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The Roles and Influence of the Media Essay

This is an essay to discuss the roles and influence of the media in modern Britain. In this essay I will be looking at some sociological theories that are put forward on how the media effects our daily live. Media can be described in various way Marshall McLuhan a media theorist view of media is that the “the medium is the message” (http:[email protected]@.3ba74f3f) this could be constructed to mean that the power of the message conveyed; depends more on what form it has taken to relay the intended message, to what the actual message is.

In Modern Day Britain media has expanded from the traditional forms of broadsheets and tabloids to television and the World Wide Web of the Internet. These different forms of media can be said to play different roles on how society interacts and is influenced by them. Again McLuhan describes media as Hot and Cold depending on how passive and active the audience is to constructing the message i.e. films and radio shows as HOT media as the person views has to construct meaning and in comparison to this COLD media such as television and reading newspapers where we do not have to interpretate the meaning and we are told the message. (Marshal McLuhan: Medium is the Message, Gingko Press Inc; 2001)

This theory is similar to Denis McQuail’s (1972) Uses and Gratification Model, which stresses different people use the media in different ways in order to obtain different sorts of pleasure or fulfil different sought of need (Haralambos; 2000:964 ). As with McLuhan, McQuail looks at how we as individuals receive and interpret different media messages. 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 effects and influences of Mass media has been studies as far back as the 1930’s, the Payne Studies study studied how mass media effected society as a whole using, at times, theories or beliefs that dated back to the late nineteenth century. This study can be regarded as one of the first realisation that mass media has an affect on the societal attitudes and beliefs of that time. (http://www.litnotes.co.uk/audtheory.htm) This debate is an ongoing through out modern society, as media is a plays a major role within society that is often linked to the notion of social influence.

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 Syringe 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. Cohen (1965) suggests that the media creates moral panics by widely reporting an initially minor event, which leads to further comprehensive reports. (Taylor et al 2000:478)

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. 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.

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 ‘Pluralist Theory’. 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.

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)

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.

The paper was undeterred by Mr Blunkett’s admission that he was “horrified” by a leader column in the Sun, which blamed asylum seekers for a “tide of disease and terrorism pouring into the country”. http://politics.guardian.co.uk/Medi … blishing/story/0,7495,884521,00.html

These articles were published in The Times, a well respected broadsheet newspaper. This newspaper is also owned by the company (News International plc) that owns The Sun run by Rupert Murdoch. It is generally accepted that newspapers can and do support particular viewpoints and parties. It could be argued that this would not matter if the newspapers were spread fairly evenly across the political spectrum. However, the great majority of papers are pro-Conservative, as can be seen from the advice on voting they give to their readers at elections. (Taylor et al, 2000:536)

In an unusual move designed to up the ante in the row over the Sun’s stance on asylum seekers, the paper’s political editor, Trevor Kavanagh, declared that “the government’s unofficial ‘open door’ policy was an inflammable vote loser”. http://politics.guardian.co.uk/Medi … blishing/story/0,7495,884521,00.html

Construction of the news is another way in which the mass media can have an influence over the masses. Television and print based news, due primarily to their fixation with crime and violence arguably has a pessimistic impact upon our societal behaviour. The media 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.

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. This is known as the ‘Pluralist Theory’, which argues society is made up of many interacting but competing sections.

These sections of society have more or less equal access to resources and influence, and they are policed by a benign and neutral state operating in the public interest. According to pluralists, different parts of the media cater to these various sections of society. The media reflect society; just as there is diversity in media content. Because the media reflect society in this way, they are unlikely to have much effect in changing society.

(Haralambos, 2000:936)

In conclusion, 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.” (Haralambos 2000:946)

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 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.


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