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Society, Economics and Politics: The Power and Business of Consumer Mass Media Essay

Society, Economics and Politics: The Power and Business of Consumer Mass Media

In October 30, 1938, thousands of Americans filled the streets in a panic over the CBS radio “news” broadcast of Martians attacking the planet. In several “news bulletins,” listeners were told of people being killed by the Martians’ heat rays, the landing of even more Martian ships, and the destruction of bridges and various structures all over the United States along with the defeat of the US government’s military forces.  It was some time later before people finally realized that the broadcast they heard was just a clever and realistic adaptation done by radio broadcaster Orson Welles of the novel “War of the Worlds,”(1898) by H.G. Wells…and that was just radio.

Television, radio, print and film. Four traditional and major modes of public communication better known collectively as mass media all designed for three major purposes: to inform, to entertain and to present concepts and ideas. All four possess wide audience reach, audience attraction, and have the capability to open up wide avenues for information dissemination and entertainment to the widest range of audience in the shortest period of time. Its effectiveness and all around presence as modes of communication

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have become so that mass media has often been credited with the power to influence, shift and define public opinion… All four are also primarily business enterprises whose measure of success is determined by profit and revenues.

1. Purpose of Research

The researcher proposes to identify the many concrete ways media influences society particularly in the perception of sex, gender, violence and politics. Having determined the reality of the extent of mass media’s influence, the researcher then proposes to identify whether the business of mass media has a significant effect on the way information is presented to the public and how the journalistic ethics of objectivity and responsibility are possibly compromised. The researcher also seeks to prove that there is a growing awareness among the public of the existence of such corporate influence and subsequent biases in the practice of mass media.

2. Research Question

             Is the perceived influence of mass media on society a realistic concern?  Is the business nature of media interfering in the journalistic ideals of objectivity and responsibility? How do the audiences of mass media view these corporate influences and possible biases in the practice of mass media?

3. Summary and Context of Literature

Sociologists and psychologists alike agree that media has a degree of influence in the way people perceive trends, issues and concepts as media, in all its ubiquity has become one of the elements that people interact with and have become dependent on in their environment.

What are the latest fashion trends? Who is leading in the presidential race? What is the best diet to go on these days? The answer to these questions may be found by just flicking on the television or opening newspapers and magazines. Bottom line is, people believe the media particularly information that are presented as news and fact.

There was a time when the line between advertising, public relations and journalism was discernible. In today’s consumer driven times however, that line has started to blur. While some people are capable of having critical discernment of the information presented in media in all its forms, what of those who don’t or are yet incapable of such discernment? The audience of mass media is not limited to mature adults. Children in their formative years to adolescence are just as exposed to mass media in the same rate as adults are if not more.

4. Tentative Argument/ Hypothesis

The researcher believes that while the public is aware that media to some extent influences societal perceptions, the gravity of such influence particularly among the younger audiences remains a matter of concern that needs to be addressed.  The researcher further posits that the concept of objectivity remains to be a debatable issue in the practice of mass media. Responsibility however should be a clear and non-negotiable mandate in the practice of both business and media.

II. Review of Related Literature

            According to an article by Michael Shapiro and T. Makana Chock that appeared in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media in 2004, there are two ways by which reality is perceived by the audience in mass media. The first is “perceived reality” which pertain to events seen in the media that people may judge to be “similar” to what may happen in actual reality. “Typical reality” is a person’s acceptance of concepts as “typical” or to be expected in any given scenario with or without the value of personal experience (Shapiro & Chock, 2004).

These “realities” can influence an individual’s thought processes, attitudes, beliefs and subsequent behavior towards the relationship between ideas presented in media and their actual life reality. The researchers found that the more the stories fit the ideas of people on what was “typical,” the more real the people and events in those stories seemed. This relationship was stronger for relative perceived reality than for absolute perceived reality. (Shapiro & Chock, 2004)

John Beyer, in his article that appeared in the English newspaper The Birmingham Post,

Details an interview he conducted with Dr. Susan Bailey, a US-based forensic psychiatrist. In the

interview, Dr. Bailey recounts  her experience in the early 80’s when she documented 20 cases of murder cases involving youths over a period of five years. She further recounts how twenty five percent of the offenders admitted to being influenced by the very graphic “violent and pornographic films they had watched” prior to their commission of the offense. (“PERSPECTIVE: How Movie and,” 2007, p. 9)

Beyer goes on to quote famed Hollywood director Oliver Stone as saying: ‘Film is a powerful medium, film is a drug, film is a potential hallucinogen – it goes into your eye, it goes into your brain, it stimulates and its a dangerous thing – it can be a very subversive thing’.” (“PERSPECTIVE: How Movie and,” 2007, p. 9)

In a study done by Kathryn Greene and Marina Krcmar (2005) it was found that the presence of psychological factors such as neurosis, verbal aggressiveness and “sensation-seeking” in individuals influenced their preference for violent movies. Exposure to media showing violence heightened their aggression and gave them a “validation for their own personal aggressive tendencies.” (Greene & Krcmar, 2005)

Violence and perceptions regarding it are not the only things that media has a hand in shaping. In a study that appeared in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence in 2001, researchers were able to establish a direct link between the things and concepts presented by the media to the development of adolescent self-esteem. (Polce-Lynch, Myers, Kliewer & Kilmartin, 2001, p. 225)

Clinical psychologist Dr. Mary Pipher is also cited as supporting this idea of a link between media and adolescent self-esteem in her work “Reviving Ophelia”(1994) where she criticized media for setting “unrealistic expectations of girls’ physical appearances” that led to eating disorders among young girls  (Pipher, 1994)

In a study (2006) that appeared in the Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, teenagers between the ages of 12 to 18 have admitted to taking different forms of supplements such as protein shakes and diet pills to enhance their physique and look like the models being featured in the fashion and fitness magazines (“Body Image, Supplements and Media Influence,” 2006)

In her article on the relationship between magazine reading and adolescent’s body image (2003), Renee Botta states: “Magazine reading has been a consistent predictor of body image and eating disturbances for women. ” (Botta, 2003).

In addition to the many weight-loss and shaping products, advertisements and articles that already fill most magazines (Andersen & DiDomenico, 1992, p.31) there has been a growing trend in the recent years of using very thin models “–many whose body mass meets the requirements for anorexia nervosa– ” (Cusumano & Thompson, 1997; Wiles, Wiles, & Tjernkund, 1996) in trendy and popular magazines. (Botta, 2003)

In an interview with the Washington Times (1997), Dr. Pipher blames media for the rapidly growing sexual awareness of children. She likens the constant presence of sexual themes in music and media to “sexual harrassment,” of its audience particularly the youth. (Modorato-Rosta, 1997, p. 2)

            The article by Monique Ward and Rocio Rivadeneyra (1999) in the Journal of Sex Research discusses television’s contradictory nature when it comes to sex education.  While television as a medium offers a non-embarrassing way of learning about relationships and intimacy through story lines and themes, there are concerns that the messages TV sends “about sexuality are limited, stereotypical, and potentially harmful.” (Ward & Rivadeneyra, 1999, p. 237)

The problem is that while most television programs are based on fiction, there are many aspects of the portrayals and role-playing that closely resemble those in real life. Consequently, most theories predict that television’s impact will increase the more realistic its content is perceived to be (Huston, Wartella & Donnerstein, 1998). The “perceived reality” (Shapiro & Chock, 2004) therefore, forms and becomes a “typical” picture of intimacy and relationships.

            There is also a perceived relationship between exposure to media and “estimates of real-world frequency of sexual behaviors depicted on television, including extramarital affairs, sex without love, bragging about sex (males only), being parent to illegitimate children, and using sex for favors. (Taylor, 2005)

            The development of gender roles within children is another thing that is influenced by exposure to mass media states a study done by Susan D. Witt on “The Influence of Television on Children’s Gender Role Socialization”(2000). According to Witt, a child’s experience of watching television and interacting with other forms of media exposes him or her to gender stereotypes in his or her formative years. If a child gets used to seeing a male doctor assisted by a female nurse on television, the idea that only men can be doctors and women can only be nurses is formed in the child’s perception.  (Witt, 2000. p322)

Dr. William Huitt and John Hummel (Huitt & Hummel, 2003) explain children’s assimilation of knowledge and learning of gender stereotypes referring to the theories presented by Jean Piaget on children’s cognitive development. They explain that following Piaget’s theory, children pick up knowledge and concepts of human relationships through assimilation of ideas present in their environment including exposure to all forms of media.

            Besides for entertainment, people have always relied on media for news and information (Abdolian & Takooshian, 2003). It is from these facts that they get from the media that public sentiment and opinion are derived.

What is public opinion?  According to the book “Media Effects and Society”(2001) by Elizabeth Perse, public opinion should not be taken simply as a common sentiment shared by a group of people. It should be defined as a “group consensus about matters of political concern which has developed in the wake of informed discussion” (Perse, 2001, p. 83)

            With today’s trend of rising “media consolidation and cartelization” in addition to the ratings competitions among networks however, there are questions as to just how objective and unbiased are stories pertaining to current events and issues (Champlin & Knoedler, 2002).

            Media consolidation has put business executives rather than journalists in charge of news divisions, and thus increased the pressure for profits (Jamieson, 2000). To earn profit, news that goes on air must attract audiences in order to generate ratings,” and that means ratings from the demographic groups most attractive to advertisers.” (Champlin & Knoedler, 2002)

            Broadcast media such as television and radio earn from placements by advertisers (Croteau and Hoynes). In order to get the kind of market advertisers want, statistical services such as the QNBC allows NBC “to analyze how the target audience responds to the news stories and advertisements, and as a result, its news division is the “”most profitable broadcast news in the history of television.”‘(qtd in Champlin & Knoedler, 2002)

In what could be seen as a result of the inevitable consumer reaction to media influence by networks and advertising, many people resort to ad muting or switching off the sound whenever TV commercials come on.

The past couple of years have also been witness to the development and proliferation of technologies such as web casting (shows on the internet) and podcasting.

Podcasting comes from the words broadcast and the ipod, Apple’s ubiquitous MP3 player. Generally speaking, Podcasts are MP3 recordings that allow anyone with an MP3 player (not limited to ipod’s) to download and listen.  Given the huge popularity of MP3 players, podcasting has spurred the growth of amateur shows produced in what could be nothing more than a garage or basement.

Despite low production values, why do Podcasts thrive? It is because they provide listeners with benefits the regular media can’t provide such as web audio downloading, the option to hit pause and rewind, and best of all, enjoy commercial and FCC regulation free programming. (Michelle, 2005, p. 58).

Special web sites such as You Tube has also gained popularity for the opportunity they offer people not only to post their personal videos but also act as a “citizen TV” where people can post footages of events that they have taken with personal cameras and video/camera enabled mobile devices. Some people subscribe to Internet broadcasts of television programs that offer commercial free viewing.

            Sensing the growing anti-advertising sentiment of the public, advertisers and marketers are increasingly trying to find ways to make their ads “viewer friendly” giving more emphasis on entertainment value or through subtlety such as product placements. From hard selling, advertisers have started switching to more soft sell tactics like product placement in shows and the hiring and sponsoring of celebrity endorsers to push their products.

“Objective news media” is not without criticism either. In his article that appeared in the July-August issue of  ‘The Humanist,” author, media critic and lecturer Michael Parenti (1997) discourses on the many ways by which media may be manipulated. Parenti acknowledges that things such as “deadline pressures, human misjudgment, budgetary restraints” and difficulties in expressing long reports concisely as well as the inevitable need for “selectivity” in news reporting may inadvertently cause distortions and inaccuracies. (Parenti, 1997)

            He however questions what “principle of selectivity” is involved in news writing?   He further contends that media companies, though not in too obvious a manner, often pick a side on issues. These sides are usually reflective of dominant ideologies and very seldom provoke “discomfort” among “those who hold political and economic power, including those who own the media or advertise in it.” (Parenti, 1997) He further says that manipulation is not see in what is being said in the media but rather what are left unsaid and uncovered. (Parenti, 1997)

            The definition of “objectivity” in what has become a profit-driven industry has become complex. From the blunt definition of objectivity as reality as it is and not what people want it to be, it has become a concept that has become synonymous with “passive reception of news.” (Cunningham, 2003)

            Furthermore, the evolution of the relatively new industry of “public relations” into something that is a permanent appendage of most news organizations severely affected the arena of objective journalism.

            A different view of how objectivity should be defined however is presented in Robert McCabe Jr.’s critique of Jeremy Iggers’ book “Good News, Bad News: Journalism Ethics and the Public Interest,” (1998).  Iggers proposes that media should be less distant and take on a more proactive role in helping communities put the spotlight on social issues with the purpose of affecting change. (McCabe, 1999, p. 199)

McCabe further agrees with Iggers’ contention that objectivity and journalistic ethics in the media is a “pipe dream, the product of a flawed epistemology.” (McCabe, 1999, p. 199)

            The debate over the objectivity of the media be it for its profit oriented news or passivity at receiving facts has raged so much particularly between the left and right-wing political parties. Both parties contended that the media in the 90’s tended to support the other group more than their own. Finally, in 1996, the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) commissioned a study into public attitudes about the Press. (Smith, 2002) The survey revealed that around 74% of Americans are aware of a degree of political bias in most news broadcasts and coverage. Of this, 63% opine that news concerning political and social issues are not as objective as they should be and show a tendency to “favor one side.” (Smith, 2002)

In the latter years however, consumers have been more demonstrative and outspoken in speaking out against aggressive advertising in media. In addition to the traditional letters to the editor in print media, audiences phone in their own comments to radio and television broadcasts. People have also become more active in campaigns for better and more effective ad controls against “pushy” ads such as those of diet supplements and junk foods that are directed towards children. (“Junk-Food Ads for Children,” 2004, p. C11) Already parents are finding themselves resorting to various tactics of advertising mediation for their children who, due to TV and radio ads, show a tendency towards developing materialistic attitudes. (Buijzen & Valkenburg, 2005)

 Various consumer movements and consumer research/campaign agencies have also sprouted up monitoring the excessive influence wielded by advertisers and PR machines on media content.

Conclusion

            The relationship between mass media and society is both complicated and sensitive. First, it has been established that media is an integral part of living in today’s modern times. Second, its power to influence and shape perception of issues, gender, relationships and other socio-cultural markers is also undeniable. However, much as media starts off with ideals, media is still a business and therefore could not survive on just ethics and ideals alone. “Ratings” is a key word to remember when looking at the profit-making side of media. Advertisers are wooed into buying advertising slots with the promise of good audience exposure.

 Consequently, for broadcast and print media to attract audiences, networks are compelled to produce content that may or may not be ideal to the point of being controversial, but are sure audience attention-grabbers. Unfortunately, not all people however are capable of discerning facts from hype and fiction. Factors like age, education and psychology govern the degree of influence and varying reactions mass media elicits from its audience.

Summing up of Reviewed literature based on stated Hypothesis

The literature reviewed in this research reveal solid proof of mass media’s influence on societal perception of issues like sex, violence, gender, and politics. Such influence is also proven to be powerful particularly among adolescents and children. While there may still be some ongoing debate as to the application of the concept of “objectivity” in the news media, the concept and the word “responsibility” is certainly not ambiguous.  Often media people and their respective companies are heard defending the public’s “right to know.” But if media is controlling what the public does get to know, then they certainly must take responsibility for the effects of their content and broadcasts.

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References

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