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sociology of mass media


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A medium is a means of communication such as print, radio, or television. The mass media are defined as large-scale organizations which use one or more of these technologies to communicate with large numbers of people (‘mass communications’). Dependent upon innovations in the electronics and chemicals industries, the period between 1860 and 1930 was a formative moment for the mass media. These years saw the development and introduction of still photography, moving photography (cinema), cable telegraphy, wireless telegraphy, the phonograph, the telephone, radio, and television. These new technologies formed part of the wider transformation in popular culture during this period and typified the new more intensive capitalization of the leisure industries and their associated concern to address mass audiences.

As defined by C. Wright Mills in The Power Elite (1956), the mass media have two important sociological characteristics: first, very few people can communicate to a great number; and, second, the audience has no effective way of answering back. Mass communication is by definition a one-way process. Media organizations are bureaucratic and (except in societies where all media are state-controlled) corporate in nature. Media output is regulated by governments everywhere, but the restrictions vary from very light advisory regulation (for example no cigarette advertising or nudity on TV), to the most comprehensive forms of censorship in totalitarian societies.

Mass media dominate the mental life of modern societies, and therefore are of intense interest to sociologists. From the earliest studies in the 1930s, the main concern was with the power implicit in new media technologies, especially radio and television. Adolf Hitler's successful use of radio for propaganda was an object lesson in the possible dangers. The concept of mass society added force to the idea that the electronic media might create an Orwellian situation of mind control, with passive masses dominated by a tiny elite of communicators.

Early studies by Harold Lasswell, Paul Lazarsfeld, and others seemed to show that media effects were indeed direct and powerful—the so-called ‘hypodermic’ model of influence. But more intensive research revealed that mass communications are mediated in complex ways, and that their effects on the audience depend on factors such as class, social context, values, beliefs, emotional state, and even the time of day.

Media research has expanded enormously since the 1960s, with most attention going to television as the most pervasive medium (D. McQuail's Mass Communication Theory, 1983, is an excellent introduction and overview). Four distinct areas of research can be distinguished. First, media content studies, concerned with the cultural quality of media output, or with specific biases and effects such as stereotyping or the promotion of anti-social behaviour and violence, especially on children's television. Second, patterns of ownership and control, the integration of more and more media into a few large corporations, cross-media ownership, and the increasing commercialization of programming. Third, ideological influences of the media in promoting a total pattern of life and thought. Fourth, the impact of electronic media on democratic politics via agenda-setting, the distortion and reduction of news, deflecting public attention from social problems, and the use of television advertising in political campaigns.

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Subjects: Sociology.


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