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Mass media is the means used to communicate to the general public.

In this lesson, you will learn

the different platforms for mass media and the influence that mass media has on society.

What Is Mass Media?

Think about this for a second: whenever you want to hear your favorite song, watch your favorite
show, or see the latest current events, where do you go? You more than likely turn on your
television, radio, or computer. The source that the majority of the general public uses to get their
news and information from is considered mass media.
Mass media means technology that is intended to reach a mass audience. It is the primary means
of communication used to reach the vast majority of the general public. The most common platforms
for mass media are newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and the Internet. The general public
typically relies on the mass media to provide information regarding political issues, social issues,
entertainment, and news in pop culture.

Types of Mass Media

The mass media has evolved significantly over time. Have you ever wondered how the latest news
and information was communicated in the past? Well, before there was the Internet, television, or
the radio, there was the newspaper. The newspaper was the original platform for mass media. For a
long period of time, the public relied on writers and journalists for the local newspapers to provide
them with the latest news in current events.
Centuries later, in the 1890s, came the invention of the radio. The radio would soon supersede the
newspaper as the most pertinent source for mass media. Families would gather around the radio
and listen to their favorite radio station programs to hear the latest news regarding politics, social
issues, and entertainment.
Later on down the line came the invention of the television. The television would soon replace the
radio for the most effective platform to reach the general public. Today, the Internet is the most
relevant form of mass media and has become a major tool for news outlets. Since the evolution of
the Internet, the general public is now able to access those same news outlets in an instant with just
a click of a mouse, instead of having to wait for scheduled programs.
The Role and Influence of Mass Media
Mass media is communicationwhether written, broadcast, or spokenthat reaches a large
audience. This includes television, radio, advertising, movies, the Internet, newspapers, magazines, and
so forth.

Mass media is a significant force in modern culture, particularly in America. Sociologists

refer to this as a mediated culture where media reflects and creates the culture.
Communities and individuals are bombarded constantly with messages from a multitude
of sources including TV, billboards, and magazines, to name a few. These messages
promote not only products, but moods, attitudes, and a sense of what is and is not
important. Mass media makes possible the concept of celebrity: without the ability of
movies, magazines, and news media to reach across thousands of miles, people could
not become famous. In fact, only political and business leaders, as well as the few
notorious outlaws, were famous in the past. Only in recent times have actors, singers,
and other social elites become celebrities or stars.

The current level of media saturation has not always existed. As recently as the 1960s
and 1970s, television, for example, consisted of primarily three networks, public
broadcasting, and a few local independent stations. These channels aimed their
programming primarily at twoparent, middleclass families. Even so, some middleclass
households did not even own a television. Today, one can find a television in the
poorest of homes, and multiple TVs in most middleclass homes. Not only has
availability increased, but programming is increasingly diverse with shows aimed to
please all ages, incomes, backgrounds, and attitudes. This widespread availability and
exposure makes television the primary focus of most massmedia discussions. More
recently, the Internet has increased its role exponentially as more businesses and
households sign on. Although TV and the Internet have dominated the mass media,
movies and magazinesparticularly those lining the aisles at grocery checkout
standsalso play a powerful role in culture, as do other forms of media.

What role does mass media play? Legislatures, media executives, local school officials,
and sociologists have all debated this controversial question. While opinions vary as to
the extent and type of influence the mass media wields, all sides agree that mass media
is a permanent part of modern culture. Three main sociological perspectives on the role
of media exist: the limitedeffects theory, the classdominant theory, and the culturalist

Limited-effects theory

The limitedeffects theory argues that because people generally choose what to watch or read based
on what they already believe, media exerts a negligible influence. This theory originated and was tested
in the 1940s and 1950s. Studies that examined the ability of media to influence voting found that well
informed people relied more on personal experience, prior knowledge, and their own reasoning.
However, media experts more likely swayed those who were less informed. Critics point to two
problems with this perspective. First, they claim that limitedeffects theory ignores the media's role in
framing and limiting the discussion and debate of issues. How media frames the debate and what
questions members of the media ask change the outcome of the discussion and the possible conclusions
people may draw. Second, this theory came into existence when the availability and dominance of
media was far less widespread.

Class-dominant theory

The classdominant theory argues that the media reflects and projects the view of a minority elite,
which controls it. Those people who own and control the corporations that produce media comprise this
elite. Advocates of this view concern themselves particularly with massive corporate mergers of media
organizations, which limit competition and put big business at the reins of mediaespecially news
media. Their concern is that when ownership is restricted, a few people then have the ability to
manipulate what people can see or hear. For example, owners can easily avoid or silence stories that
expose unethical corporate behavior or hold corporations responsible for their actions.

The issue of sponsorship adds to this problem. Advertising dollars fund most media.
Networks aim programming at the largest possible audience because the broader the
appeal, the greater the potential purchasing audience and the easier selling air time to
advertisers becomes. Thus, news organizations may shy away from negative stories
about corporations (especially parent corporations) that finance large advertising
campaigns in their newspaper or on their stations. Television networks receiving
millions of dollars in advertising from companies like Nike and other textile
manufacturers were slow to run stories on their news shows about possible human
rights violations by these companies in foreign countries. Media watchers identify the
same problem at the local level where city newspapers will not give new cars poor
reviews or run stories on selling a home without an agent because the majority of their
funding comes from auto and real estate advertising. This influence also extends to
programming. In the 1990s a network cancelled a shortrun drama with clear religious
sentiments, Christy, because, although highly popular and beloved in rural America, the
program did not rate well among young city dwellers that advertisers were targeting in

Critics of this theory counter these arguments by saying that local control of news media
largely lies beyond the reach of large corporate offices elsewhere, and that the quality of
news depends upon good journalists. They contend that those less powerful and not in
control of media have often received full media coverage and subsequent support. As
examples they name numerous environmental causes, the antinuclear movement, the
antiVietnam movement, and the proGulf War movement.

While most people argue that a corporate elite controls media, a variation on this
approach argues that a politically liberal elite controls media. They point to the fact that
journalists, being more highly educated than the general population, hold more liberal
political views, consider themselves left of center, and are more likely to register as
Democrats. They further point to examples from the media itself and the statistical
reality that the media more often labels conservative commentators or politicians as
conservative than liberals as liberal.

Media language can be revealing, too. Media uses the terms arch or ultra
conservative, but rarely or never the terms arch or ultra liberal. Those who argue that
a political elite controls media also point out that the movements that have gained
media attentionthe environment, antinuclear, and antiVietnamgenerally support
liberal political issues. Predominantly conservative political issues have yet to gain
prominent media attention, or have been opposed by the media. Advocates of this view
point to the Strategic Arms Initiative of the 1980s Reagan administration. Media quickly
characterized the defense program as Star Wars, linking it to an expensive fantasy.
The public failed to support it, and the program did not get funding or congressional

Culturalist theory

The culturalist theory, developed in the 1980s and 1990s, combines the other two theories and
claims that people interact with media to create their own meanings out of the images and messages
they receive. This theory sees audiences as playing an active rather than passive role in relation to mass
media. One strand of research focuses on the audiences and how they interact with media; the other
strand of research focuses on those who produce the media, particularly the news.

Theorists emphasize that audiences choose what to watch among a wide range of
options, choose how much to watch, and may choose the mute button or the VCR
remote over the programming selected by the network or cable station. Studies of mass
media done by sociologists parallel textreading and interpretation research completed
by linguists (people who study language). Both groups of researchers find that when
people approach material, whether written text or media images and messages, they
interpret that material based on their own knowledge and experience. Thus, when
researchers ask different groups to explain the meaning of a particular song or video,
the groups produce widely divergent interpretations based on age, gender, race,
ethnicity, and religious background. Therefore, culturalist theorists claim that, while a
few elite in large corporations may exert significant control over what information media
produces and distributes, personal perspective plays a more powerful role in how the
audience members interpret those messages.

Functions of the Media

The media has immense power within the American democracy because just
about all Americans get their news from the media rather than from other
people or other sources. Media coverage shapes how Americans perceive the
world and what they consider to be important. Voters and politicians alike
must pay attention to the media. In the American political system, the media
perform a number of functions important to the democratic process. The
media reports the news, serves as an intermediary between the government
and the people, helps determine which issues should be discussed, and
keeps people actively involved in society and politics.

Reporting the News

Perhaps the most important role of the media in politics is to report the news.
As noted above, the vast majority of people must trust the media to provide
them with information. Democracy requires that citizens be informed because
they must be able to make educated voting choices.

Media Bias
These days, politicians often complain of bias in the media, usually a liberal
bias against the views of conservative politicians. They complain that the
medias ability to decide which stories to report often reflects its partisanship.
Although this is true to some extent, most major newspapers and television
news stations report the same stories more or less objectively. Bias is often
restricted to the media outlets commentary and opinion pages.


For much of American history (until the early twentieth century), most news
media were clearly and openly biased. Many newspapers, for example, were
simply the voices of the political parties. This type of journalism is
called partisan journalism. Other newspapers practiced yellow
journalism, reporting shocking and sordid stories in order to attract readers
and sell more papers. Objective reporting(also called descriptive reporting)
did not appear until the early twentieth century. Newspaper publishers such as
Adolph Ochs of the New York Times championed objective journalism and
praised reporters for simply reporting the facts. Although most journalists
today still practice objective journalism, more and more are beginning to
analyze and interpret the material they present, a practice called interpretive
Yellow Journalism
The media has influenced politics throughout American history. The most
prominentand notoriousexample is the role of William Randolph Hearsts
newspapers in starting the Spanish-American War in 1898. According to the
legend, Hearsts papers ran many stories chronicling the cruelty of Spanish
colonial rule. When the American battleship Maineexploded under mysterious
circumstances, Hearst seized the moment, alleging that the Spanish had
destroyed the ship. War soon followed. Few media moguls have this much
direct influence, but with media consolidation, some worry that the media has
too much power.

Being the Common Carrier

The media plays a common-carrier role by providing a line of communication

between the government and the people. This communication goes both
ways: The people learn about what the government is doing, and the
government learns from the media what the public is thinking.
Setting the Agenda

Journalists cannot report on an infinite number of stories, so they must choose

which are the most newsworthy. By choosing which stories to present to the
public, the news media helps determine the most important issues; in other
words, the journalists set the agenda. Agenda-setting is crucial because it
shapes which issues will be debated in public. Sometimes political scientists
refer to agenda-setting as signaling because the media signals which stories
are the most important when they decide what to report.

Critics allege that journalists often copy one another without doing their own
investigating. When one newspaper runs a story, for example, many others
will run similar stories soon afterward. Critics refer to this tendency as pack
Acting as the Public Representative

The media sometimes acts as a public representative by holding

government officials accountable on behalf of the people. Many people argue
that the media is ill equipped to play this role because the media does not
face the same type of accountability that politicians face. Serving as the
representative of the public, moreover, could undermine the medias
objectivity because the act of representing the people might require reporters
to take a position on an issue.
Example: The classic example of watchdog journalism, or activist reporting
that attempts to hold government officials and institutions accountable for their
actions, is the Watergate investigations of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
The Washington Post reporters doggedly pursued allegations of campaign
misdeeds and presidential crimes despite the fact that many Americans did
not care. Journalists have exposed many other government scandals and
misdeeds, including the Iran-Contra affair and the Lewinsky scandal.
Government Regulation of the Media

Even though the Constitution guarantees freedom of the press, the

government does regulate some media. Print media are largely unregulated,
and newspapers and magazines can print nearly anything as long as they
dont slander anyone. The Internet has also gone largely unregulated, despite
congressional efforts to restrict some controversial content. Broadcast media,
however, are subject to the most government regulation. Radio and television
broadcasters must obtain a license from the government because, according
to American law, the public owns the airwaves. The Federal
Communications Commission (FCC) issues these licenses and is in charge
of regulating the airwaves.
FCC Police
The FCC also acts as a police agency of the airwaves, and it can fine
broadcasters for violating public decency standards on the air. In extreme
cases, the FCC can even revoke a broadcasters license, keeping him off the
air permanently. The FCC has fined radio host Howard Stern numerous times
for his use of profanity, for example, and fined CBS heavily for Janet
Jacksons wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance at the
Super Bowl in 2004.

Media Doctrines

The FCC has also established rules for broadcasts concerning political

The equal time rule, which states that broadcasters must provide equal
broadcast time to all candidates for a particular office.
The right of rebuttal, which requires broadcasters to provide an opportunity
for candidates to respond to criticisms made against them. A station cannot
air an attack on a candidate and fail to give the target of the attack a chance
to respond.
The fairness doctrine, which states that a broadcaster who airs a
controversial program must provide time to air opposing views.
The FCC has not enforced the fairness doctrine since 1985, and some allege
that the FCC has taken a lax approach to enforcing the other rules as well.

Media Consolidation

The government has also regulated ownership of media outlets to ensure that
no one broadcaster monopolizes the market. Since the 1980s, however, the
government has loosened restrictions on media ownership, and Congress
passed the Telecommunications Act in 1996 to allow companies to own even
more media outlets.

Due to the loosening of ownership restrictions, more and more media outlets
are falling under the control of a few giant corporations, a tendency
called media consolidation. The Hearst, Knight Ridder, and Gannett
corporations own most of the nations newspapers, whereas Clear Channel
Communications owns many radio stations. Large companies also own the
major networks and other television stations. The Walt Disney corporation, for
example, owns ABC and ESPN, along with the Disney Channel, and Viacom
owns CBS and MTV. Rupert Murdochs Media Corporation, meanwhile, owns
all of the Fox channels, several radio networks, satellite television providers,
and newspapers in many countries. And Time-Warner owns dozens of
magazines, including Time, Life, and Sports Illustrated, as well as the CNN
and Turner television networks.

Critics contend that media consolidation limits consumers choices because a

small number of companies own all the media outlets. They argue that
consolidation is not competitive and that corporate owners might restrict or
manipulate news coverage. Some critics also lament the homogenization of
American culture due to media consolidation. Because radio and television
formats have become increasingly uniform, people throughout the country
receive the same broadcasts.

Cable Exceptionalism
It is not clear if the FCC has the authority to regulate cable television. The
FCC is entitled to regulate those who broadcast over the airwaves because
the people (not the broadcasters) own the airwaves. Cable television,
however, is not sent over the airwaves: Cables transmit the programs directly
into peoples houses. Presumably this means that cable television cannot be
regulated, but some members of Congress have still sought to do so.


Types of Media

The term news media refers to the groups that communicate information and
news to people. Most Americans get their information about government from
the news media because it would be impossible to gather all the news
themselves. Media outlets have responded to the increasing reliance of
Americans on television and the Internet by making the news even more
readily available to people. There are three main types of news media: print
media, broadcast media, and the Internet.

Print Media

The oldest media forms are newspapers, magazines, journals, newsletters,

and other printed material. These publications are collectively known as
the print media. Although print media readership has declined in the last few
decades, many Americans still read a newspaper every day or a
newsmagazine on a regular basis. The influence of print media is therefore
significant. Regular readers of print media tend to be more likely to be
politically active.
The print media is responsible for more reporting than other news sources.
Many news reports on television, for example, are merely follow-up stories
about news that first appeared in newspapers. The top American newspapers,
such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles
Times, often set the agenda for many other media sources.
The Newspaper of Record
Because of its history of excellence and influence, the New York Times is
sometimes called the newspaper of record: If a story is not in the Times, it is
not important. In 2003, however, the newspaper suffered a major blow to its
credibility when Times journalist Jayson Blair admitted that he had fabricated
some of his stories. The Timeshas since made extensive efforts to prevent
any similar scandals, but some readers have lost trust in the paper.

Broadcast Media

Broadcast media are news reports broadcast via radio and television.
Television news is hugely important in the United States because more
Americans get their news from television broadcasts than from any other


The main broadcast networksABC, CBS, and NBCeach have a news

division that broadcasts a nightly news show. For the past fifty years, most
Americans watched one or more of these broadcasts. Since the 1980s,
however, cable news channels have chipped away at the broadcast networks.
CNN and MSNBC both broadcast news around the clock. Because the cable
news channels are always broadcasting news programs, many people who
want to follow a story closely tune in to these stations first. The relatively new
Fox network news program has also drawn numerous viewers away from the
big three networks.


The other type of broadcast media is radio. Before the advent of television in
the 1950s, most Americans relied on radio broadcasts for their news.
Although fewer Americans rely on radio as their primary news source, many
people still listen to radio news every day, especially during morning and
evening commutes. Local news stations have a particularly large audience
because they can report on local weather, traffic, and events.

Talk Radio
Since the 1980s, talk radio has emerged as a major force in broadcasting.
Talk radio is a radio format in which the hosts mix interviews with political
commentary. As a result, many talk radio shows are highly partisan.
Conservatives have a strong hold on American talk radio through programs
hosted by influential commentators, such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean

The Internet

The Internet is slowly transforming the news media because more Americans
are relying on online sources of news instead of traditional print and broadcast
media. Americans surf the sites of more traditional media outlets, such as
NBC and CNN, but also turn to unique online news sources such as weblogs.
Websites can provide text, audio, and video information, all of the ways
traditional media are transmitted. The web also allows for a more interactive
approach by allowing people to personally tailor the news they receive via
personalized web portals, newsgroups, podcasts, and RSS feeds.

Weblogsknown colloquially as blogshave become very influential since

the start of the twenty-first century. Leading bloggers write their opinions on a
variety of issues, and thousands of people respond on message boards.
Although many blogs are highly partisan and inaccurate, a few have been
instrumental in breaking big stories.

Media Saturation
In the last twenty years, the media has become a bigger part of our lives.
Twenty-four-hour news networks allow people to tune in any time. At the
same time, the networks must find something to fill all those hoursand to
outdo one anotherso the networks often seek sensational stories. Talk radio
has also become extremely popular. Many people rely on talk radio for much
of their news, even though many talk radio hosts are openly partisan.
Escaping the media often seems impossible: There always seems to be a
television, radio, or Internet stream playing in the background of our daily