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Why should we and how can we study the media Assignment

So far in our lectures and seminar sessions we have examined the role of the media, the message and the audience. During this essay I aim to provide a deeper understanding of the importance in studying the media and the shifting ways of approaching its study. There are many different ways of defining what the media essentially is, which therefore makes the study of it all the more challenging. Throughout our daily lives, we come across diverse forms of media and interact with them in a variety of ways. According to many writers, it is the media that creates ‘who’ and ‘where’ we think we are.

We rely on the media, or more specifically the mass media, for information, entertainment, ideas and education whether we realise it or not. According to Michael Real, (1996, cited in O’Sullivan et al, 1998, page 3) the variety of differing modes that modern media takes form in, are particular ways of creatively participating in the life of modern culture, namely by reading, watching and listening to certain entities around us. In this essay, I focus on the mass media as the driving force of media itself since it has been the development of mass communication systems that have allowed modern societies to expand and be understood.

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Many writers agree that it has been the advancement of television, radio, film, literature, computer networks and so on that have enabled society to exist as it does today (Ibid. page 3). Therefore, since it is evident that mass media forms a major part in the existence of society; surely the question of whether or not it should be studied has a simple answer. If we did not study the media, we would be ignoring a major dynamic that contributes to, or arguably controls, how society works the way it does.

In other words, we should study the media in order to understand more about how we think, behave and interact with each other and ultimately about how we live. On The Guardian newspaper web site, there has been a debate involving the validity of Media Studies degrees. An undergraduate student in Media studies has put forward a view that states: ‘Media Studies… is about understanding the world we live in; from the mediated nature of our political landscape to the corporatisation of our public spaces, these are issues which affect everyone… ‘ (Sarah Platt, 2001).

Here, the student is arguing that Media Studies as a degree involves looking at the vital issues that affect everyone in the contemporary world. Therefore I have related this to a more general understanding whereby the media determines and has a major influence on how society exists. However, contrary to this argument, there are writers who feel that the study of media should perhaps be neglected because, unlike traditional texts, ‘media has triggered such emotional connotations, particularly in terms of consumerism and cultural values’ (Farmer, 2003).

Hence because the media is so interrelated within people’s lives it can be said to be too personal to scrutinise. An interesting point has also arisen in recent times, which connects these two arguments in that the media has become so intertwined with every aspect of our reality, the line between the two ‘has become blurred and even porous’ (Grossberg et al, 1998, page 6). Furthermore, Grossberg et al argue that we must see the media and all of its relationships as ‘producing the world at the same time that the world is producing it’.

This means that the media cannot be studied without looking at outside influences of politics, economics and social aspects. Studying the media is a complex, but nonetheless vital component in understanding why we do the things we do, it is about a variety of fields in which humans influence different practices that shape society and allow us to exist within it. These practices are represented by certain texts within the media, it is for that reason, apparent that in order to engage in the various interpretations, different techniques must be analysed.

There are an array of different approaches to the study of the media and their focuses change from analysing texts to looking at audience and production, depending on the researcher’s preferences of qualitative or quantitative investigation methods. When looking at the texts of media, it is evident that the main aim is to find out certain facts and figures in relation to explaining how the media works and why it consists of what it does. Content analysis is an example of this quantitative research.

It engages in monitoring certain figures, for example how many appearances of ethnic minority actors appear on television programmes, comparing different media, for example tabloid and broadsheet newspapers as well as mapping historical trends (O’Sullivan et al, 1998, page 328). This method seeks to establish the power of the mass media in the individuals lives and is mainly associated with ‘… North American sociologists and psychologists who sort to ‘measure’ the content and the effects of mass media’ (Briggs and Cobley, 1998, page 4).

With this method, a hypothesis is usually created before the research begins and the results obtained are used to provide evidence as to whether it has been proved or disproved. The way this content analysis works is by firstly defining categories, for example humour, violence or action on television. Next the researcher must count how many times these categories appear in the programmes. This in itself raises the question of how researchers define categories differently.

For example, what may be seen as ‘adventure’ to one researcher may be categorised as ‘thriller’ to another. Nonetheless, researchers then select samples which represent and reflect the overall aim of study. Random sampling is often used as this means texts are chosen by chance. Quota sampling can also be carried out as it involves an agreed pattern to determine how the data is selected. Researchers can then look at what relationships are revealed from their work as well as if their hypothesis has (or has not) been proven.

From the data collected, researchers can then make conclusions as well as taking into account any problems they may have encountered (O’ Sullivan et al, 1998, pages 329-332). Opposing this, is the form associated with the Frankfurt School of Social Research and Leavis and Thompson who recognised the effect the media has on its audiences (Briggs and Cobley, 1998, page 4). Known as qualitative or ethnographic research, audience interpretations and observations attempt to be uncovered.

This is done by more in-depth personal interviews and discussions with people alone or in small market research groups. Here, the researcher tries to interact with the people being studied and is encouraged to be accepted as part of the study itself. The researcher relies on the information obtained by the person, which is subjective and not always reliable (O’ Sullivan et al, 1998, page 339). Conversely, much research (as stated by Briggs and Cobley, 1998, page 5), has been carried out for commercial purposes.

Instead of focusing on the audience understanding, audience consumption is transferred into statistical data useful for financial transactions and earning money for businesses. This is a practical function for the study of the media, but has ulterior motives and therefore is liable to be biased. Nevertheless, this type of research method is known as structural. Structural methods encompass describing the audience in terms of whom they are and where they originate from. This is as well as analysing the audience in relation to the social structure of the population as a whole (McQuail, 1994, page 295).

Main methods used for this kind of research are quantitative sample surveys, data collection, audience diaries as well as television meters installed in receivers to record what is being watched. Structural methods enable important research to be carried out when looking at how people vote for example, or when people change channels, seeing the type of viewer a programme attracts as well as comparing social conditions within the media (Ibid, page 295). Therefore while collecting statistics that can easily be measured, society can potentially be analysed as a whole.

In contrast, the behaviourist tradition seeks to establish the effects of media messages on individual behaviour, opinions, attitudes and values. Although still using statistical methods, the behaviourist approach looks at experimenting as well as theory for its research and studies the active audience as people who are always interacting within the media (Ibid, page 296). The ‘uses and gratification’ model is an example of this kind of method as it focuses on why people use particular media rather than on content.

The approach comes from a functionalist paradigm in the social sciences. It presents the use of media in terms of the gratification of social or psychological needs of the individual (Blumler & Katz 1974, cited in Chandler, D, 1994). By gratifications, Chandler is referring to content, familiarity (for example watching a soap opera) or social context (for example watching television with family). By asking the audience to complete questionnaires, it is possible to note the different gratifications people gain from, depending on different personalities, age, background and social roles.

Conversely, a technique which is qualitative has also played a significant role in the research of audience study. The social-cultural tradition, set out by McQuail insists that messages can be ‘… read differently than intended by differently constituted social and cultural groups’ (1994, page 297). Further to this, the culturalist approach saw the media as being understood only in relation to the specific social context and to other practices (Ibid, page 297). For example a person’s environment and background can have strong influences on how audiences view the media.

The research methods used are more detailed, ethnographic descriptions of particular audiences and content which allows for a more personal and specific response. In addition, reception studies research is also concerned with meaning being ‘actively constructed by social actors while engaging with the media’ (Bilton, 2002, page 347). Here, a wide range of social and cultural factors are considered, such as class, education level, occupation, gender, ethnicity and age, all aspects which have an impact on the way in which media is perceived by the individual.

Reception studies uses qualitative analysis of audience readings of popular media output, for example soap operas and their different interpretations around the world. By comparing the impact that the soap opera has in different countries, the phenomena of the media can help explain cultural and social differences. For example Miller’s (1995) study of viewers of an American Soap in Trinidad and Tobago revealed the ways in which values from the programme were localised and absorbed into local meanings (Barker, 1997, cited in Bilton, 2002 page 347).

Additionally, ‘effects studies’ have been a popular way of understanding the audience in terms of the media. There have been ample studies throughout media history of the effects media has in society, and it continues to be one of the most talked about topics in contemporary life too. By studying how audiences react to events portrayed in the media, it is possible to gain information as to what values are important to people and to what extent. For example, the effect that violence has had on society since appearing in all forms of the media is extraordinary.

Studies such as ones that argue, ‘viewers of violent television express more willingness to use violence to resolve real interpersonal conflicts’, (Huston et al, 1992, cited in Grossberg et al, 1998, page 301), have influenced much debate and policy making in Britain and America. However, it is always necessary to ask questions about the political and moral positions of the research done. In ‘effects studies’, it is important to know, according to Alvarado et al, who commissioned the research and why and what action was taken as a result of the findings.

For example in the case of the government, they may wish to know why there is an increase in the drug or crime rate (1987, page 256). Therefore, it is evident that much can be learned by studying the media. Although with each method there are ample examples of discrepancies, without the study of the media, social, cultural and educational discussions would not be possible. The media affects everyone in some way, whether it be at home, at school in a profession or for leisure, media is all around us and has become part of our everyday lives.

By studying the theory behind the institutions that make up the media, we can learn about what influences production. By researching audiences, we can evaluate what is expected, enjoyed and what affects the consumer. Studying the media however is not an easy task and it can be argued not a worthy one since it can be arbitrary. Subjective researchers, biased data and dubious techniques can make the study of media seem futile, yet with careful considerations, and intricacies, the study of the media can lead to fascinating and intriguing findings which can be both helpful to the student and member of the public alike.

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