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Page 1: Mass Media | 1 Defining and ResearchingMass Media Defining and Researching Mass Media. the mass media 1 Mass media refers to communication with large numbers of people,

Chris Livesey

Mass Media

Defining and Researching Mass Media

Page 2: Mass Media | 1 Defining and ResearchingMass Media Defining and Researching Mass Media. the mass media 1 Mass media refers to communication with large numbers of people,

the mass media


Mass media refers to communication withlarge numbers of people, something traditionally seenas ‘one-to-many’ communication: one person (such asthe author of a book), communicates to many people(the audience)simultaneously.

This basic idea can, ofcourse, be extended toinclude "a newspaper" or"a television programme"being "the one" thatcommunicates - but thebasic principle is alwaysthe same.

This simple definitiondoes, of course, hide anumber of complexities- how large does anaudience have to be,for example, before itqualifies as ‘mass’? - and we can noteDutton et al (1998) suggest that,traditionally, the mass media has beendifferentiated from other types of communication (suchas interpersonal communication that occurs on aone-to-one basis) in terms of a range of essentialcharacteristics. Communication between those whosend and receive messages (information) is:

● impersonal,● lacks immediacy and is● one-way (from the producer / creator to the

consumer / audience).

There is, in this respect, both a physical andtechnological distance between sender and receiver:everyone receives the same message and theaudience cannot directly interact with the sender tochange or modify that message.

Mass communication is organised and requires avehicle, such as a television, computer or phone thatallows messages to be sent and received. It isinescapably bound-up with technology because amass medium allows large-scale simultaneouscommunication with many people.

A popular UK television programme, such as Dr. Whoor Sherlock can draw around 8 - 10 million viewers,while the global audience for something like the footballWorld Cup runs into hundreds of millions.

Mass communication may also be commodified - itcomes at a price. You can watch films on TV, forexample, if you can afford a television, a license fee (to

watch BBC or ITV) or a subscription to a satellite orcable company, such as Sky or Virginmedia.

Although these characteristics still hold true for thetraditional mass media (newspapers, magazines,books, television, radio, film and so forth), the picturehas been complicated - and in some respectscompletely changed - by the development of newer,computer-based, technologies that don’t fit easily intoall but the last of the characteristics we've just outlined

(mass communication comes with somesort of price tag...).

This follows becausenewer technologies,such as mobile (cell)and smartphones orpersonal computershave the capacity forboth interpersonal(‘one-to-one’)communication andmass (‘one-to-many’)communication.

Email, for example, caninvolve exchangingpersonal messages withfriends and family or

sending one message to manymillions. Over the past 10 - 15 years, therefore, thedevelopment of computer networks such as theInternet have changed both the way we relate to, useand, most significantly define, what we mean by massmedia. Their development also raises the interestingquestion of whether we should now be talking aboutmany mass mediums rather than the mass media…

Computer networks, in this respect, open up thepotential for ‘many- to-many’ communication; a massaudience can simultaneously communicate with eachother to create a mass medium based on interpersonalcommunication.

The commodification of mass media

Definingthe mass media

“One-to-many” communication.

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Various forms of social media, from Facebook toTwitter, arguably conform to two of the components ofa ‘mass medium’ - technology and scale - andcommodification is, arguably, a third component,although this is complicated somewhat by the questionof what, or indeed who. is actually being commodifiedin this particular instance.

Distance is, however, a problem because social mediacan, simultaneously, involve one-to-one, one-to-manyand many-to-many communication:

Peer-to-peer networks, using software to link individualcomputers to exchange information, is anotherexample of many-to-many communication. In theworkplace, for example, any number of people cancontribute to the same document at the same time -although perhaps one of the most common (andfrequently illegal) use for peer networks is to sharecopyrighted music and films. Computer networks alsoopen-up forms of interactive communication thatchange how we define the mass media, in terms of therelationship between the production, distribution andconsumption of information.

These ideas suggest that, at the very least, we need toredefine conventional concepts of mass media bydistinguishing between two forms:

1. Old media, such as television, books andmagazines involve ‘one-to-many’ communication,based on a one-way process; information is producedand distributed by a media owner, such as the Stateor private corporation, and this is passivelyconsumed by a mass audience.

While an audience can accept or reject the informationtransmitted , they play no part in its production, nor canthey change it. The roles of producer and consumerare, in this respect, both different and clearlydifferentiated.

2. New media not only allows for simultaneous two-way communication, it also changes the producer -consumer relationship; someone who sets-up theirown web site, writes a blog, maintains a presence onFacebook or regularly uses Twitter is both theproducer and the consumer of media information. Inthis respect consumers are also active producersand the roles of producer and consumer are bothsimilar and largely undifferentiated.

Who or what is being commodified through social media?

A YouTube gaming channel where theproducer is the consumer.

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Crosbie (2002) has argued new media has threecharacteristics that make them very different to otherforms of mass media:

● They can't exist without the appropriate (computer)technology.

● Information can be personalised; individualisedmessages tailored to the particular needs of thosereceiving them can be simultaneously delivered tovast numbers of people.

● Collective control means each person in a networkcan share, shape and change the content of theinformation being exchanged.

Quantitative forms of this research method are astatistical exercise, based on a content analysis grid,that involves categorising and quantifying aspects ofbehaviour to systematically reveal underlying patternsand themes in the media.

Meehan’s (1983) study of US daytime television, forexample, revealed the limited number of stereotypicalroles played by female characters at this time andsuggests this form is particularly useful for identifyingand classifying recurrent themes in a media text, suchthat quite complex forms of social interaction can beexplored.

In a slightly different way Hogenraad (2003) usedcomputer-based content analysis to search historicalmedia accounts of war to identify key recurring themesthat signify the lead up to conflict. The objective herewas to identify the ideological markers, transmitted tothe audience that signified support for aggression.

Similarly, Miller and Riechert (1994) developed theidea of concept mapping, where computer technologyis used to identify and describe ‘themes or categoriesof content in large bodies of text’.

For Page (2005) this involved using computertechnology to analyse different texts (such asnewspaper articles going back many decades) tosearch for key words or phrases indicating the use ofsimilar ideas or concepts - an idea similar to tagclouds where the most popular search options appearas larger text on a web site.

Page was interested in the social construction of globalwarming and he used "content analysis of prominentmedia streams from the mid-80s" to investigatewhether or not the media advanced a dominantinterpretation of this concept, as either a man-madeor natural phenomenon.

In this way content analysis can be usedlongitudinally to track how ideas develop or areconsolidated and can reveal media patterns andtrends over a given time period that may be hidden toindividual audience members.

This idea applies not just to national media -differences in understanding, interpretation andemphasis across international boundaries can also berevealed by content analysis.

The distinction between old and new formshas important implications for ourunderstanding of the mass media in terms ofideas about ownership and control, theselection of media content and the possibleeffects of the mass media on audiences thatwill be explored in more detail in subsequentsections.

Conventional debates, for example, havefocused on the extent to which the media, asa secondary socialising agency,determines audience behaviour.

Similarly, debates over something likecensorship - in terms of access to variouskinds of information - have been transformedby the development of new media.

Researchingthe mass media

1. Content analysis

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We can illustrate these ideas further by outliningexamples of research on "gender scripts" designed totell an audience how to be male and female.

● McRobbie (1977) argued female identities - asdepicted in the pages of Jackie", the best-sellingteenage magazine of the time - were shaped by a"narrow and restricted view of life", marked by"Romance, problems, fashion, beauty and pop",coupled with an "idealised and romanticised" view ofboys. Jackie girls inhabit a world of "romanticindividualism" where the objective is to find and keep"her man".

● Ferguson's (1983) longitudinal analysis of women'smagazines described a "cult of femininity" revolvingaround traditional female values of caring for others,marriage, and concern with appearance. The generalmessage was women should define themselves interms of male needs.

● Sharpe's (1976) study of teenage girls found femaleidentities were shaped around “love, marriage,husbands, children, jobs and careers, more or less inthat order”.

● Cumberbatch (1990) found TV adverts used maleand female identities in different ways - older menand younger women were more likely to be used thanother age groups. The former featured heavily whenan advertiser wanted to convey authority, especiallywhen an advert featured technical expertise, whileyoung women were used to convey sexiness.

● Best (1992) demonstrated how pre-school textsdesigned to develop reading skills are populated bysexist assumptions and stereotypes about males andfemales.

● Kraeplin (2007) examined how popular magazinesaimed at teenage girls linked personal appearancewith consumerism and consumption (”Women areconstantly being made aware of their imperfections,then offered products that will help them attain thesocially constructed ideal").

● Ward (2016) examined how the content of celebritymessages on Instagram affected the largely femalefanbase response to different messages.

These examples, although relatively recent, largelypredate the development of new media and this adds anew layer of diversity to the range of information nowavailable; one that that questions the kind of "cosyconsensus" about gender represented through thesestudies, since the idea of a media consensus is moredifficult to sustain where both access to andconsumption of media has changed.

Cumberbatch's study, for example, was based on twocommercial TV stations; there are now many hundredsof channels available.

Robson (2002) also points to a couple ofmethodological strengths of content analysis.

Firstly, it’s an unobtrusive method; data can be takenfrom texts without the need to interact with researchsubjects. Consequently, there are few ethical problemswith this type of research. In addition, the researcherdoesn't rely on a respondent's memory or personalknowledge which removes a layer of potential bias fromthe research process.

Secondly, reliability is improved through the ability toreplicate the research - something made easier by theunchanging nature of the source material.

In terms of weaknesses, while content analysisuncovers themes within texts, it doesn’t tell us muchabout how audiences understand - or decode - mediamessages. Just because a theme is present, it doesn'tmean an audience recognises it or necessarily acceptsit.

Methodologically we have to assume identified patternsaren’t simply artefact effects - a product of how data isclassified. How a researcher categorises the contentthey observe, for example, may suggest a pattern ofbehaviour that is neither present nor has any affect onpeople’s behaviour in the real world.

In addition, where the analysis involves makingjudgements about the categorisation of behaviour - theresearcher decides the categories used - this may lowerreliability: different researchers may use differentcategories or different criteria for placing behaviour intosimilar categories.


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Qualitative forms of content analysis take a differentapproach.

Conceptual (or thematic) analysis, for example,extends quantitative analysis by focusing on theconcepts or themes that underlie media content suchas news reports and magazine articles.

Philo and Berry (2004), for example, identify recurringthemes in news reports of the Israeli - Palestinianconflict, such as language differences when referring tosimilar forms of behaviour; Palestinians were frequentlyclassed as ‘terrorists’ while Israeli settlers were called‘extremists’ or ‘vigilantes’.

Relational (or textual) analysis examines how textsencourage readers to see something in a particularway.

Hall (1980) refers to this as a preferred reading - howa text is constructed, through the use of language,pictures and illustrations, for example, subtly “tells” theaudience how to interpret the information presented.Professional sport in British popular newspapers, forexample, is frequently presented in a way thatsuggests it is almost exclusively a male activity.

In terms of limitations, the depth and complexity ofqualitative analyses makes them labour-intense andtime consuming, while the subjectivity of the analysisintroduces reliability problems - different researchersmay interpret the meaning of the data differently,depending on their initial theoretical perspective.

They are also prone to confirmation bias (cherry-picking); it's relatively easy for a researcher to interpretdata in ways that confirm their initial hypothesis, whileignoring data that doesn't fit neatly into the hypothesis.

Semiology is the study of cultural meaningsembedded in media forms and, as Stokes (2003)suggests, is frequently combined with content analysisto produce a more-rounded picture of media textsthrough its ability to explore and interpret the ‘hiddenmessages’ embedded within texts. In this respect,semiology is based on two fundamental ideas: signsand codes.

Danesi and Perron (1999) define signs as:

"something that stands for something, to someone insome capacity"

while Saussure (1974) argues signs consist of twoideas:

1. The signifier - the particular form taken by a sign.

2. The signified - what the sign represents.

The word "natural", for example, is a signifier forsomething "not artificial"; however, it can alsorepresent a range of different ideas, depending on thecontext.

In advertising, for example, "natural" is frequentlyused to signify ideas like "good" and "healthy" (eventhough there are numerous things in nature that areneither good nor healthy). This general idea can befurther expressed in terms of two levels of meaning:

1. The denotative or what something is - a literalrepresentation.

2. The connotative - what something means.

2. Semiology

A light bulb denotes a source of light.But what connotations can it have?

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Signs always have a meaning - although the meaningcan differ from group to group or culture to culture.

In our culture a man giving a woman 12 red rosesmight intend to symbolise his love or affection; doingthe same in Russia symbolises death - even numbersof flowers are only given to people at funerals.

Chandler (2009) notes "the meaning of a sign dependson the code within which it is situated"; codes "providea framework within which signs make sense".

Codes, therefore, refer to conventions that "need tobe learned" and language itself is an example of therelationship between signs and codes. The meaning ofa word (sign) depends on the grammatical context(code) within which it is located.

Codes have three significant features:

1. They are an integral part of communication -language cannot function without them.

2. They must be shared; in any communication systemeveryone needs to understand the cultural codes beingused; where two people don't speak the samelanguage, for example, they often use visual codes(non-verbal communication) such as hand gestures, asa way of finding some common grounds forcommunication.

3. Codes can create "hidden meanings" within a text -advertisers, for example, use words like "natural" as acultural code to suggest "health" (using a variety ofvisual cues to embed this association) without actuallyhaving to support the claim their "natural product" isindeed healthy.

These features of coding means semiology can beused to analyse media texts in two ways:

Firstly. to understand how conventions are used bymedia organisations to convey a variety of messages -from selling things, such as consumer goods, to ideas -such as lifestyles of ideologies.

Advertising, for example, uses simple codes toencourage people to both consume and, of course,consume the "right things" (an advertiser's productrather than that of a rival). Jhally's (1987) study of1000 U.S. television commercials, for example, lookedat how product advertising is framed in relation todifferent target audiences, such as males and females- something that involved two processes:

● inventing qualities for products that define theessence of their existence (such as "the sciencebit" in the advertising of female cosmetics).

● disconnecting products from their overt, practical,use and reconnecting them to a range of abstractqualities. This allows consumers to invest productswith the qualities they personally desire. Where onefloor cleaning product is much like any other, theadvertiser seeks to imbue their product withdesirable, but abstract, properties (ease of use,efficiency, time saving…).

Death Cap mushrooms:perfectly natural and perfectly poisonous

(the clue is in the name)

Probably just tired?

The death of love?

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Jhally combined content analysis - identifying thecharacteristics of different types of advert - withsemiology to uncover how products are sold todifferent audiences using different cultural appeals:

● 75% of adverts aimed at men were focused aroundtransport, alcohol and personal care.

● 60% of adverts aimed at women focused onpersonal care, food and drugs.

Jhally found the most common codes involvedtestimonial appeals; associating the productwith someone the audience:

● admires, using popular personalities toendorse a products

● wants to be, using "idealised" individuals:fantasy figures the consumer could be if theybought the product

● is - using "ordinary people" with the samecharacteristics as the target consumer.

Semiologically, therefore, it's possible toidentify codes used by something likeadvertising that cover a range of possibilities:

● from exclusions - repetitive messages thatexclude or drown-out rival interpretations , "becauseyou're worth it".

● through associations between something culturallydesirable, such as status or sophistication, and theproduct: "designer clothing” is a good example here,

● to disassociations; trying to ensure a product isdisconnected from associations that may damage itsimage.

Secondly, semiological analysis allows us tounderstand why various conventions are used by themedia - something that, for Marxist approaches,involves ideas about power and manipulation.

Althusser (1972), for example, suggests semiologicalanalysis reveals the ideological assumptions andmanipulations underpinning media texts and, by sodoing, demonstrates how:

“knowledge is constructed in such a way as tolegitimate unequal social power relations”.

For Althusser media texts are part of the ideologicalstate apparatus in capitalist societies; they promoteideas favourable to the interests of a ruling class inincreasingly sophisticated ways using a variety ofdevices - one of which, as we've suggested, is throughpreferred readings. Newspaper headlines andsubheadings, for example, tell the reader what toexpect before they’ve read the article, while captionstell an audience what a picture means.

The Glasgow Media Group (1976) show howsemiology can be used to identify the assumptionsthat lie behind the presentation of television news.Their analysis of how industrial disputes wereportrayed illustrated subtle (and not so subtle) forms ofbias:

● Employers, for example, were generally filmed in arelatively calm environment (an office, behind adesk) and the reporter would ask respectfulquestions the employer was allowed to answerwithout interruption.

● Employees, often simply identified as "strikingworkers", were most often pictured outside and thequestioning was more aggressive with the emphasison the employee justifying their actions.

Contemporary consumption sites such as Instagramhave taken “celebrity endorsements” to a whole new

level of influencing…

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Rose (2007) argues semiologyhas a range of advantages:

● it requires very few resources.● is relatively cheap to carry out.● reliability issues, while always

relevant, are less so when theresearcher isn't necessarilytrying to generalise theirfindings from the group theyare studying to wider society.

Although it is an interpretivemethod, analysis can begrounded in empirical research(as with, for example, theGlasgow Media Group) and canbe combined withquantitative forms ofcontent analysis toproduced triangulatedresearch.

Semiology provides useful tools for analysing themeaning of media texts, to demonstrate how and whythe media construct "social realities" in fundamentallyideological and manipulative ways (from sellingproducts to selling ideas).

Marxism, in particular, has used semiology to revealhow various cultural conventions, such as social andeconomic inequality, are presented as "natural",inevitable and unchangeable. Where semiologicalanalysis is underpinned by empirical research itprovides insights into the way powerful groups, fromcorporations to political parties, use the media toinfluence public perceptions and opinions.

Semiological analysis does, however, tend to be onmuch weaker ground in relation to how audiencesunderstand and interpret media messages and codes.We can't, for example, simply assume that because aresearcher is able to uncover "hidden meanings" in atext this is necessarily the case for a casual audience.Rose also points-out that a researcher requires athorough grounding in their subject matter if they are toidentify and understand the codes and conventionsinvolved; a semiological analysis of Hollywood films, forexample, would be difficult for a researcher who hadlittle or no knowledge of cinema.

A more-fundamental criticism, particularly as it appliesto Marxist analysis, is the belief that media messagesare layered; "core ideas" are embedded in layers ofseemingly inconsequential ideas.

The "real message" of advertising, for example, is notabout buying one product rather than another; it'sabout consumption.

This assumes there are "real" messages that can befound by peeling back the layers under which they'redisguised and the researcher gives themselves aprivileged position - someone who "knows the realmeaning" of media messages.

When Hebdidge (1979), for example, writes about ‘themeaning of style’ in youth subcultures, he argues somepunks wore Nazi swastikas in an ‘ironic way’.

Young (2001), however, argues, that whatever thetruth of this assertion it is simply an interpretationunsupported by evidence.


Does semiological research involve taking a privileged position whereby theresearcher is both judge and jury on the meaning of the behaviour they’re studying?

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© Chris. Livesey, 2019