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Introduction to Sociology

Ron Hammond, Paul Cheney, Raewyn Pearsey

Chapter 16 - Media

Is Jill a Typical College Student?

Jill's cell phone alarm goes off at 6:15am. She checks the traffic and weather applications on her tablet while she brushes her teeth. She unplugs her cell phone from the charger and text messages an alert to Leigh who drives her carpool. Sometimes Leigh sleeps in, so Jill sends a regular wake up text. Jill then takes a quick shower. Once dressed she gets about 5 minutes to check her tablet or phone for e-mails and instant messages from last night.

When Leigh arrives at Jill’s, she honks the horn. When Jill hears the sound of the horn, she grabs her heavy backpack and rushes outside to meet Leigh. During the 15 minute commute she navigates with the GPS system in the car and plays close attention to the radio traffic and weather, letting Leigh knows if there are any problems with breakdowns or accidents.

Jill gets out of Leigh's car on the corner and walks into the coffee shop where she works 5 days a week. Her first duty is to turn on the morning news on both of the shop's HDTV's. She waives to the manager who's ordering supplies online while he sets up the Latte machine. Jill puts in her earphones, checks her cell phone for any critical texts, turns off her phone and starts stocking the supplies for the big rush of caffeine and carb-deprived customers that flows in and out of the coffee shop for the next 2-3 hours. Once the stocking is finished, Jill removes one ear piece and listens to a lecture from 2 days ago which was posted to the Web by her professor. During the final hour of work, while she waits on customers, she jams to her music. When her shift ends, she puts the music away and answers text messages while she walks the 7 blocks to campus.

In her first class Jill sits on the very back row then she silences her phone and turns on her tablet Internet-ready, capturing the campus-wide wireless Internet. She logs in. While the professor lectures she types actively on her computer, stopping occasionally to text on her cell phone. Her professor thinks she's taking copious notes. She's actually chatting live with her friends via an online social network page. The professor mentions a Website he heard about but can't remember the name of it, so Jill Google’s it and raises her hand to share the URL with him. He thanks her. She smiles and watches the professor clumsily locate and then display the Website for the entire class to see.

There are 15 notebook computers in this classroom. Jill can see all their screens (that’s in part why she likes to sit in the back of the room). Only one of the students in front of her is actually taking notes. Two have an ear piece in and are watching video clips. The rest basically do what Jill is doing. Jill attends her 2 other classes then heads back to the coffee shop to clean up and get set up for the after work rush.

Leigh eventually picks her up later on the same corner and she finds herself at home at about 6:15 pm. Jill turns on the TV and uses her tablet as a remote control, plugs in her cell phone, glances at the campus newspaper headlines then reads the personals. During dinner she texts, watches her shows, does an Internet-based graded assignment, and shops online for a half-priced textbook she needs for another class. She opens connects with Leigh for a live chat to ask her if her IPod might have fallen out in the car. Leigh continues to chat live with Jill as she walks out to the car and looks around for the iPod. She finds it.


Jill e-mails her father (because her father loves the "high tech" email capacity) then she finishes her homework while watching reality TV. At 9:00 pm, Leigh honks the horn and Jill takes a small purse for her phone and heads out to the car. Leigh and two other friends are going dancing. Jill gets her iPod back and then texts their other friends who said they were going to the same club, but who knows if they'll show up or not. Jill, Leigh, and their friend’s video tape a cool short travel log at the club and have it posted to their personal page on the way home from the club.

Does any of this sound familiar to you and your daily routine? Jill's day and use of technology and media are very common among college students. Never in the world's entire history has there been such a vast availability of media than in this current day and age. Books; newspapers (although these may completely disappear in their paper format); TV channels; cell phone texts, Internet-capable phones, video, photos, and Internet connections; e-books; radio and satellite radio; movies and DVDs/Blue Rays; magazines and e-zines; billboards; and who knows whatever technology might come out by breakfast time tomorrow. We are surrounded by and figuratively swim in mass media every day of our lives. A recent US Census Bureau report highlighted the availability of technology to US Families between 1984 and 2011 and there is a great deal of access to it for many. About 67.2 percent had access to the Internet via a Smartphone while over 7 out of 10 homes had a computer and Internet access in 2011, up from about 50 percent back in 2001 (retrieved 10 June 2014 from P20-569 May 2013 Computer and Internet Use in the US; Figure 1 Household Computer and Internet Use: 1984-2011. SOURCE

Mass Media are channels of communication in a mass society, especially electronic and print media. Mass media are not verbal and represent the use of technology in communication. Media can be found in artifacts from lost civilizations thousands of years into the past. Paintings on cave walls, pottery, or even field sculptures of stones all represent some of these ancient forms. Etchings on metal plates or writings on skin or paper scrolls were made at great expense in the past. They were rare then and only a few are still available today.

In the early 1400s Johannes Gutenberg, who was a goldsmith, invented the world's first mechanical press. The Gutenberg Bible was the first ever mass produced book and its introduction into society marked the beginning of printed media. Gutenberg not only invented a printing press, he facilitated the ability of the masses to learn how to read. He also created a logical cultural process in Western Civilization, wherein most of us learned how to read, think, store, and process information. Top to bottom, left to right, punctuation, spelling, and grammar considerations all became part of the mainstream culture.

Many cultures have different rules about how to read and write, yet all follow a logical and linear pattern of reading and writing. This pattern remained in place, un-challenged until the Internet came onto the scene. Over the last 30 years, technology that led up to the Internet as we know it today changed the rules of reading and gathering information through the media. The Internet currently connects over a billion online users together worldwide. Whereas the paper form of media is bound by its physical mass, the Internet form of media is limitless because it is based on light and electricity, both of which travel very fast and facilitate information sharing in nearly limitless volumes and rates of speed.

When I grew up in the 1960s-80s I had to ask a teacher or other authority figure any answers to questions I wanted to know. We had to pay for encyclopedias and books that could teach and inform us. Today, one need only turn on the computer or handheld device and connect to the Internet. All the information in the world that is on the Internet can be obtained to some degree: free, instantly, non-linearly, and without the direct involvement of an authority figure. It is fascinating how information for the masses has transformed in such a short amount of time.

The media has societal functions as one of the seven basic social institutions in our modern societies. First the media disseminates information. Not all of that information is created equally. Some media is the focus of tremendous protest and outcry while other forms of media are less conspicuous and controversial. The media also molds and shapes public opinion while reporting current events. Because media corporations have rather strict control over the stories they tell, we in the US often don't even find out about many salient international issues. These issues may be crucial to non-US citizens, but are not reported by US media outlets. Often the US is criticized for its narrow world view.

I remember once riding in a taxi in the Washington DC area. My driver was from Ethiopia. At that time the US media was all over the Ethiopian famine and how to get relief to those starving peoples. I asked the driver what he thought about the famine. "Which famine?" He replied. "We have had 4 major famines in the last 15 years and it wasn't until this one that the US media reported the story." What an eye opener for me.

When the news media select a story, they monitor the opinions of those who watched it and the indicators which show public interest in it. If it proves to be of enough interest then they will provide more coverage. If not they let it go. Competition between news shows and outlets makes the coverage of specific news stories relevant from a business rather than an information dissemination point of view.

Television Viewing

We in the US love media in all its forms. Nielsen Media Research regularly reports on how much TV people in the US typically watch. In the US during the year 2013, each day, the average person watched about 4.5 hours of TV, spent more than 2 hours online; listened to the radio for nearly 1.5 hours; and read paper-printed magazines and newspapers nearly 30 minutes per day (retrieved 10 June 2014 SOURCE. Digital Set to Surpass TV in Time Spent with US Media: Mobile helps propel digital time spent with US media, e-article).

If they are pretty close on their estimate and each of us watches about 4 hours per day, then that's a great deal of TV in a lifetime. Multiply 4 hours by (7 days then 52 weeks), you'll find that we watch an estimated 1,456 hours of TV per year. If we maintained that every year from Kindergarten through 12th grade we'd end up having watched about 17-19,000 hours of TV by the time we graduated high school (give or take a few hours per week). Interestingly, K-12 typically equals about 16-17,000 hours of at school learning by the time of graduation. Not only do we watch TV shows but we also watch TV commercials-perhaps a quarter million by the time we graduate high school. Estimates vary but we also use the Internet, radio, cell phone, video games, and big screen movies as forms of daily media consumption.

Television viewing is not completely without effect upon the viewer. George Gerbner (1919-2005) was a professor of Communications. He founded the Cultivation Theory which claims that the types of TV viewing we watch accumulate within us and impact our world view. In other words, if we only watched crime, detective, and forensic shows we would have the additive effect of these shows on our perception of how the world really is. The types of TV we watch passively, yet persistently shape our world view.

The Mean World Syndrome is the tendency to view society as being meaner and more violent than it really is because of the violent and harsh TV shows one has watched over the years (see George Gerbner's (1994) "Reclaiming Our Cultural Mythology." In The Ecology of Justice (IC#38), Spring page 40, Context Institute retrieved 16 April 2009 from ). If someone preoccupied their daily TV viewing to soap operas then Gerbner would say that that person would have a world focus that overemphasized soap opera-melodramatic themes. The same could be said of anyone who watches mostly: police shows, pornography, sports, news, or reality TV.

But, keep in mind that TV is not produced by people who simply want to entertain us. So, what is the main purpose of media in our day? Money. Entertainment, access to information, advertising, and/or attitude shifting is at the core of most media-based ventures. They charge money for the commercial time or product placement. What they really want is for you to watch their shows and see their advertisements and buy a product or service because you were watching. The online Television Advertising Bureau (TAB) reported that most people use broadcast television and that during a recession most people sacrifice pricey cable for the bare minimum broadcast television (see SOURCE . Most importantly as we focus on the for-profit advertising issue, in 1970 $3,596,000,000 was spent on US television advertising alone. In 2012 that was up to approximately $74 billion (retrieved 19 May 2014 from SOURCE

Advertisings Negative Effects

One has to focus on the impact media can have with that level of revenue at stake. Perpetual Discontent is a two-pronged advertising theme which emphasizes: 1) how broken and flawed we are and 2) how we can buy hope in the form of a product being sold. Women in the US are bombarded daily with advertising images that point out their flaws. They are constantly having it brought to their attention how they are too: thin, fat, short, thin, round, wrinkled, blond, brunette, red, dark, light, wrinkled, tanned, freckled, etc. This trend is exceptionally cruel for teen and young adult women. Men are not exempt from the abuse of perpetual discontent. There has also been a barrage of messages about the same flaws women are taught to loath which now lands in the individual sense of self for men.

Many argue that this has lead not only to discontent with our body images, but also discontent with every aspect of our spending life (products, house, cars, computers, clothes, etc.). Of ironic note is the fact that many millions and millions of people don't get enough food to eat every day while we in the United States have become so conscious of the self we portray to others that we self-limit our food intake and go to drastic measure in diet, exercise, and even surgery. Every year, millions pay vast sums of money to acquire surgical beauty enhancements.

In Figure 1 you can see data from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS) for the 11 years between 1997-2013. Each year, there are nearly 12 million clients of aesthetic plastic surgery in the US, and most paid large sums of money for their surgery.

Figure 1. Numbers in Millions of Plastic Surgery Procedures between 1997-2013*
*Data courtesy of American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery Taken 14 May, 2014

The media is perhaps one of the most underestimated of the 7 social institutions. At the personal level, people think of it in terms of convenience and entertainment rather than political influence, power, and control. The media is mostly controlled by wealthy people and at the national and world level is tightly controlled in terms of political ideologies of those who decide what we get to watch, hear, and read. The owners and managers seek profits while promoting their own political agenda, selecting and shaping advertisement, and for providing exposure to political and special interests groups they favor. In Figure 2 you can see that over $13 billion dollars were spent for the 6 years between 2002-2013. The ASAPS also reported that their most common client is a White female between ages of 20-50.

Figure 2. US Expenditures in Billions of US Dollars for Plastic Surgery Procedures between 2002-2013*
*Data courtesy of American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery Taken 14 May, 2014

The Power Elite in the Media

Do you personally know someone who owns a TV, radio, or newspaper/magazine? Most of us don't unless we happen to fall into a wealthy income category. C. Wright Mills made a powerful observation (remember his was also the Sociological Imagination idea). He recognized that wealth and power is unevenly distributed in society and that it is the relatively wealthy privileged few who control the power. The other argument (contrary to Mills' Power Elite) is called Pluralism, which claims that power is diffused among many diverse interests groups and that in fact not all wealthy elite people unite on the same side of most issues. The accurate description of today's society-level power structures is that there is a large, unconnected category of powerful people, each exerting their own wills upon others, either against or in cooperation with other powerful people. In Figure 3 you can see that the top 10 percent of society's members are the wealthy elite and own or control the corporate (including media corporations), military positions and political offices. The next 20 percent are also relatively wealthy and connected to the power elite. This class runs the government, political scene, and interests-groups. They often are given coverage in the media and are considered among our "famous" members of society.

Then there's you and me. We are among the 70 percent of the common people who comprise the masses. Most of us enjoy politics, media, and other newsworthy topics but rarely understand the reality of their day-to-day functioning and influence on our lives. We are uneducated about the power elite's actions that often harm us in the long-run (take the recent mortgage and financial market schemes that have made the top two classes very wealthy at the expense of the bottom 70 % for an example). Mills also described False Consciousness, which is when members of groups which are relatively powerless in society accept beliefs that work against their self-interests. Typically our ignorance is played upon and erroneous information is provided in a calculated manner by the power elite for the further gain of their goals

Figure 3. C. Wright Mills' Power Elite Model*
*See C. Wright Mills (1956). The Power Elite. Oxford Press, NY.

You can learn a great deal about the power of media by studying societies outside of the United States. A Totalitarian Government is a political system where small power elite controls virtually every aspect of the personal and larger social levels of society. Some examples include Nazi, Germany, North Korea, Russia in Stalin's era, and a few eastern European countries that were once part of the former Soviet Union. In these systems, the media was strictly controlled and some systems failed once media control was lost.

The media has tremendous political power, especially in the national election coverage they provide. The journalists who provide our media have distinct goals and values which motivate them to typically take a more negative position towards a candidate than the candidate would prefer. Many sources officially give or withhold their support for a candidate while other news and media sources continue to work in a more objective manner. In the 2008 Presidential campaign, literally hundreds and hundreds of polls were taken and reported on the national news via TV, radio, Internet, and printed news. The very presence of poll results can actually influence the choices made by voters who are undecided and others who have made their choice, but might be influenced to change their minds. Many feel that their candidates were treated with bias by the media (they are probably correct).

The media has editorial strategies which easily coincide with the goals of the power elite. Framing involves placing the news story into a preexisting frame of reference for the public so that they understand it as journalists would have it be understood. The protestors were "freedom fighters, martyrs, or courageous." Even though two people died, the frame changes them from terrorists to saints. Formatting is the design and construction of the news story. One might see a story that includes an introduction about the sacrifices made by the protesters which runs for 45 seconds. This story might end with a 15 second summary of their protest actions as being martyr-like.

Sequencing is ordering news stories in such a way as to present a thematic message. An example of this would be to run the story about the protesters right after the story about the military occupants who were allegedly guilty of raping and torturing inmates. Agenda Setting is the process of selecting and screening topics which will be presented to the general public. An example of this might be the omission of successes on the battlefield and the inclusion of crimes by soldiers, losses by civilians, and outcry by the country's political enemies.

The "Coffee Filter" Power Elite Metaphor

Figure 4 shows the "Coffee Filtering" metaphor of the power elite as it has broken into two semi-oppositional schools of thought often referred to as the "Left and Right." If you consider the Power Elite model over the pluralism model of power in society, you can see how the elite who control media, military, and corporations shape politics and laws. Mill's model fits just as well now as it did in his day, but there is a twist on the polarized culture between Left and Right wing influences in society. Figure 4 shows how the elite form a type of filter (coffee) that shapes the flow of political and legal outcomes in the form of laws, treaties, and legal precedence. Although not formally unified into one centralized political social movement, the Left and Right shakers and movers each influence this filtering process for their own interests and goals.

On the Left side of the spectrum, feminism, sexual politics (same-sex, trans-gendered, and bisexual), anti-natalism, environmental protection, and general secularism share many overlapping values that prove to be mutually beneficial if mutual support is given. For example, a protest at the United Nations building in New York City against a less-developed country's refusal to let their girls and women receive formal education could also be supported by: anti-natalists (the more education a woman gets the fewer the babies she has); environmentalists (the fewer the babies the less pressure on the physical environment); and secularists (the more education a woman gets the less religious she tends to be).

On the Right hand side of the cultural continuum lobbying for a continuation of tax breaks for parents and marrieds would serve all interests groups in multiple ways. One of the premier social movements to illustrate this has been the battle over the legalization of same-sex or gay marriage. It's been on the referendum ballots of a number of states. It's been considered for discussion at the federal legislation level, but returned to the state-level since states have the right to legally sanction marriages and divorces. It's been considered in a few state supreme courts with pre-emptive strikes by states which went ahead and codified marriage as being exclusively between a man and a woman. Other state supreme courts have preemptively ruled in favor of same-sex marriages. Billions of dollars, millions of volunteer hours, and countless and immeasurable levels of personal frustration are involved in this social issue. What both the Left and Right have understood and utilized for decades is the use their elite contacts to accomplish their goal-driven political and legal changes. The media will continue to play a central role in this and other heated political issues.

Figure 4. The Coffee Filter Metaphor of the Power Elite's Influence over Politics and Laws
© 2009 Ron J. Hammond, Ph.D.

Additional Reading

Search Internet for:

Millinneal Generation and media, cultural convergence, narcotizing dysfunction, gatekeeping, netizens, dominant ideology, stereotypes, digital divide, opinion leader, Fourth Estate, Mediascapes.

  • Wikipedia on Social Media LINK
  • Wikipedia on Impact of Internet use on humans LINK
  • Wikipedia on List of social networking sites LINK
  • University of Southern California’s Media Institute for Social Change LINK
  • Media Content analysis sociology LINK
  • Nielsen Rating Corporation for all types of media LINK
  • Newspaper Association of America LINK
  • National Association of Radio Broadcasters LINK
  • Kaiser Family Health Foundation Media LINK

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