can be placed within a framework or model, for example “uses and gratifications”, those of a generic function but ultimately those which state perspectives, interpretations, and measurements which can lead to evidence and proof.
Uses & Gratifications Model
A systematic and widely used model in social sciences study of media influence over the effects on an audience concerning behaviour, attitudes and beliefs, is the theory of uses and gratifications.
This theory can be linked to the notion of social belonging and how an audience can be deceived into believing that this concept can be achieved. The tenet underlying this approach to studying audiences was that individuals actively consume and use the media in order to meet certain needs. In reality, with the power belonging in the focus of the media, it can be defined as a tool of subliminal persuasion. (O’Sullivan, Dutton, Raymer: 1998)
Blumler and Katz (1974) concluded that audience’s fulfilment of needs came within the broad generalisation of four desires:
* Diversion – a form of escape or emotional release from everyday pressures.
* Personal Relationships – companionships via television personalities and characters and sociability through discussion about television with other people.
* Personal Identity – the ability to compare one’s life with characters and situations within programmes, and hence explore personal problems and perspectives.
* Surveillance – a supply of information about what is going on in the world.
It is believed that this need to gratify its audience with the pursuit of an idealistic social fulfilment provides the media the opportunity to convey subliminal messages that may influence our opinions, interpretations and understanding of societal factors.
The thought that the media is an overwhelming force that influences their audiences through the means of appealing to their desires and needs, must be examined in contrast with the notion that “every one is free”. Meaning that the mass media’s audience can resist being controlled, simply through choice. An individual always has the option of simply not watching that programme or not reading that particular newspaper. An individual makes the choice, and the selection that is made will merely underpin the views and inclinations that they already have.
It is believed that the most prominent sign of the mass medias influence is the link to violent programmes and violence within society. Some, technological determinists extend to the belief that the television has altered the world, and it is an “evil thing that rots the minds of youth”.
Television characters are repeatedly recognized as heroes, due to the gaining of respect and numerous other rewards through their actions, they are especially likely to be imitated. For instance at the height of it’s British dominance of children’s television, The Power Rangers were the cause of a large number of accidents, injuries and quarrels that its young audience endured due to the imitation of the characters movements and actions.
It may also act as a cue to aggressive behaviour, through desensitisation, uninhibitedness and stimulation. Scenes of violence in a horror film allegedly influenced the two accused ten year olds involved in the infamous James Bulger murder, in which a young boy was abducted and killed. It is said that they undertook the resulting actions after becoming intrigued and excited by the violent scenes within the horror movie Childs Play. At the accused’ trial the defence made an attempt to present an argument that their actions could be explained through their fascination to television and films which distorted their understandings of society, reality and moral values.
Also, it has been noted that naturally aggressive people may simply choose and prefer to watch more violent programmes than of any other nature. Friedrich and Stein found that aggressive-prone children are likely to become even more aggressive after watching violent television.
A report made by the United States Surgeon General concluded that television violence is influential, as many as 25% of child viewers may be affected. But what it doesn’t take into account is that other research undertaken had shown, that from over 300 studies using numerous amounts of children, there was no direct effect of the violence portrayed through the mass media on the youth of contemporary society, though there is considerable disagreement between different studies. For instance it could be concluded that violence can never be considered the sole cause of delinquent behaviour, it may possibly just act to reinforce or affect those that are already prone to such tendencies.
These examples have been noted as possible indications of the effects of the mass media through the means of expression of television violence, but the media is accused of also acting in more subliminal ways when looked at through the vehicle of the print based and television news.
The mass media present a stereotyped picture of life, which can often lead to undesirable prejudices within not just national, but international, society. The mass media and in particular the television and print based news are often accused as being a significant source, in wide ranging and varied ways, of enhancing common stereotypes. It is argued now that in the case of women, ethnic groups, the disabled, certain professions, the old, the physically unattractive and even nationalities are all presented according to accepted stereotypes.
As “the war on terrorism” in Afghanistan rages on the news that has come from that region has had exactly the same type of subliminal messaging that was continually occurring in the Gulf War press. The aim of that journalism was to distinguish the language concerning both sides that were at war. During the Gulf War the descriptions given to the opposite sides were of a distinct nature as to enhance the British reputation and to condemn the Saddam regime. British troops “took out”, “suppressed” and “eliminated” their opposition because of an “old fashioned sense of duty” because they are “professionals”, “brave” and “lion-hearted”, whereas Saddam’s army simply “killed” and “destroyed” because they “feared Saddam” and were “cowardly” and “Bastards of Baghdad” (O’Sullivan, Dutton, Rayner: 1998:80).
These binary oppositions are used as a form of media propaganda, the conscious manipulation of information in order to gain political advantage. By using the media as a tool of manipulation the Conservative government of the Gulf War era and the Labour government of the present day have effectively stereotyped the opposition in order to provide national unity and enhance their own political agendas. Studies have also been carried out to study the effects of television on political behaviour, with Blumler (1970) as just one, concluding that television had little or no discernible influence over the viewer.
Construction of the news is another way in which the mass media can have an influence over the masses. Through the placement of certain aspects of, for example, a news feature or the selective process made by editors it preserves the notion of media influence continually. Television and print based news, due primarily to their fixation with crime and violence arguably has a pessimistic impact upon our societal behaviour. The news can be described as being an oxymoron; giving us the skin of the truth stuffed with a lie. I personally do not concur with this as I consider that generally news does not lie, except it does not inform the audience of the entire truth by omitting the less interesting and dramatic parts. A news program is primarily focused on the facts, but for the purposes of television and the print based media they tend to emphasise on the dramatic, generally violent stories and images to capture and sustain its audience, under the facade of keeping it informed. The medias influence through the news is that it affects the public both consciously and subconsciously, and in some cases sends us about our lives unnecessarily fearing the remote dangers that we see excessively portrayed in the news.
Children’s programmes especially have a tendency to amplify stereotypes, presenting “goodies” and “baddies” within episodes. The confirmation of their stereotypes may makes children feel more comfortable with themselves if they can place someone within a group. Also some children often only have their contact with some minority groups through the television. Greenfield (1984) found that Sesame Street’s use of ethnic and disabled minorities has had positive affects on children, particularly those from the minority groups who feel greater cultural pride and self-confidence. Certain events are over-reported, such as violent or sex crimes, and this acts to alter public opinion. Cohen (1965) suggests that the media creates moral panics by widely reporting an initially minor event, which leads to further comprehensive reports, detection of causes or troublemakers.
Cantril (1940) is often referred back upon as a classic example of how the mass media can influence through the gaining of trust. It refers to an incident in the late thirties that caused a widespread public panic in America after a radio station broadcast of H.G.Wells’ fictional narrative War of the Worlds. The production involved a series of news bulletins in which the reporter gave a “live” account of a Martian invasion. A lot of listeners had tuned in a few moments after the show had begun and so, apparently unaware that the program was of a fictitious nature, believed what they were hearing was the truth and so began becoming hysterical, with some taking to the streets and others even packing up their belongings as quickly as they could and driving off in order to avoid the attacks.
Cantril’s study was the documentation of media-social relations at the time and so the “invasion” pointed towards the influence that the radio had over the masses, as they truly believed the broadcast. The primary factor in the “invasion” was the trust that the public had in radio journalism being unwittingly extended to a practical simulation. What was evident from this episode was the steady, gradual and routine influence that the mass media as a whole had exerted, led to the radio broadcasts listeners faith that they were being attacked (Corner: 2000: 385).
This case has been cited as being an excellent example of the “Hypodermic Needle Model”, a hypothesis which asserts that the media are dominant agents of influence, capable of “injecting” ideas and behaviours directly into fairly inert audiences of isolated individuals. It could also be marked down as not only showing the behavioural changes that can arise from a single piece of media output but also the underlying example of media influence that experts have looked for through experiments or fieldwork.
In closing, there are perceived to be constantly changing views on the influence that is exerted by the mass media. At first there was the attitude that the media was forcing itself upon us in such a way as to exert its influence and shape our beliefs, actions and values. Now though as time has moved on, theorists are thinking about this area of research in other ways and through diverse approaches. There was a shift in the perspective of researchers within audience reception in the seventies and is evident none more so than in the statement made by James Halloran (1970):
“We must get away from the habit of thinking in terms of what the media do to people and substitute for it the idea of what people do with the media.”
The technological determinist view, which states an overemphasis on the part of the mass media as the major, if not solitary cause of societal and cultural changes, which have effected actions and beliefs, is not the view that I personally would concur with. In my opinion the mass media is an incredible tool of persuasion and could influence somebody undoubtedly. Mass media audiences are arguably on the whole not passive, and so the amount of influence that is exerted upon the recipient depends entirely on the individual. As most pieces of media output are “polysemic” in nature, meaning that it is capable of having different meanings and readings from person to person (O’Sullivan, Dutton, Rayner: 1998:327), the way in which, or by how much, an individual is influenced is entirely through choice.
* O’Sullivan, Dutton, Rayner: (1998): Arnold Publishers
“Studying The Media: Second Edition”
The following authors were cited from “Studying The Media: Second Edition”
James Halloran (1970)
Blumler and Katz (1974)
James Curran & Michael Gurevitch: (2000): Arnold Publishers
“Mass Media And Society: Third Edition”
Chapter 19: John Corner: (2000)
Within Chapter 19, written by John Corner the following authors were cited:
* John Eldridge, Jenny Kitzninger, Kevin Williams: (1997): Oxford Uni. Press
“The Mass Media & Power In Modern Britain”
The following authors were cited from “The Mass Media & Power In Modern Britain”:
Friedrich and Stein
United States Surgeon General Report
* Jane Root: (Unknown): (Unknown)
“Open The Box”