The Social Role of the Machinery of Mass Media
The influence of and implications of mass media on our daily lives is difficult to determine. Comparing American society with other societies, or even with an earlier period in America, would not yield precise results.
Lazarsfeld however, feels that the effect of mass media has been overestimated:
- Although the average American watches 3 hours of TV a day, these numbers show only consumption rates, not the social or the psychological impact of the media.
- Compared to the effect of an automobile, the mass media influence is relatively minor.
If the effect of the media has indeed been overestimated, why is there so much popular concern over the problems of the radio, TV, film and press?
The reason may be the following:
- Social changes and innovations, like reduced work hours, free universal education and longer leisure time have allowed people to gain greater access to cultural heritage. The mass media seem to have cheated the proponents of these social developments. Instead of Shakespeare and Beethoven, people now get Britney Spears in their leisure time.
Some Social Functions of the Mass Media
Three social functions:
- The status conferral function – conferring status on public issues, persons, organizations and social movements. Positive attention by the press raises the status of persons or social policies because the media are perceived to have expertise and good judgment. Moreover, the notion that one's ideas and behavior are enough to be singled out from the large anonymous masses legitimizes their status.
- The enforcement of social norms – exposing certain deviation from social norms to public view. Public exposure occurs when deviations from public norms shift from the private realm into the public realm. When abnormal behavior cannot be tolerated privately, the individuals seek public exposure, which requires every member of the society to take a stand on the issue. The issue thus becomes either "publicly acknowledgeable" or "publicly repudiated". The function of publicity to close the gap between "private attitudes" and "public morality" is institutionalized in the mass media of communication.
- The narcotizing dysfunction – large masses of the population become politically apathetic and inert. Although the public receives vast amounts on information about current events, their concern may only be superficial. Such exposure cloaks mass apathy, as individuals mistake knowing and intellectualizing about issues for actually doing something about them. The average person is concerned and well informed, but after going through all the daily news, it is time for bed.
The Structure of Ownership and Operation
In public service systems the customer supports the enterprise, while the government sets the agenda. In America, the advertisers finance the media and therefore the big corporations are the ones who set the media agenda.
Since the mass media are supported by great business concerns within the current social and economic system, the media contribute to the maintenance of that system – supporting the status quo. This contribution stems not only from active media support of consumerism through advertisement, but more significantly by failing to raise essential questions about the structure of society. Even the few exceptions, in the context of social objectives (such as raising racial tolerance), are consistently surrendered by commercialized media when they clash with economic gains. Sensitive issues, that may alienate appreciable parts of the audience, or clash with the advertiser's interests, are omitted for economic reasons.
Impact upon Popular Taste
Since a large portion of the media is devoted to entertainment, popular taste is affected and even dictated. However, this development needs to be put in a broader historical and sociological perspective in order to understand this alleged "fall of standards". With the emergence of new technologies, media and arts have become available to a much larger audience. The high arts that are a standard for good taste, as opposed to pop culture, may only be the remnants of past elitist societies, which they once signified. While in the past persons with cultivated esthetic standards constituted the whole audience, today they are a small fraction. It is misleading to speak simply of the decline of popular tastes. The average level of esthetic standards has dropped, but the tastes of some sectors of the population have been raised, and the total number of people exposed to mass media has increased.
Can popular tastes be raised, or are the mass media producers caught up in a vicious circle of attending to the economics of popular culture?
o Audiences refuse to tune in on classical music or discussions of public issues. People like tasteless crap! They cannot see the educational value of the Sex Pistols.
o Small creative talents suited for selective audiences may provide a counterbalance to the mass art.
Propaganda for Social Objectives
What are the conditions for effective use of mass media to promote social objectives (i.e. educational reforms, race relations, etc…)? At least one of the following aspects needs to be present:
- Monopolization – no opposition to the mass media interpretation and diffusion of policies, values, or public images. This is inherent in authoritarian regimes, like the one in Nazi Germany. The media however, is used for propaganda in democracies too (Example: during WW2 in the U.S.). Commercialized propaganda is another example of media monopoly, where some popular media idols exercise moral authority in their field and are not subject to counterpropaganda.
- Canalization – mass media entrenches and capitalizes on existing basic attitudes in society. Once an American has been socialized in the use of a toothbrush, he/she can be directed towards a certain brand of toothbrush through advertising. Propaganda however, is not very effective in changing existing social attitudes because altering the underlying societal principles is much more difficult than merely directing them. Thus, if the objective is to canalize, instead of evoking concrete changes, the propaganda may succeed.
- Supplementation – localized centers of organized indoctrination (face to face propaganda). In the USSR, the ideological elite organized numerous gatherings in order to discuss communist ideology. Local discussions reinforce the content of mass propaganda and legitimize the significance of the political movement. Thus, the national speaker ensures the audience for the local organizer and vice versa.
Because in democracies the three principles stated above are rarely met, the media do not exhibit the degree of social power commonly attributed to them. Thus, the media are geared toward maintaining the existing social and cultural structure rather than toward its change.
See more summaries in communication studies