Does the media (print, broadcast and mass entertainment) matter? Do they change society or merely reflect society? Or do they reflect the changes made by others? Look carefully at the Frankfurt school as a source of information.
The media is an integral part of modern life experience in western society today (Giddens 2001, 452). It surrounds us in its various forms through each waking moment of our lives, whether TV or radio, newspapers and magazines or most recently the internet and mobile phones. The extent of media penetration into people’s lives leads to many questions concerning the relation of society and the media: does the media matter, does it change or reflect society and if so, what parts of society? This kind of questioning of the modern mass media was pioneered by the Frankfurt School in the 1930s, who examined the economics of the mass media, or ‘culture industry’, as well as recognising them as significant agents of socialisation, reifying or creating social norms and ideologies in the interests of the dominant social groups (Hardt 1979, 28f.; Curran & Seaton 2003, 323-29). This essay will explore these questions.
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Perhaps the most significant difference between modern and past societies is the existence of the mass media. The development of printing and the spread of paper manufacture represented the first major advance in the dissemination and preservation of information since the invention of the book form (Gardiner & Wenborne 1995, 618). A consequence of cheaper reading matter, made cheaper and more available still by the industrialisation of the process in the late 18th and 19th centuries, was a rise in literacy, which in turn led to the increasing politicisation of the mass of society and a press reckoned by some to express public opinion and make governments accountable (Curran & Seaton 2003, 4). Even before those developments, pamphleteering, made possible through the burgeoning print media, aided the spread of ideas essential to the Reformation. The sheer growth and spread of the media, beginning with the printing revolution, shows that indeed it does matter.
Nowadays, it would be fair to say that we live in a mass media society, dominated by the print media and a variety of electronic media. Advances in technology, in particular the internet and mobile phones, have become rapidly widespread. Concerning the extent to which the media dominates people’s lives, Giddens observes that people aged four and over watch an average of twenty-five hours of TV a week and that ‘if current trends in TV watching continue, by the age of eighteen the average child born today will have spent more time watching television than in any other activity except sleep’ (Giddens 2001, 453f.). This being the case, what exactly the media promotes or reflects is of prime concern. The commoditisation of culture that some have identified may be indicated by the prevalence of TV advertising. The revenue and commercial interest in the media certainly show its considerable importance. The National Association of Broadcasters in the USA sets a limit on the amount of time that can be devoted to TV advertising: 9.5 minutes per hour during ‘prime time’ and 16 minutes at other times (Giddens 2001, 454). Such statistics could indicate that watching advertising may take up over 6 hours per week. The revenue from such adverting is enormous and this in itself shows the belief that the media thus influences culture and behaviour. Indeed, the power of media advertising has lead to the creation of media simply aimed at opening new markets (Curran & Seaton 2003, 29-34).
In the above discussion, we have briefly observed the importance of the media in terms of society and economics. Kellner observes that the Frankfurt School ‘were the first social theorists to see the importance of what they called the ‘culture industries’ in the reproduction of contemporary societies, in which so-called mass culture and communications stand in the center of leisure activity, are important agents of socialization, mediators of political reality, and should thus be seen as major institutions of contemporary societies with a variety of economic, political, cultural and social effects’ (Kellner 2005). We should now examine more closely whether the media changes or merely reflects society.
There is considerable evidence to suggest that the media has the power actively to change society rather than merely present a passive reflection of it, discussed briefly above. The very existence of censorship and rules governing advertising proves that there is a widespread belief that the media will affect behaviour. Other evidence that suggest the mass media has an effect on society could be the standardisation of languages and the forging of national identities as well as the use of advertising campaigns that deliberately seek to change behaviour on a mass scale, with regard to, for example, seatbelt use in cars, drink driving and AIDS/HIV awareness (Cardiff, D. & Scannell, P. 1987). The media has also been implicated in promoting and reifying particular gender roles through the characterisation of men and women. Trowler observes that women were seven times more likely to appear in TV advertising for personal hygiene product than not; 75% of all adverts using females were for products used in the bathroom or kitchen; 56% of women in adverts were shown as domestic housewives and only eighteen different occupations were shown for women, in comparison to forty-three for men (Trowler 1996, 96). The ban on tobacco advertising also shows a clear acceptance on the part of the government that such advertising has an effect on behaviour.
It is evident that the Frankfurt School had a value-laden judgement of mass media culture.Adorno commented that ‘I consider …. that the average television entertainment is fundamentally far more dangerous politically than any political broadcast has ever been’ (quoted in Underwood 2003). Important in this view was their concept of an authentic culture and a debased mass culture that produced illusions of individuality while maintaining vested interests.Discussing this notion in their work Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer stated: ‘From the standardized jazz improvisation to the original film personality, who has to hang a curl over her eye so that she can be recognized as such, pseudo-individuality is everywhere. Individuality is reduced to the generality’s power to stamp the accidental detail so firmly that it is accepted as such. Precisely the defiant reserve or the sophisticated appearance of the individual on show is mass-produced like Yale locks’ (quoted in Underwood 2003).
The FrankfurtSchool were undoubtedly influenced by the rise of totalitarianism, as well asMarxist theories of society and Fordist systems of mass production (Curran& Seaton 2003, 323f.; Giddens 2001, 383, 462). However, it has been noted that the Frankfurt School failed to differentiate between the mass and the individuals that form it (Underwood 2003). Underwood, in more pluralistic fashion, emphasises both the active participation of individuals in their relationship with the media, selecting and interpreting the messages they receive and notes that this participation feeds back to the media itself(Underwood 2003). This is in contrast to the deterministic position of theFrankfurt School, which seems to observe the mass as a homogeneous and passive victim of the media. Of course, it should go without saying that the media is made up of many thousands of individuals who have families and actively participate in society – the media is not external to society or the individuals that form it. Another member of the Frankfurt School, Marcuse, however, viewed advertising as a manipulation of the false needs of society, and therefore may have concluded that even the extent to which people actively participate in a relationship with the media is defined by its manipulation of them (Curran & Seaton 2003, 328).
Significant in the debate over media influence is the creation of grassroots media, notably inLatin America (Green 1997, 102f.). This movement has appeared both as areaction to the domination of the media by big business and against the dominance particularly of North American cultural models expressed in film, TVand music.
In conclusion, it can be seen that the media is undoubtedly important and that there is extensive evidence that it both reflects and shapes society and individuals in both positive and negative ways. The ideas of the Frankfurt School are useful in considering the relationship between the media and society but tend to view the ‘masses’ en masse, and as passive victims of the media, rather thanas individuals who participate in an active relationship with the media. The issue of control and ownership of the media, and the extent to which this affects society, remain problematic.
- Cardiff, D. & Scannell, P. 1987. Broadcasting and national unity. In Curran, J., Smith, A. & Wingate, P. (eds.). 1987. Impacts and Influences: Essays on Media Power. London: Methuen, pp157-173.
- Curran, J., Smith, A. & Wingate, P. (eds.). 1987. Impacts and Influences: Essays on Media Power. London: Methuen.
- Curran, J. & Seaton, J. 2003. Power Without Responsibility. London: Routledge.
- Kellner, D. 2005. The Frankfurt School and British Cultural Studies: The Missed Articulation. Available at: http://www.uta.edu/huma/illuminations/kell16.htm (16/3/5)
- Gardiner, J. & Wenborne, N. (eds.). 1995. The History Today Companion to British History. London: Collins & Brown Limited.
- Giddens, A. 2001. Sociology. 4th edition. Cambridge: Polity Press.
- Green, D. 1997. Faces of Latin America. 2nd edition. London: Latin America Bureau.
- Hardt, H. 1979. Social Theories of the Press. London: Sage.
- Trowler, P. 1996. Investigating Mass Media. London: HarperCollins.
- Underwood, M. 2003. Mass Media: cultural Effects. Available at: http://www.cultsock.ndirect.co.uk/MUHome/cshtml/media/marxism.html 16/3/5)
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