Unit Three: The Mass Media

watching_televisionRecent studies indicate that the number of hours an average American is exposed to television, the internet, and other media sources has increased over the past decade.  What role does the mass media play in shaping the lives of individuals and formulating public policy?  This unit will explore how the mass media influences American society today.

The best place to begin in understanding the mass media is through a definition. The mass media is a medium of communication ( such as newspapers, radio, television, the internet) that is designed to reach the mass of people.

But the mass media is more than just this. The mass media has become  pervasive in our daily lives.  The mass media may inform, entertain, or persuade, but its primary goal is to make money.  The mass media ties communities together by providing messages to entire populations so they share similar interests and ideas.  The power of the mass media is not in telling people what to think, but in telling people what to think about.   As the world slowly gets itself linked together, the influence of the mass media will grow.

Types of Mass Media

Books.  Although many people have speculated on the book’s demise, it has not yet happened.  The book is perhaps the oldest and most powerful form of media ever created.  Recently, electronic books have become available.  Books are produced both by giant publishing houses which hope to convert a popular book into a blockbuster movie, and small, niche publishers. Books generate more income than the combined sales of movie tickets and musical recordings.  Since the invention of the Gutenberg press, books have had an enormous impact on religious, political, and social thinking.

newspapers2Newspapers.  Most newspapers provide local residents with information about current events that occur around the world as well as locally.  Until the arrival of radio, television, and the internet, most people received their viewpoints about worldly affairs through the newspaper. Over the last few decades, newspapers have faced declining circulations, particularly among young people.  To stay competitive, most newspapers have created online editions. Approximately 1,500 newspapers print a daily edition.  Newspapers have changed over time.  Most newspapers originally carried a political slant.  Then the newspapers moved into sensationalism (yellow journalism, tabloids).  Newspapers became a much more visual medium in the 1980’s with the introduction of USA Today.  Although some newspapers remained owned by families, most have become the property of large, multinational corporations.  The problem for newspapers in generational. Older Americans still get their news from newspapers, whereas younger Americans are getting their news from other sources.  Many Americans prefer to get their news from local newspapers. But there are some newspapers that have a national appeal.  Newspapers that draw a national audience include The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. Within many in academic, political and media circles, The New York Times is highly respected and considered “the paper of record”.

1.  State of the News Media 2011

Magazines.  Magazines have survived by targeting specific readers. Today, only a few major magazines ( Time, Sports Illustrated, Newsweek) have mass circulations.  Most magazines survive by attracting specific readers by focusing on special interests.  About 20,000 publications reach 400 million readers in the United States.  In order to attract younger readers, many magazines have created electronic versions available on the internet.

Recorded Music.  The American Thomas Edison invented recorded sound. The music industry today spans a wide variety of formats, from rock and roll to gospel. The music itself has reflected cultural influences and has served as an expression for many subcultures, especially for the young ( rock and roll, heavy metal, rap).  For a long time the recording industry has been controlled by a few companies.  With the arrival of the internet, the relationship between artists and recording companies has changed.  The downloading of songs may change the traditional way that music has been marketed and distributed.

Radio. The influence of radio as a medium has undergone change since its inception.  Radio has the distinction of being the first medium to transmit information and entertainment over airwaves, as well as being the first medium to undergo heavy government regulation (licenses).  the primary regulatory agency for over-air broadcasting in the United States is the Federal Communication Commission.  The FCC grants local stations a monopoly to broadcast over a specific bandwidth. With the arrival of television, and then the internet, radio has lost its position as a dominant media. Today, the internet has offered radio a way to survive by creating an opportunity to reach audiences previously untapped.

tvmediaTelevision.  From its beginning, television has been the dominant media outlet. Its success is due in large part to its ability to communicate messages visually. Because of this ability, it has been criticized from the beginning by countless groups (sociologists, parents, politicians, various ethnic groups) for the messages sent to viewers.

It must be remembered that television is an industry. Its main function is to provide viewers to advertisers.  That means to attract viewers, programs are often created to appeal to lowest common denominator, with respect to humor, sex, and violence. Today, TV viewers can choose from hundreds of channels. Each year the major networks lose viewers to new specialized niche channels. New technology like the DVR or new websites such as Youtube and Hulu allow more access to television, whenever we want it.

With the recent arrival of digital technology, television will once again undergo a major change.  With more choices, programs will be targeted to specific viewers.

Film and Movies.  Films were the first media form to take advantage of continuous visual images. The first movies were “silent” in that they were visual only and did not contain sound. The film “The Jazz Singer” is recognized as the first movie containing sound. The ability to transmit powerful social messages has brought them much acclaim and criticism.  This power is evident in the government’s decision to regulate movies (ratings).  In the United States, the Motion Picture Association of America  (MPAA), through the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA), issues ratings for movies. The system was instituted in November 1968 and is voluntary; however, most movie theater chains will not show unrated domestic films and most major studios have agreed to submit all titles for rating prior to theatrical release.

The motion picture industry is where power rests with a few major corporations.  Major studios use proven themes to produce blockbuster movies.  In the near future, digital technology will make it cheaper and easier to produce, distribute and market films.

The Internet.  Hundreds of millions of people in every country of the world use the internet daily. The internet consists of three main parts: email, Usenet, and the world wide web.  Email allows individuals to send information from their computer to another computer.  People  talk to one another in discussion groups that focus on specific topics.  The world wide web allows people to instantly access a wide variety of information.

Because it is relatively new, the impact of the internet on our society is difficult to measure.  Already, some social observers are concerned about the growing divide among rich and poor nations concerning the exchange of information. Worldwide, low-income groups, racial and ethnic minorities, rural residents and the citizens of developing countries have far less access than others to the latest technologies such as the internet. This gap is referred to as the digital divide.  Others are concerned about how the internet has been used to promote hate, encourage violence, sell sex, and invade one’s personal privacy.

In a few short years the internet has caused a revolution in mass communications.  People can access information, purchase goods and services, and download music and films.  It is possible that the internet may replace television as the most important form of mass media. The internet has produced a new form a journalism called the blog.  The blog is an online journal where the author can air his or her opinions directly to audiences.

1.  Internet Speed in the United States Lags Behind Many Countries


The impact of media technology on society has been great.  However, its impact has not been without debate.  Some people believe that media technology has had a positive influence on American society, others believe a negative.

The Impact of the Media on Human Society

Over the past few decades a new term has entered out nation’s vocabulary: global village.  The term global village refers to a theory that states that the electronic media has allowed people throughout the world to experience similar thoughts and feelings at approximately the same time. This process has enabled people to communicate as though they lived in the same village.

One of the most important ways the mass media influences society is through a process known as gatekeeping.  Gatekeeping refers to how mass media outlets emphasize certain news items, while ignoring or rejecting others. Thus, material must pass through a series of gates (or checkpoints) before reaching the public. This means a small group of people decide which images and stories to bring to the consuming audience. This is one of the main sources of power for the media because they can control what is being presented to the public. Why does this happen? Because the media is made up of a number of large businesses in which profits are generally more important than the quality of the programming. This means that content that makes a profits is going to be promoted over content that does not-even if the content may have public benefits. For example, in the recording industry, gatekeepers may reject a popular local band because it competes with a group already on their label that is already proven itself in the market.

The media form with the least amount of gatekeeping is the internet. But even the internet is not totally without restrictions. Many nations may regulate content on issues such as gambling and pornography. Some countries such as China, will regulate political and religious content.

The next time you read a story in the newspaper or see a story on the TV news, ask yourself how did it get there and what stories were you prohibited from being exposed to?

1.  Project Censored

2.   Where Are the Women in the Media?

3.  Stephen Colbert White House Roast

4.  Almost No Mention of TPP Trade Agreement in the Mainstream Media


Violence in the Media

violenceinthemediaThe role of violence in the media is a controversial one.  There are some who believe that the mass media has an enormous impact on human behavior, particularly young people.  What happens when children grow up being constantly bombarded with powerful visual and verbal messages demonstrating violence as the preferred way to solve problems? Aggressive Stimulation is a theory that believes that mass media violence triggers real life violence. Others believe that it is not the mass media by itself, but other factors, that influence the tendency to act violently.

1.   Violence in the Media 

2.  Violence, Women, and the Media



The Media’s Impact on Cultural Values

sexinthecityBesides promoting violence, there are a number of social critics who claim that the mass media negatively  influences other cultural values.  Such critics believe that the mass media de-emphasizes family values, promotes sex, encourages consumerism, reinforces stereotypes, and minimizes the role of religion in people’s lives.

1.  Sexuality, Contraception, and the Mass Media

2.  Negative Protrayals of Women in the Mass Media

3.  Diversity in the Media- Where Are We on TV 2011 Report


Media Monitoring

The term media monitoring is used to refer to interest groups’ monitoring of media content.  A variety of groups monitor the media to determine if their group is being underrepresented, misrepresented, or if negative stereotypes are being enforced.  For example, the way the media covers crime can unfairly get the nation’s focus on one particular race or ethnic group, while ignoring the crime committed by other groups.   Women’s groups will monitor the media to see if women are being stereotyped, if issues important to women are being ignored, or if women are being denied opportunities within the industry. Parents might monitor the media to keep up with the violence or sex that is allowed in television shows.



The Media’s Impact on Democracy

mediaanddemocracyThere are many people both inside and outside of politics who believe the mass media, particularly television, has had a negative impact on how a democratic society should function.  Since the Nixon-Kennedy debate, candidates for office seem to be slick actors, who package platforms that are heavy on style and lacking in substance.  Since most people get their news from television, political candidates need to raise huge sums of money to run ads on television. The amount of money spent on advertising has increased dramatically over the past few decades. Where do politicians get this money?  Mostly through large organizations like corporations and unions.  This gives the appearance, if not the reality, of being beholding to these organizations for their elections.  One of the proposed solutions is to force media outlets, especially television, to offer free time to candidates to express their views.  However,  television stations are the main opponents of reform because they make millions of dollars in profits from political ads. A study by the research firm Borrell Associates projects that election spending in 2012 will reach a stratospheric $9.8 billion, vs. about $7 billion in 2008. (The figures include 13,000 statewide, congressional and municipal races, as well as the presidential election.)

“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.” – George Orwell


The Role of Propaganda in the Media

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.” – Edward Bernays, Propaganda, 1928  This quote suggests the important connection that exists between   propaganda and media complicity.  The press/media has been described as a “fourth power” or “the fourth estate” because of its considerable influence over public opinion (which in turn affects the outcome of elections), as well as its indirect influence in the branches of government by, for example, its support or criticism of pending legislation or policy changes.  If it is functioning properly, it should restrict government power or abuse of power. The media  seeks to prefigure our perception of a subject with a positive or negative label. Some positive ones are: “stability,” “the president’s firm leadership,” “a strong defense,” and “a healthy economy.” Who would want instability, weak presidential leader ship, a vulnerable defense, and a sick economy?  Some common negative labels are: “leftist guerrillas,” “Islamic terrorists”, “conspiracy theories,” “inner-city gangs,” and “civil disturbances.”

In their book “Manufactured Consent: The Political Role of the Mass Media” by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, the argument is made that the mass media serves to mobilize support for the special interests that dominate the state and private support for the special interests that dominate the state and private activity.  Media bias arises from “the preselection of right-thinking people, internalized preconceptions, and the adaptation of personnel to the constraints” of a series of objective filters. Hence the bias occurs largely through self-censorship. Debate within the dominant media is limited to “responsible “opinions acceptable to some segment of the elite. On issues where the elite are in general consensus, the media will always toe the line. No dissent will then be allowed, let alone acknowledged, except, when necessary for ridicule or derision.

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”  Joseph Goebbells

1.  Orwell Rolls in His Grave: How Bad is the Media?

2.  From the movie “Network”: Turn off Your TV Today! We are the Illusion!

3.  Court Rules Media Has a Right to Lie

4.  How the Mainstream Media Feel It Is Not Their Job to Question the Government

5.  Social Media Images May Not Be What They Appear:  Venezuela Protests

6.  U.S. Government Repeals Propaganda Ban


The Social Affects of Advertising

anorexiaAdvertisements are media created by businesses and corporations. Everyday people are bombarded with advertisements trying to convince us to buy or do something. To some degree, all forms of the mass media depend on advertising to support their business.  A recent survey found that most Americans have conflicting views of advertising.  About half of consumers viewed advertising positively, while 15% viewed it negatively.  On the other hand, 80% found television advertising deceptive, while only 17% found it informative. In 2011, advertisers spent  $498 billion dollars worldwide.  Messages in advertising help to set beauty and fashion trends, elect political candidates, and get us to spend money on products that we sometimes don’t need.  Many advertisements are deceptive, misleading, and uninformative.

1.  NRA Advertisement for Guns

2. Dying to be Thin


The Need For Media Literacy

Having thus become aware of the influences of the mass media on American society, what should the responsible citizen do?  Each individual, for his/her own benefit, as well as for the survival of democracy, should become media literate.  What does media literacy entail?  Media literacy means that individuals develop a perspective from which they can interpret the meanings from the messages they receive from the media.  Because the media is always changing, developing a media literacy is a constant, lifelong process.  People who develop media literacy do not accept immediately as truth the messages they receive from the media.

  1. Study Finds Colbert More Effective Than Journalists in Explaining Super-Pacs
  2. Study Finds Fox Viewers Least Informed of All Viewers


medialiteracyOwnership of the Mass Media.   Over the past few decades there has occurred a wave of media mergers.  These mergers have concentrated power into a few global giants. What does this new power mean?   For many social observers, the ownership of the media into just a few hands presents problems.  Our government has a role in controlling the concentration of media power into a few powerful corporations.  But over the last few decades, it has backed off on asserting its power by allowing more and bigger media mergers.  The Telecommunications Act of 1996 helped to deregulate the communications industry.  The law eliminated the restrictions on the number of radio stations one company could own.  The law also expanded the percentage of households one television company could reach to 35 percent of the United States, as well as, to allow one cable company to reach 30 percent of U.S. viewers.   In 1999, CBS and Viacom were allowed to merge.  In 2000,  Time-Warner and American Online were allowed to merge. In 2007 the Federal Communications Commission went even further by allowing the consolidation of newspaper and television ownership in cities with only one local newspaper and one local television station.  .  In 2007 the Federal Communications Commission went even further by allowing the consolidation of newspaper and television ownership in cities with only one local newspaper and one local television station. On August 25, 2014, the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and its member groups filed a petition calling on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to block Comcast’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable and the swap of additional systems with Charter Communications.  The petition shows that the Comcast-Time Warner merger poses a great threat to competition, consumers and the public interest.

Ownership and control of the mass media is a complex business as the following examples illustrate. Some media companies are characterized by horizontal integration or cross media ownership – this refers to the fact that global media corporations often cross media boundaries and invest in a wide range of media products. NewsCorp, for example, owns newspapers, magazines, book publishers, terrestrial and satellite television channels and film studios in several countries.

Some media companies have focused on increasing economic control over all aspects of the production process in order to maximize profits, e.g. film corporations not only make movies, but distribute them to their own cinema chains. This is referred to as vertical integration.

1. Frontline: Merchants of Cool: Media Giants

2.  Corporate Influence of the Media

3.  Who Owns What?

4.  Ownership of the Media From Free Press.org




Does the Media Have a Liberal Bias?  The popular belief is that the media has a liberal bias.  Conservatives have been telling the American public this for years.  Is it true?  Many people believe this to be true. Other observers believe that because of the concentration of media power in a few hands, the media has actually become quite conservative.

1.  Polls Suggest Americans Believe the Media Has a Liberal Bias

2.  Myth: The U.S. has a Liberal Media

3.  CBS Veteran Exposes Liberal Media

4.  Examining the Liberal Media Claim

5.  The Conservative Media

6.  Examples of Liberal Media Bias

7.  Media Propaganda Model and Chomsky


Minorities and the Media

Over the past few decades,  academics and activists have reproached mainstream media for their discriminatory, unbalanced, and inaccurate coverage of minority groups. When not stereotyped, caricatured and misrepresented, minorities have been rendered invisible through under-representation and selective depiction in programming, and under-representation in media employment and decision-making.  This section  briefly examines how people of color fit into the fabric of America and how the media tell them and others how they fit.  In a previous unit there was a discussion on stereotypes.  The focus of this section will be on media representation and media ownership.

Media Representation of Minorities

mediaownershipMinority representation in the media is not a problem limited to stereotypes.  It is also a problem of just how often does the media portray minorities.  If we look at television news, the results of a 2002 FAIR ( Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting) report,  concerning news sources (people asked for their opinion on camera) whites made up 92 percent of the total, blacks 7 percent, Latinos and Arab-Americans 0.6 percent each, and Asian-Americans 0.2 percent.   Racial minorities were disproportionately presented as ordinary citizens rather than as authorities or experts. Non-white U.S. sources made up 16 percent of average citizens and 11 percent of expert sources. When race, gender and nationality are considered together, white American men clearly dominated the evening news, making up 62 percent of all sources, far ahead of the next most commonly quoted sources: white American women (12 percent), Middle Eastern men (6 percent), black American men (4 percent) and Northern European men (2 percent).  A 2008 study by Media Matters found similar results. Within the newspaper industry,  the percentage of ethnic minorities in American newsrooms has stagnated at between 12 and 13 percent for more than a decade, according to the annual census released in June 2013 by the American Society of News Editors.  The census found that minorities made up 12.37 percent of newsrooms in 2013, down from a high of 13.73 percent in 2006. Slightly more than 60 percent of daily newspapers have no minority staffers. 14  A Media Matters study of evening cable news shows found that white men were hosted 58 percent of the time in April 2013, a figure nearly unchanged from a similar study conducted in May 2008.

1. Lack of Racial Diversity in the Media Affects Social Justice and Policy

2.  Only 1.38% of Fox Viewers are African-American

The problem of a lack of representation is also noticed in the television and film industries. According to the Screen Actor’s Guild, minority performers have decreased in roles from 29.3% in 2007 to 27.5% in 2008.  Women, according to a report by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, accounted for 41 percent of all characters on prime-time broadcast television in 2010-11, down from 43 percent in 2007-08. Other areas, such as age diversity and the representation of people with disabilities, have been on the decline as well. The Director’s Guild of America (DGA) analyzed more than 3,300 episodes produced in the 2012-2013 network television season and the 2012 cable television season from more than 200 scripted television series.  The report showed that Caucasian males directed 72% of all episodes; Caucasian females directed 12% of all episodes; minority males directed 14% of all episodes and minority females directed 2% of all episodes. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has bestowed few awards to black artists at Oscar time, with blacks, as of 2014,  having won only 15 acting Oscars since the first awards in 1929, excluding honorary awards. No minority has won the award for best director, and no movie with an overwhelming minority caste has won best picture.  Hattie McDaniel was the first black to win an acting Oscar – for supporting actress in 1939’s Gone with the Wind. The second was not until Sidney Poitier received the Best Actor nod for 1963’s Lilies of the Field, and the third took almost another two decades – Louis Gossett Jr.’s supporting actor nod for 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman. Just a handful of supporting actor and actress nods followed, until 2002, when  Denzel Washington won Best Actor for Training Day and Halle Berry was named Best Actress for Monster’s Ball.  Only three Oscars have ever been awarded to Latinos for acting roles (Jose Ferrer, Anthony Quinn and Benico del Toro).  The majority of voters for Awards ceremonies like the Oscars are even less diverse than the winners list. In the highly secretive roster of 5,765 voting members of the Academy, 94% are Caucasian and 77% are male. Only 2% of the voters are black and less than 2 % are Hispanic.

In 2014 the UCLA’s Ralph Bunche Center for African American Studies released its Hollywood Diversity Report. For women and minorities, the results were dismal. The report analyzes 172 films that came out in 2011, as well as 1061 television shows that aired between 2011 and 2012 for the race and gender breakdowns of Lead Talent, Overall Cast, Show Creators, Writers, and Directors. Minorities and women were significantly underrepresented in each category.  For example, in terms of Lead Talent, minorities in film are underrepresented by a factor of 3 to 1 while women are underrepresented by a factor of 2 to 1.  For Broadcast comedies and dramas, that number jumps to 7 to 1 for minorities.  The full results can be read here.

  1. 2007 – 2008 Screen Actors Guild Casting Data Report
  2. 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report


Minority Media Ownership

With the proliferation of media mergers and buyouts of minority-owned broadcast stations, the plight of minority media is more discouraging now than it was a generation ago.  “Minority ownership” has generally been defined as any media facility in which minorities possess more than 50 percent of a firm’s equity interests or stock, and/or exercise actual control of the facility. The Federal Communications Commission released a report on the ownership of commercial broadcast stations which reveals that as of 2011, whites own 69.4% of the nation’s 1,348 television stations. That’s up from 63.4% in 2009, when there were 1,187 stations.  While white ownership increased, most minority ownership decreased. Blacks went from owning 1% of all commercial TV stations in 2009 to just 0.7% in 2011. Asian ownership slipped from 0.8% in 2009 to 0.5% last year. Latino ownership increased slightly from 2.5% to 2.9%. Females owned 6.8% of all commercial TV stations in 2011, compared to 5.6% in 2009. It is a similar story in radio. Whites own almost 80% of all AM and FM radio stations, with more than 70% being owned by men. 16

The FCC is now attempting to drastically increase media concentration, by allowing one company to own multiple television and radio stations, as well as a major daily newspaper in a single market. This rule change would hasten the disappearance of the few minority–controlled stations that remain. The biggest losers would be people of color — the very groups that the FCC has been specifically tasked by Congress to assist.

Out of the Picture, a study done by Free Press found that:

  • Minority station owners often own just a single station and are particularly vulnerable to the effects of media consolidation.
  • Minority-owners thrive in more competitive markets.
  • Minority production of local news is far more likely to occur in a competitive market than in markets with less competition.




   actionSocial Problems in Film

Below are a list of movies that exhibit the sociological concepts learned in this unit.

1.  The Truman Show.  An interesting look at how the mass media can influence a life.

2.  Myth of the Liberal Media.  the documentary shows how corporate interests influence the news coverage of key events




books03 Social Problems in Books

Below are a list of books that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

1.  Manufacturing Consent:  The Political Economy of the Mass Media  by Edward s. Herman and Noam Chomsky

2.  Hollywood vs. America  by Michael Medved

3.  The Problem of the Media  by Robert W. McChesney

4.   What Liberal Media?  Eric Alterman






Eitzen, D. Stanley and Zinn, Maxine Baca      2006  Social Problems  (Tenth Edition) Boston:   Pearson (Allyn and Bacon)

Sullivan, Thomas J.

2006  Introduction to Social Problems   (7th Edition) Boston:  Pearson (Allyn and Bacon)


15  Newsroom Census of the American Society of Newspaper Editors 2005

16. http://www.fcc.gov/document/report-ownership-commercial-broadcast-stations

Copyright ©2008, 2014 Glenn Hoffarth All Rights Reserved


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