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Relationship Between Media And Society

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Autor:  monstr_55  12 February 2010
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The following essay will concentrate on the reciprocal relationship between the media and society, focusing on journalism in particular. A brief overview of the terms used in this essay will be used first to create a common understanding. This will be achieved by discussing theories regarding mass media and journalism as separate entities. The two will then be combined to discuss how mass media affects , and is affected by society. This will be done by referring to the many theories regarding journalism and mass media and how thy correspond with society using theories such as the normative press theories.

To understand the effect of something, one first needs to understand the subject itself. Therefore to discuss the effect of mass media, one must fully understand the concept of mass communication and how it functions as an integral part of society. Only once this concept is understood, can it be discussed as a reactor to change in society. The paragraph following will explain the phenomenon of mass media.

Mass communication can simply be described as a message sent to a large audience. The audience that the message is referred to as a homogenous audience. This means the audience has a varied mix of people within it. The message can therefore be considered to be completely unbiased as many different types of people will be exposed to it. This however, is not true. When an advertising agency puts up a billboard for instance, it will be put in a certain area and will in turn be exposed to a particular audience. This group will be referred to as the target audience. A message cannot be effective unless sent through a particular medium. A medium is he way the message is transmitted. In the case of the advertising agency, the medium would be the billboard. The mediums used by mass communication are referred to as mass media. Mass media is the vehicle for the transmission of media messages and can consist of newspapers, film, radio, etc.

With this understanding the effect of mass communication can be better understood. According to Pember, (1987: 2), “mass media is constantly supplying us with information, and influencing, educating or entertaining us”. Pember is referring to the two functions of mass media, namely: the information function and entertainment function. Mass communication cannot be separated from the individual or society. It is a part of everyday life as a pervasive force, as stated by Pember. Hiebert, Ungurait & Bohn (1991) are also noted for saying that mass communication is as much part of modern society as are schools, churches and businesses. It can also be described as one of the important subsystems of society together with the political, economic, cultural and other subsystems. It can hence be concluded that mass communication must always exist in a social context and therefore affect it and be affected in turn by society.

The following paragraphs will establish what is meant by the term journalism and the ways in which it affects and is affected by society. Journalism can be described as the process of gathering and reporting news to mass audiences with the in intention of informing them. Journalism can be said to be fulfilling the information function of mass media. Vincent Campbell’s quotes (Hartley in Campbell, 2004: 1) of John Hartley can be considered to answer the question of journalism in modern society. Hartley asked what it is that journalism does. He stated that news organizations exist where there is democracy and where there is not. They exist where government is largely open and where decision making is largely secret. They can be found where parties are strong or weak, where public ownership of communication media is powerful or absent. That question was answered by Francois Nel (2001: 3) when he said “We need news to live our lives. It helps us to distinguish between threats and opportunities, enemies and friends. News helps us orientate ourselves, and it helps us connect with others. If the mass media are the system that societies generate to supply this news, then journalism is its lifeblood. That is why the character of the news and the quality of the journalism are important; they influence our thoughts, our experiences, our cultures”.

Michael O’Shaughnessy and Jane Stadler (Journalism 2A Reader) have analyzed the relationship between society and the media by examining three key areas namely: contemporary society, how the media works, the effects and influence of the media on society. O’Shaughnessy and Stadler firstly noted three characteristics of contemporary society namely: change and crisis, inequality and difference, and maintaining consent in western democracies. The next area they focused on was the way in which media works. They gave three “staring point positions” on how the media works. The first, representation: “media products do not show or represent the real world; they construct and re-present reality”. The second, interpretation: “the media are just one of the ways by which we and society make sense of the world, or construct the world”. The final one, evaluation: “the media are owned, controlled, and created by certain groups who make sense of society on behalf of others”. From this it is clear that mass media is a cultural phenomenon which exists in a societal context.

Another way to discuss the effect of media on society would be to examine the normative press theories. In order to understand the normative press theories a brief description of the terms will be given. Normative refers to something being “normal”, or of what ought to be. All the normative press theories conform to what is considered normal. The purpose of press theories is to understand, describe and explain how and why the media operates differently in various countries or contexts as described by Siebert, Peterson and Schramm (Journalism 2A Reader), who wrote about the media in the 1950’s. they were also trying to establish whether the media serves a different purpose in the different political contexts it is situated. Siebert, Peterson and Schramm wanted to establish a relationship between different countries and the media within these countries. They used a process called common analysis which is looking at things that appear to be similar but have rather apparent differences. The context in which these things operate is crucial to the effectiveness of common analysis. The context of mass media can be considered as the social context. The media is also greatly affected by the political climate of a country. From these findings Siebert, Peterson and Schramm developed two media theories; Authoritarian and Libertarian. These two theories and the way they affect, and are affected by the media will be discussed further in the following paragraph.

The authoritarian system is typically found in dictatorial countries where freedom of the press is challenged. The media in such countries is most often forbidden to undermine the state in any way and any such acts are punished severely. Censorship is justified, and often enforced in these countries and any act of retaliation is considered a criminal by the government of that state. A few examples of authoritarian stats would be Hitler’s Germany and South Africa under apartheid rule. The effect of the media in these states can be crucial to change the state of the nation. Throughout history the media’s effect on a turbulent government state has been clearly noted. The media campaigns created by the allied countries during World War 2 for example, aided those countries in recruiting soldiers to fight abroad. The media coverage of the apartheid situation in South Africa resulted in sanctions and the aid of other countries to dissolve the situation.
The opposite of the authoritarian theory is the libertarian theory. The libertarian theory focuses on freedom of the press based on the assumption that people can make rational decisions based on a democratic way of thinking. The libertarian theory emerged during the 1700’s in Europe where ideas such as freedom and democracy were become more popular by the lower class. These ideals are now considered a right in many democratic countries around the world in countries such as Great Britain and The United States Of America. The libertarian theory focuses on freedom of the press and a ban on censorship. The ruthless punishment of journalists is considered immoral and the press a new sense of freedom. This new freedom however, creates an environment of half truths to develop and twentieth century news organizations to start sensationalizing stories and create a culture of “gossip” news. The effects of modern mass media can be seen in the generation of children who do not cherish the values of old and give in to commercialism. This is definitely a negative effect of mass media messages on society. But, just as in an authoritarian state, the mass media in a libertarian country can also have a positive effect. Through the exposure of scandals, cover-ups and corruption of people in power the media can aid a country in political change.

With the rapid globalization of the world, news messages can reach any part of the planet almost instantly. O’Shaughnessy and Stadler (2005: 436) define globalization as “an international community influenced by technological development and economic, political and military interests. It is characterized by a worldwide increase in interdependence interactivity, interconnectedness, and the virtually instantaneous exchange of information”.

Due to the rapid way in which news can spread in modern society, news needs to be monitored and the truth upheld. This is only possible by placing certain restrictions on the news that gets released to the public. The people who enforce these restrictions are referred to as gatekeepers. It is the role of the gatekeeper to control what is acceptable and released to he public and what is not suitable for public viewing. “We rely on journalists to make judgments about what is or is not important, or newsworthy, and to provide us with factual accounts about these newsworthy events. Ultimately, if we are to understand what news really is, we need to understand how journalists form their judgments and construct their accounts” explain Croteau and Hoynes (Croteau & Hoynes, 2002: 126) regarding the way journalists select what is newsworthy before they report on it.

In conclusion, having discussed mass communication and journalism and their roles in society it is clear to see that mass media operates within a social context as one of the many sub systems. From the use of the normative press theories as a background behind historic events such as apartheid and Germany under Hitler’s rule as well as the more libertarian states such as Great Britain and America it is evident that mass media can have a profound effect on the society which it functions in. Although the effect of mass media in a certain context is not always positive, it cannot be ignored as an important factor in society. It is also important to keep In mind however, the responsibility of the journalist to report what is true and newsworthy.


Pember, Don R.(1987), Mass Media Law. 4th ed. Dubuque, IA: William. C. Brown company publishers

Hiebert, R.E.,Ungurait, D.F. & Bohn, T.W. 1991. mass media IV. New York: Longman

Vincent Campbell, 2004, Information Age Journalism, London: Arnold

Nel, Francois, 2001, Writing for the media, Cape Town: Oxford University Press

O'Shaughnessy, M., Stadler, J., 2005, Media and Society, An Introduction, Australia: OUP Australia and New Zealand

Croteau, D., Hoynes, W., 2002, Media/Society: Industries, images, and audiences, California: Sage Publications


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