This essay was part of the course work for Sociology 1B 2015-16 University of Glasgow
Various ills of societies have been and are attributed to mass media, from the decline of religion, over the rise of crime and violence, to corrupting minds (McCullagh and Campling, 2002: 2). The salience of this thinking suggests that media may have significant power over its audience. This essay aims to identify how successful (i.e. powerful) audiences are in rejecting and renegotiating media messages by looking at three theories of audience reception: uses and gratifications theory, screen theory, and the encoding/decoding model. The essay will demonstrate, that the ability of audiences to reject or renegotiate media messages depends on the environment and the context in which a message is received, but is also heavily impacted by the way the media frames issues. This will be illustrated by two examples from work of the Glasgow University Media Group (GUMG).
Generally, individuals can decide if, when, and what media they consume. Active media choice may well reinforce existing beliefs and values, but it is unlikely that media can actually change them (Eldridge et al., 1997: 126–127). The uses and gratifications theory uses a functionalist approach to analyse why people consume media the way they do, therefore assuming the audience as a conscious decision-maker (Sullivan, 2013: 112–113). In this model, media is not central to public opinion as audiences interpret media messages based on prior social connections and on their own opinions (McCullagh and Campling, 2002: 153) and because media is used as a means to an end to satisfy the audiences’ needs, e.g. entertainment or information (Sullivan, 2013: 108).
However, while audiences may well be able to choose what they watch, they have little impact on media production as such and may be impacted by how media addresses them. Media has the power to put the audience in a particular position by using certain camera angles, editing, music, and scripts (McCullagh and Campling, 2002: 157). Media producers further can decide what events are reported and usually also provide interpretative frameworks (McCullagh and Campling, 2002: 25). This is known as screen theory or framing, which puts the audience into a more passive role than uses and gratifications theory (McCullagh and Campling, 2002: 157).
The Birmingham University Centre for Contemporary Studies took up the fact that audiences also have to be seen as coming from various backgrounds, bringing a wide range of social experiences and having cultural knowledge (McCullagh and Campling, 2002: 11–12) and argued that understandings of media messages are shaped by them, and therefore the meanings set out by the producers of a media message may not be the same as received by the audience (Sullivan, 2013: 140). Hall (1999) elaborated on these differences in media in his essay “encoding-decoding”. For him discourses are not closed systems, as productions is not the same as reception of messages (though these are closely related), and he describes the articulation of messages as a circuit in which encoding (i.e. the production of a message) and decoding (i.e. the reception) are determined moments, even though one moment cannot guarantee the next (Hall, 1999: 508-509). Hall identifies three possible positions the audience can take when decoding media messages (Hall, 1999: 516–517). The dominant-hegemonic position describes an audience who receives a message exactly in the way the producer intended; when taking the negotiated position, the audience may adopt the message frame but will add personal experience and knowledge to its interpretation; finally, the audience may reject the media message as a whole by taking the oppositional position (Hall, 1999: 516–517). Hall points out that the process of responding to a message is in itself framed by “structures of understanding, as well as being produced by social and economic relations” (Hall, 1999: 510). This theory was confirmed in Morley’s Nationwide Audience study which confirmed that audiences are often well aware of ‘intended’ meanings of media messages and that class does have an impact (Eldridge et al., 1997: 131–132), however, other factors such as gender, race and age have a similar impact on how messages are read (Kim, 2004: 91).
Hall’s concept and Morley’s findings suggest that the audience’s success in renegotiating or rejecting media messages is impacted by socio-economic factors as well as by cultural competencies (McCullagh and Campling, 2002: 165–166). School boys for example are more likely to take a dominant-hegemonic position than university graduates (Kim, 2004: 86). Additionally, the construction of negotiated or oppositional responses requires time and effort (McCullagh and Campling, 2002: 165–166), a dilemma already noted by Cooley in the 1920s, highlighting that the problem is that “we learn so much about so many things that we only develop the most rudimentary understanding of those things” (Sullivan, 2013: 27). Since Cooley’s observation societies have grown ever more complex and the level of information that people ‘need’ has increased massively, especially if they want to be seen as well-informed citizens (McCullagh and Campling, 2002: 13). Accessible, “easy to digest” information has become essential in everyday life and subsequently the media’s position as provider of this information is increasingly powerful.
In 1993, the GUMG carried out a thematic analysis of media presentation of mental illness in fiction programmes. They found that there were few positive images, that the most dominant theme was ‘violence to others’ and that mental illness was presented almost exclusively in psychotic, frenzied or maniac characters (McCullagh and Campling, 2002: 29; Philo, 1999: 55). In addition to the thematic analysis the GUMG analysed people’s attitudes towards mental illness in focus groups (Philo, 1999: 55). They found that while participants were well aware of how the media framed disabled people, they were unable to reject the stereotypes media had established (Philo, 1999: 56). It appeared that the violent media experience ‘overlaid’ any non-violent personal experience, for example one participant visited a jumble sale at a hospital with a mental ward and felt fearful towards the patients even though she did neither experience nor observe violence in any form (Philo, 1999: 55). In a further study published in 2011 the GUMG analysed how disabled people are depicted in newspaper texts and found that while reporting had increased it had also become more hostile and highly politicised, with the theme of mentally disabled people being mainly scroungers and a burden on the state (Briant et al., 2011: 7–10). Again, even participants who had personal knowledge about how difficult it is to obtain disability benefits, generally accepted the notion that there are high levels of benefit fraud (Briant et al., 2011: 13). Only limited negotiation and no rejection of the media messages took place.
Negative images also dominate the media coverage about refugees (Philo et al., 2013: chapter 5; Berry et al., 2015: 3). The diversity of possible media frames according to different local preferences shows in a report by Cardiff School of Journalism which carried out a media analysis across Europe in light of the 2015 refugee crisis. The report showed clear differences in different countries, though all of them lacked political pro-asylum movements (Berry et al., 2015). In the UK, even though asylum seekers are only a minority of the migrant population, the media coverage about migration centres on them (Philo et al., 2013: chapter 2). It not only stigmatizes asylum seekers as “illegal” immigrants and greatly distorts the difference between asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants, it further impacts existing migrant communities, who feel under threat and “painted with the same brush” as asylum seekers (Philo et al., 2013: chapter 5). Nevertheless, GUMG focus group participants from migrant communities shared resentments against asylum seekers but also blamed the media for creating a bad public image for any migrant (Philo et al., 2013: chapter 5). Again, the audience recognised the media frame but did not reject it.
Over all, in various media studies the GUMG found that people are remarkably well able to recall media accounts and they tend to use them as frames of references even if they do not fully agree with them (Kitzinger, 1999: 5). Further, media images may enter a “spiral of reinforcement” where an image presented on media is applied to everyday encounters which subsequently strengthens the belief in that image as it appears to be ‘confirmed’ (Kitzinger, 1999: 16).
Ultimately, as the examples above show, audiences rarely reject media messages as a whole. The reasons for this are manifold, therefore all three theories presented can be applied. Uses and gratifications theory explains why audiences may use media frames they disagree with as long as it is useful to them, screen theory explains the power media has to present or encode a message in a certain way, and Hall’s encoding/decoding model highlights the different positions audiences may take. In conclusion, audiences are clearly able to renegotiate media messages but the success of that endeavour depends on various external and personal circumstances as well as on the willingness of the audience to put an effort. Similarly, audiences are well able to reject media messages but did not choose to do so in the examples given.
Berry M, Garcia-Blanco I and Moore K (2015) Press Coverage of the Refugee and Migrant Crisis in the EU: A ContentAnalysis of Five European Countries: Report prepared for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Available at: http://www.unhcr.org/56bb369c9.html (accessed 15 March 2016).
Briant E, Watson N, Philo G and Inclusion London (2011) Bad News for Disabled People: How the newspapers are reporting disability. Available at: http://www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_214917_en.pdf (accessed 15 March 2016).
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