The Leveson Inquiry (2011):
Investigating the UK media’s role in society has become a priority within the public sector in recent years. Media theorists have proposed several ideas regarding the power and influence of the media lying between them and the audience presented to.
Have we always lived in a ‘celebrity obsessed culture’?
One of the many ideas the media today has a lot to account for, but, additionally, the advent of
online social media and accessible reality formats.
This has led many media scholars and researchers to debate further and question whether the media are now dominating our everyday lives, beliefs, behaviours and actions as consequence. Through critiquing a selection of important media theories, this will allow us to uncover the usefulness of each in explaining the power relationship between the media and ourselves, as audiences.
Who are to blame in serious cases of personal privacy being invaded?
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There are two sides:
– one – the celebrities – who, to a degree, openly provide a means of media content online (via social media) to their fans of intimate moments making them easier targets to
– two – the media, who physically follow the subjects every move and action on a daily basis. This consequently makes life in the public eye increasingly harder to maintain and receive the desired reception and attention of the audience delivered to.
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The uses and gratifications theory has been developed over several decades by researchers. The theory dates back as far as the world war periods, where Herzog (1944) tried to understand the reasons and motivations behind women listening to radio soaps. Results had showed the reasons for using the radio had exceeded the traditional needs of being educated and informed. Instead, they related to women’s needs of personal identity and their relation to the characters represented in the soap. The theory itself suggests that audiences use the media instead of being used by the media. This provides a degree of independence on the audience’s part in being able to actively choose what they wish to seek out from the media. The theory liberates audiences from being directly manipulated by the media and thus giving them the freedom to make their own choices.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Chart: Arranging the most simplest of needs that we, as humans, require in order to essentially survive, starting with the most basic being the physiological processes, including respiration, food and water.
From assessments of different forms of media including TV, radio, news and quiz programmes,
McQuail, Blumler and Brown (1972) devised four different categories to formulate the theory.
The first category is personal identity, which allows media consumers to identify themselves in relation to the content they are shown by the media. This could include stereotypical magazines for women such as “Grazia” and “Vogue” which involves women seeking and promoting the current trends in fashion and beauty. In contrast, male magazines include themes of masculinity and superiority which men can desire and relate to, as, for example, magazines such as “Men’s Health” (see below left).
Fast food restaurant McDonald’s get sued for making two customers ‘obese’
– is the media in the wrong?
Other representations of people can be identified to a larger extent through television, such as the British soap “Eastenders” (BBC). These characters represent everyday life and struggles that are incurred as a result. Through this form of medium, this allows audiences to identify problems in their lives – a process known as ‘reality exploration’. The second category involves the use of the media for information. Audiences are being constantly informed by the media through the use of twenty four hour television news, updates on weather and online news media. By being informed, audiences are given the ‘opportunity for surveillance’ for which they can monitor and actively agree or disagree upon. The different means of being informed can include quiz shows, which can help to develop knowledge, and more serious programmes that can be used for less serious reasons. The less serious forms of information could include an audience’s interest for what the presenter’s appearance is, or what clothes they are wearing and how their representation can be perceived.
The third category gratifies the audiences desire to be entertained. This need for diversion or escapism comes in the form of mediums including books, magazines, films, television programmes, internet services and video games. By consuming such media this allows for audiences to break away from the pressures and worries of their own lives, and to provide them with a form of “emotional release”.
The fourth category of the theory provides the use for social interaction. This includes the opportunity to socialise and discuss the media’s content with fellow peers. Interactive and engaging forms of media are mostly responsible for this use, such as the emergence of popular reality TV formats including “Big Brother” (Channel 4) and “I’m a celebrity get me out of here” (ITV), where audiences can phone in and cast their votes for which contestants they wish to remain in the programme. This provides a high level of engagement and role of responsibility on the audiences to decide who they will choose. Other forms of social engagement have been found by Blumler et al (1972) in soaps such as Coronation Street (ITV), as they provide a “social utility” (Williams, 2003, p178) to be able to discuss the forefront of the content’s matters and issues.
The uses and gratifications theory helps to identify media consumers as independent active individuals who are able to identify their uses and needs of the media and the messages conveyed. This is because, as Katz (1959) suggests, “people selectively fashion what they see and hear to their interests”. Therefore the theory assumes we are not passive and are not directly influenced by the media to produce an expected outcome. However, the theories dependence on the individual has been widely speculated. By focusing on the individual, the theory is believed to ignore the whole “social dimension”. This concerns the common trend that when consuming the media’s content, especially forms such as TV, this is in fact done so more with other groups of consumers such as friends or family.
Furthermore, the theory can be criticised for lacking a psychological perspective. It is hard for researchers to assess the cognitive processes a media consumer has experienced. As Howitt suggests, to explain the complexity of such needs would require quite a complex and thorough understanding of our human nature. This suggests the intention or motive of consuming the media may also not be considered, and therefore not all social contexts when using the media can be applied to this theory.
The hypodermic needle theory suggests the media’s “direct and powerful influence [which] injects a message into the bloodstream of the public”. Through such manipulation, it is believed the media are able to trigger desired responses and behaviours in audiences without them actually realising the direct influence it has upon them. Such incidents and occurrences have been reported on in the past decades, which have led to moral panics and violence.
Prime examples have included the radio broadcast of H.G. Wells “War of the Worlds” in America during 1938. The broadcast revolved around a news report detailing the “arrival of Martians”:Credits go to user CNNRotatingSquare:
As a result, many Americans panicked and fled their residential areas. The police had tried to contact the radio stations and paid attention to the situation. Later it was discovered that the broadcast had fooled them, as it was in fact the audio adaptation of the “War of the Worlds” novel. This event clearly demonstrated the powerful influence the radio had on Americans at the time, as they were subliminally passive and would not question what the radio’s messages delivered to them.
Links between the media causing violent behaviour has occurred in recent decades. The murder case of the three year old toddler Jamie Bulger was linked to violent acts portrayed in the horror film “Child’s Play 3” (1991). This was because the killers “supposedly saw the film, and imitated a scene where a victim is splashed with blue paint”.
Controversy surrounds the tragic case, even to this day.
A more recent case of violence has involved the controversy surrounding the 2004 video game produced by Rockstar Games (recognised mostly for the Grand Theft Auto franchise) called “Manhunt” (2004).
A murder of a seventeen year old boy called Stefan Pakeerah took place soon after the game was released, and the parents have subsequently blamed it on this. The mother of Stefan believes if a person looks at what happened to Stefan and “the brutality….of the game [then] one can see links” (BBC, 2004). Due to the outrage surrounding the killing, the game was consequently banned from many high street retailers, despite the game developers declining a link between the video game and the events. However, despite the media being linked to a rise in violent behaviour, Jib Fowles believes violence has “effects which are cathartic rather than anti-social”. This view could help to argue and understand the usefulness of such media content in order to help a consumer learn and grasp social morals and an ethical understanding.
Psychological research conducted by Bandura during the 1960’s had investigated the effect of behaviours shown linked with aggression. Several videos of different reactive behaviours to a Bobo doll were presented.Credits go to user DebateFilms:
The results found imitation with those children who had seen the film with no consequences or with the actor being rewarded for his aggressive action. This can be supported by the social learning theory, which suggests “behaviour is learned by imitating those activities which are highly rewarded”. However, the reward in these examples being violence is a growing concern as some audiences appear to seek pleasure from reproducing such behaviours and not realising the severe implications.
The hypodermic needle can be criticised for ignoring the notion of active audiences as regarding the audience’s decision to agree or disagree with what the media has conveyed to them. By leaving out this “active agency” the theory reduces the audience to a “passive sponge” and assumes the audiences are not capable of actively interpreting and deciding on information and messages presented to them. This applies effectively with our perception of famous figures and the rise of celebrity culture over the last couple of decades. As the media is not always objective in their depiction or portrayal of the subject, we as audiences should take the responsibility to determine what WE think of the content being reproduced to us, rather than what THEY think we should think of it.
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However, on the other hand, the hypodermic needle has proved valid in some cases of modern mass culture history. A prime example of this had been during the Second World War in Germany in which Adolf Hitler was running his propaganda campaigns which were fed to the masses through the radio and Nazi party rallies involving thousands of audiences. The hypodermic theory has been believed to be used effectively on those “vulnerable…will unquestionably be adversely affected”. Through such indoctrination used by Hitler, the theory demonstrates in practice how such reinforced messages can bring a country together, regardless of the positive or negative impacts it had brought.
Furthermore, the hypodermic needle model has been able to identify those who fall prone to what Coleman describes as “copy-cat catastrophies”. An example of such an occurrence was after the suicide of the famous female American actress Marilyn Monroe. Research has demonstrated the extensive influence and coverage of the event by the media, as results had found “the suicide rate in the United States increased briefly by 12%” (Cosimo, 2010). However some researchers have questioned the credibility of the hypodermic model. Kitzinger believes “early notions that the media act as a hypodermic directly injecting ideas into people’s minds have now largely been discredited” (Media hub teacher’s Blog, 2010). This suggests we are now becoming a more active consumer society, where ultimately we are now able to decide what we believe and how we behave.
The cultivation analysis is based upon research conducted by Gerbner et al, who found “television cultivates a particular view of the world in the minds of the viewers”. By television creating this effect, it reduces the diversity of social groups and consumers as part of the process known as homogenisation. This, as Postman believes, “does not significantly increase learning” (Williams, 2003, p180) and therefore limits our capabilities as active seeking audiences. Such thinking can be applied to the popular reality TV format such as “Big Brother” (Channel 4). By watching these cast stereotypes, we as the viewer are provided with a shaped and reproduced presentation of them. By doing this, “our notions about people of different races will be less unique and widespread and these negative, unfair notions will be cemented in our minds as genuine fact” (Gulisano, 2008). Thus, we are provided with only a narrow view of people in society. It is through this format our views and conceptions of people from different cultures and backgrounds become more pre-destined and selected, and we become increasingly passive and more subject to the media’s messages and reinforced views.
On the other hand, the cultivation analysis provides detailed and thorough research in a wide selection of TV coverage, rather than selected content such as programmes or films. However, the theory does not consider behaviourism in order to understand the media consumer’s interpretations and approaches to the content they are viewing. Furthermore, the cultivation analysis can be criticised for taking the assumption that homogeneity is present amongst the majority of media consumers. This however has been supported by Barker (1998) who believes the ‘heavy viewer’ will eventually submerge him or her in the media’s worldview”. This argument is an important debate as it rejects theories including the uses and gratifications model through suggesting the heavy viewer is able to assess and interpret the media’s messages more effectively than the “lighter” media consumer.
This theory does not achieve to consider the broader range of media available to our modern consumer society. Through access to other forms including online media, YouTube, documentaries, radio, music and film, consumers are able to make a more valid judgement of the messages they see. This is because many other sources provide millions of people with far more objective, accurate information on a daily basis.
However, methodologies of Gerbner’s research have been widely criticised for failing to consider “the amount of time people watch television [and] viewers who are constantly tuned into CNN or The Discovery Channel”. This theory is misleading in that it cannot sufficiently explain the process of cultivation and whether it actually occurs, especially amongst heavy viewers. Further support to this claim has been found from attempts to replicate the study, finding the generated data [did not] support the claim television shapes people’s perceptions of the world around them. Contrary to this however, the cultivation theory has allowed to widen and further the scope of media power and debate in considering other causal factors which have concerned the individual’s role more than the media’s influence.
The power between the media and audiences is a very complex and critically engaging subject, which from this debate has demonstrated several factors at play. The theories deconstructed and evaluated have included the audience as active and passive consumers, the media’s indoctrination through injection of powerful messages and the media’s cultivation of audience’s views. Despite the power of the media being a subject of constant debate for media researchers, it is without doubt the media will always influence the ideas of audiences. Therefore audiences of different consciences will be influenced by the media’s exertion of power, regardless of how aware they are of this, consciously or sub-consciously.
Ultimately, it is irrefutable that the scale of power between the media and its audiences cannot simply be determined by one theory or idea. It is instead determined by a wealth of perspectives and approaches which have ranged from empirical data to psychological research.Photo Credits: