Wednesday 25 December 2013

Cultural Functions of the Mass Media

This post is a very brief overview of some of the main ideas in the chapter on media effects in John Vivian and Peter J. Maurin’s textbook The Media of Mass Communication. The main content that I ignored was the section on violence in the media. I'll cover that sometime in a future post.

It’s been highly debated how the mass media affect society. This uncertainty might lead some to consider cultural optimization to be too wishy-washy to deserve effective altruist attention. Here are some concrete functions of the media in society, all of which shape a culture's makeup.
  • Agenda-Setting By the Media: The media create awareness more than they change attitudes or knowledge. They tell people what to think about, not how to think. 
1.  Creating Awareness: Awareness precedes concern. The media brings things to our attention, while omitting others.
2.  Establishing Priorities: People trust the media to find the most important stories for them. If something is featured in the media, it is given the air of credibility. If a lot of airtime is dedicated to a story, it appears to be even more important.
3.  Perpetuating Issues: Similarly, the media can control the perceived importance of news stories by choosing whether to continually focus on them over a long-term time span, or whether to bring them up only once.
  • Media-Induced Anxiety and Apathy: Regardless of its content, the centrality of the media in our lives and the sheer quantity of media messages can have mass effects on society. 
1.  Information Anxiety (narcotizing dysfunction): There is so much media content out there that some people become overwhelmed. In response, these people refuse to try sorting through all this information.
2.  Media-Induced Passivity: Media fandom can create “couch potatoes,” fueling obsessions at the cost of keeping audiences passive and lazy.
3.  Socialization Function: The media helps people fit in with other people by providing them with common experiences, interests, and information.
  • Socialization: The media play a strong role in informing people of what’s cool, what’s ethical, what’s normal, and what’s weird in a culture. Media content affects our self-images and social relationships.
1.  Media’s Initiating Role: People are born without knowledge of cultural norms and conventions – media content fills that hole by acting as a child’s initiation to their cultural setting.
2.  Role Models: People imitate their favourite fictional characters, buy their outfits, quote their catchphrases.
3.  Stereotyping: Fictional characters are often reflective of simplistic, one-dimensional identity clich├ęs. The continued reinforcement of these stereotypes in the media can shape views about real people, probably thanks to the availability heuristic.
4.  Socialization Via Eavesdropping: In the media, people become privy to conversations that would normally not be taking place in front of them: men “eavesdrop” on women-conversations by watching content targeted at women like Sex and the City, parents can learn about their kids by watching MTV, etc.
  • Diversion Function: The mass media can serve as a much-needed escape from everyday life. There are three different types of diversions.
1.  Stimulation: The mass media can relieve boredom or accelerating an experience (e.g. adding music to a party).
2.  Relaxation: When people are overloaded, they can use the mass media to unwind and relax.
3.  Release: Engaging with media content can be cathartic, allowing individuals to release their pent-up emotions.
  • Surveillance Function: The media, especially the news, survey the world for useful information to provide audiences. Masses of people pick up their information from media sources.

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