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Sociology and Mass Media
 
 

Sociology and Mass Media



A. The New Millennium and Mass Media
In the new millennium, we are seeing a need to redefine some of our most basic communication terms. At one time, media and mass media were terms that could be broken down into a small group of outlets: newspapers, magazines, radio, and television.
Nowadays, with the advent of modern technology, media and mass media encompass a much broader spectrum of outlets. Additionally, included in this group are such media as advertising, the Internet, e-newsletters, e-zines, downloadable podcasts, and real time deliverables.
While there may be many new outlets available from which people can derive information, some of the old issues manage to persist; for instance, propaganda, censorship, and obscene or graphic imagery.
Though we will discuss some of the longtime issues with the media and use them as a form of education, we will also make note of the benefits brought about by the range of alternative, open discussion forums found on the Internet, specifically that of the current man-on-the-scene news dissemination process dubbed "citizen journalism."

B. Media Education: Definition

Defined as the study and analysis of mass media, media education is important because it encourages the general public to become savvier about the purpose and message that people are receiving as opposed to simply accepting it at face value.
It is the belief of social researchers that with an educated understanding of media images and content, users or viewers will be able to discern the media's potential effects and, based upon such findings, make good choices about both their and their children's exposure to media.
You can only imagine the debates that have surrounded this issue. Freedom of speech is one of the major issues that media programmers automatically advance when attacked for creating offensive content. Essentially, they contend that they have the right to produce whatever they want so long as it complies with the standards of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Parental groups who do not want their children to see adult-oriented themes or overly explicit content during primetime are continuously met with the response, "It is your duty to monitor your children's exposure to media."
A long drawn-out debate that extends into the depiction of violence in television shows, feature films, music, and video games has led to notification measures being taken to indicate the level of violence involved. For example, in films, MA refers to "For Mature Audiences."

C. Censorship and Freedom of Speech

There are numerous well-supported mainstream organizations the likes of the National Institute on Media and the Family that provide the public with a wealth of information, including research studies, documentation, professional medical opinions, advice, and more on such topics as violence and wartime imagery in the media.
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On the institute's Web site, its mission is stated as follows: "To educate and inform the public and encourage practices and policies designed to promote positive change in the production and use of mass media. Not advocates of censorship, rather, we are committed to partnering with parents and other caregivers, organizations, and corporations to use the power of the free market to create healthier media choices for families, for the purpose of creating healthier, less violent communities."
While it is a very heated, two-pronged debate as to whether censorship should be a viable option or exertion of parental control is a suitable alternative, the issue at stake is more one of civil liberties than being able to profit from the exploitation or social distortion of others.

In addition, censorship can take on a range of forms based on a host of different factors.


In some parts of the world, the governments control the media. This means that no one can broadcast or publish anything a government views as being either immoral or harmful, or that threatens the country's "stability," meaning a government's power base.

In democratic countries, we are fortunate to have what is known as "freedom of speech," where people are free to say and write whatever they wish outside of some carefully defined exceptions; for example, threatening the life of the sitting president.


D. Censorship by Omission
Censorship that takes on a slightly different form is that of slanted coverage by the media.
Though media in the United States does not ascribe to practicing a policy of omission, there have been questionable moments in terms of the focal points of particular stories.
For example, many issues have been taken with some of the ways in which the mainstream news media have handled the coverage of the war in Iraq. It is the contention of some that the coverage of the war has been limited and toned down so that the public is possibly not getting the full story and is not getting alarmed by military activities.
In truth, many factors could be the cause of limited coverage, if indeed this is the case. These include the lack of availability of camera crews on the ground overseas or the military limiting access to media. Even so, some non-mainstream media folks feel that select networks have purposely chosen to air "conservative footage" not necessarily for the purpose of protecting audiences but because to do otherwise may reflect poorly on the U.S.

In some cases, censorship may be construed as archaic; in other instances, it is seen as humane. Take, for example, the local evening news story of a burning building. A young boy is taken out engulfed in flames. Yes, it is caught on camera. However, the station opts not to air it. Is this censorship?


What if the reason information is omitted or withheld is to maintain someone's dignity or privacy, which is a whole other issue where the media is concerned?
Should the television news station serve its audience by fully disclosing the nature of a story in words while only withholding the individual's name and personal data? Consider that the station may then be acting in accord with the appropriate privacy measures outlined by the FCC.

E. Audiences and Advertisers

In a market economy, factors of money and power also come into play. Typically, in North America, the majority of mainstream media forums depend upon income derived from such sources as advertising, subscriptions, and sponsors.
Unfortunately, and though many will not readily admit it, all three factors contribute to making influential decisions about content. Obviously, without an audience, regardless of whether that is readers, viewers, or listeners, the forum will cease to exist.

Hence, the content needs to be suited to the audience's particular tastes and comfort levels. This is where exorbitant marketing budgets come into play; the media outlet uses large sums to learn what type of person makes up its audience and what content best appeals to that audience.


Advertisers are a huge financial resource for media outlets and thus are highly valued. Because advertisers also spend great sums to appeal to customers, they must be certain that they are attaching their name and branding to a like-minded entity. Should it be learned that the host of "It's Playtime, Children'' was posing in the nude on the side, it is quite likely that the majority of the advertisers would cancel their support of the program.

Thus, a gray area exists in the media whereby publishers and producers who want to put out original, cutting-edge material have to ensure that they will be able to maintain sufficient backing.

F. The Internet's Expansive Offerings

We will take a brief look at how the Internet has literally revolutionized the world of mass media. Creating a portal where a virtually limitless number of Web sites can be added at will, the Internet has transformed the way in which people both receive and look at information.


Because of the sheer nature of the online medium, users can receive information immediately. This has created an information dissemination arena in which no other media outlet, especially print newspapers, can compete. Known as "real time," users get the details of an event as it is happening. With Real Time Streaming Protocol (RTSP), not only can users stay on top of current events, they can also communicate with colleagues as if in the same conference space.

The immediacy involved, while quite remarkable, also proves to be challenging for those who produce such forms of content. For example, consider the online component to a local news station: The station only needs to air programming at 6 p.m. and 10 p.m., but the online portal is up and running 24 hours a day.


Hence, even the way these media outlets are staffed is different from the past. Print newspaper editors need to make sure that they have the story right for just one daily edition; now Web site editors need to get the story right multiple times throughout the day, in every updated version.

The increased allure of the Internet with all its fancy imagery; available podcasts, or mini-downloadable new stories you can view later from your iPod; entertaining blogs, which are often online diaries or editorials written on topics of the writer's choosing; and message boards, has caused many to cut way back on their readership of daily newspapers, monthly magazines, and other print publications.

In turn, this has caused a host of problems for daily metropolitan newspapers, a drought of advertising revenue, plunging circulation, barren foreign bureaus, withered news pages, a torrent of pink slips, and more. Newspapers collectively in 2006 were forced to let go of 2,000 staffers.

However, there is a saying that when someone closes a door, a window opens. Perhaps that is what is happening on the Internet as, in addition to newspapers developing an online presence, an infinite number of citizen journalists, also known as citmed outlets, are popping up all over the place.

Essentially a citizen journalist site is a forum created and run by non-professional journalists for the purpose of informing the public of happenings primarily within their own local community, termed "hyper local coverage," as well as the nation and throughout the world.

A recent J-Lab report entitled "Citizen Media: Fad or the Future of News" found that the majority of citizen media ventures were put together on a shoestring budget and were not conceived of for the purpose of making money. In fact, 52 percent reported they did not need to make money to continue and 82 percent said they planned to continue their site indefinitely.

"Citizen sites are developing as new forms of bridge media, linking traditional news with forms of civic participation," said J-Lab director Jan Schaffer, author of the report, which was funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation.

Further, in the report, respondents described their sites as serving such primary functions as providing local news and information not found elsewhere on the Web, building connections to the community, and helping the local media to improve.

The forms of impact citizen sites have on communities include the following:
  1. Provide opportunities for dialogue (82 percent).
  2. Act as a watchdog for local government (61 percent).
  3. Help the community solve problems (39 percent).
  4. Increase voter turnout (27 percent).
  5. Increase number of candidates running for office (19 percent).
Because some of the founders of the more than 500 citizen media Web sites believe the term "citizen media" does not properly describe their purpose, they have taken to referring to their genre by such terms as:
  • grassroots journalism;
  • networked journalism;
  • open source journalism;
  • participatory journalism;
  • hyper-local journalism;
  • bottom-up journalism;
  • stand-alone journalism;
  • distributed journalism.

G. Alternative Media Forums

In line with Good Samaritan and education ideals, other media forums found online that encourage the sharing of information include:

  • YouTube.com: an emerging site known for its willingness to globally circulate uploaded footage.
  • IndyMedia.org: a site on which activists share photos and videos with other activists.
  • MySpace.com: a meeting portal for the twenty-something set, where you can meet up and chat with other like-minded people and swap stories and commentary.
  • HuffingtonPost.com: considered a political group blog led by Arianna Huffington.
  • Comment is Free (guardian.co.uk/commentisfree): the United Kingdom's answer to the Huffington Post.

Note: There are also subscription-based RSS feeds that provide you with links to your requested topic of information on a continual basis.


With all this concentrated focus on sharing of information and relaying of real-life happenings, it made sense then that Time magazine's honored "Person of the Year" for 2006 was none other than "You."
The magazine offered its selection with the following words: "It's a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It's about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It's about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes."

H. Mass Media and Education: Summation

With any form of change, there is usually both some good and some bad. It is unfortunate to see traditional media forums like newspapers scrounging to stay afloat. Yet, it is inspiring to see all of the creative forces that are putting their talents to use in such beneficial community ways as are citizen journalists.


Some of the problems, however, that are bound to arise are issues with regard to accuracy, privacy, and appropriateness of content.

It certainly is a new era in which individuals have free range as to the information that is put out for the world to see, if only they would learn to exercise some discretion and judgment where educational portals and outlets for children are concerned.

Eventually, effective media controls will come into play, prohibiting children and others surfing on the Internet access to select sites containing uncomfortable or inappropriate images or content. Currently, there are parental safeguards in place, yet as the Internet is such an unregulated arena, it is impossible to ensure complete immunity from materials seen as being offensive.

However, if Web programmers can put a camera on the moon, they surely can learn to put a firewall around adult-oriented sites.
 
 
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