Media literacy is a tricky subject to talk about, because few people will admit that they really don’t understand how the media operate and how messages, audiences, channels, and senders interact. After all, since we spend so much time with the media, we must know all about it, right? As an example, most students in an introduction to mass communication class will claim that the media and their messages tend to affect other people far more than it affects themselves. The question of media literacy can also become a political question, where the answer is determined by whether you are a liberal or conservative, rich or poor, young or old. But the biggest problem in the public discussion of media literacy is that certain routine issues get discussed again and again, while many big questions are left unasked.
Consider some of the things we think we know about the media.
How do we know these things? Well, people on the media tell us they are so! And they wouldn’t say these things if they weren’t true, would they?
But there are several things we don’t hear about the media. Perhaps its because there is no one out there who can attract an audience by saying them. Or maybe it’s because the ideas are complicated, and we don’t like complexity from our media. Or maybe it’s because “they” (whoever “they” may be) don’t want us to know them.
The following is a two week archive of my blog entries about the seven truths about the media that “they” don’t want you to know. These are key issues of media literacy that don’t get the discussion they deserve, and they provide a foundation for the second edition of Mass Communication: Living in a Media World.
(And just who are “they?” Wait for Truth No. 7.)
Seven Truths “They” Don’t Want You to Know about the Media
Critics often talk about the effects the media have on us, as though the media were something separate and distinct from our everyday lives. But conversations with my students have convinced me otherwise. I’ve been teaching Introduction to Mass Communication at 8:30 a.m. every semester for more than ten years. And every semester I poll my students as to what media have they used so far that day, with the day starting at midnight. I run through the list: watching MTV, logging onto Facebook, listening to the radio, checking the weather on the Weather Channel, reading USA Today, reading Cosmopolitan, reading the latest James Patterson novel, listening to an iPod.... As early as 8:30 a.m., most students will have consumed some type of media. In fact, media use is likely to be the most universal experience my students will share. Are the media an important force in our lives? Absolutely! But the media are more than an outside influence on us. They are a part of our everyday life.
Think about how we assign meanings to objects that otherwise would have no meaning at all. Take a simple yellow ribbon twisted in a stylized bow. You’ve seen thousands of these, and most likely you know exactly what it stands for--Support Our Troops. But that hasn’t always been the meaning of the symbol.
The yellow ribbon has a long history in American popular culture. It played a role in the rather rude World War II-era marching song She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. The ribbon was a symbol of a young woman’s love for a soldier "far, far away," and the lyrics mention that her father kept a shotgun handy to keep the soldier "far, far away." The yellow ribbon was also symbol of love and faithfulness in the John Ford film She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. In the 1970s, the ribbon became a symbol of remembering the U.S. staff in the Iranian embassy who had been taken hostage. This meaning came from the song Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Old Oak Tree made popular by the group Tony Orlando and Dawn. The song tells about a prisoner coming home from jail hoping that his girlfriend would remember him. She could prove her love by displaying the yellow ribbon. The prisoner arrives home to find not one but 100 yellow ribbons tied to the tree. The display of yellow ribbons tied to trees became commonplace in newspapers and television news stories on the ongoing hostage crisis after the wife of a hostage started displaying one in her yard.
Then, during the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War, Americans were eager to show their support for the troops fighting overseas, even if they did not necessarily support the war itself. During the early 1990s is when the stylized ribbon started to become institutionalized as a symbol of support. The yellow "Support Our Troops" ribbon was followed by the red ribbon of AIDS awareness, the pink ribbon of breast cancer awareness, and ribbons of virtually every color on every issue. And how do we know the meanings of these ribbons? We hear or see them being discussed through our media. The meanings are assigned by the creators of the ribbon, but the success of the ribbon depends on the meaning being shared through the media. So, do the media create the meaning? Not really. But could the meanings be shared nationwide without the media? Absolutely not. The media may not define our lives, but they do help transmit and disseminate shared meanings from one side of the country to the other.
We often hear charges related to perceived sins of the so-called mainstream media (MSM). But who exactly are these mainstream media? For some the MSM are the heavyweights of journalism, especially the television broadcast networks and the major papers such as the New York Times. For others, the MSM are the giant corporations who run many of our media outlets. New York University journalism professor and blogger Jay Rosen says that the term MSM is often used to refer to media we just don't like--a "them." While it isn't always clear who constitute the MSM, in general we can consider them to be the old-line big business media--newspapers, magazines, and television.
But are these old media more in the mainstream than our alternative media? Look at talk radio. Afternoon talk radio is dominated by conservative political talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Limbaugh, in particular, is fond of complaining about how the MSM don't "get it." But how mainstream are the MSM? On a typical day, CNN will have approximately 880,000 viewers of its evening programming, Fox News will have 1.7 million viewers, MSNBC will have 360,000, and the individual broadcast network newscasts will have 6 to 8 million viewers. The Rush Limbaugh show, on the other hand, averages 20 million listeners a week. (Note that television audiences and radio audiences are measured differently.) So who is more mainstream? A popular afternoon radio host with a large daily audience or a television news program with a much smaller audience? Daily Kos, the leading liberal political blog--and one of the most read blogs on the Internet--attracts more than 4 million views per month. Again, these numbers are not directly comparable with television ratings, but they are substantial. The Internet video site YouTube streams approximately 100 million videos a day and has been acquired by Internet advertising giant Google. No one video gets a particularly large viewership, but the combined total is massive.
So it is largely meaningless to describe one medium as mainstream and another as non-mainstream. They are all significant presences in our world.
This is not to say that our media are not giant businesses. Even the alternative press is a big business these days. New Times Media, the publisher of eleven alternative weekly newspapers purchased Village Voice Media in October of 2005. This gave a single company control of alternative weekly newspapers and Web sites in seventeen of the biggest United States markets, and a combined weekly circulation of 1.8 million papers and 4.3 million readers.
Can we distinguish between old and new media? Perhaps. Can we argue that our alternative sources of news and entertainment are any less significant than the traditional ones? Absolutely not.
The mass media, both news and entertainment, are frequently accused of trying to put forward an extremist agenda of violence, permissiveness, homosexuality, drug use, edgy fashion, and non-mainstream values.
People in the media business, be they entertainers or journalists, respond with the argument that they are just "keeping it real," portraying the world as it is by showing aspects of society that some people want to pretend doesn't exist. They have no agenda, the argument goes, they just want to portray reality.
Now it is true that much of what the media portrays that upsets people is real. On the other hand, it is a bit disingenuous to argue that movie directors and musicians are not trying for shock value when they use offensive language or portray stylized violence combined with graphic sexuality. Think back to any of a number of recent horror movies. We all know that teenagers routinely get slashed to ribbons by a psycho killer just after having sex, right? Clearly movie producers are trying to attract an audience by providing content that is outside of the mainstream.
The problem with the argument between "keeping it real" and "extremist agenda" is that it misses what is actually happening. There can be no question that audiences go after media content that is outside of the mainstream. By the same token, the more non-mainstream content is presented, the more ordinary it seems to become. This is what is meant by Truth Three-- one of the mass media's biggest effects on everyday life is to take culture from the margins of society and make it into part of the mainstream, or center. This process can move people, ideas, and even individual words from small communities into mass society.
We can see this happening in several ways. Take the grunge band Nirvana. Founded in 1987 by Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic, the band brought the 1970s British punk sound to a mass American audience, and their breakout album Nevermind sold 10 million copies. Cobain could not cope with the fact that his antiestablishment message was making him a part of the establishment. Following a lengthy battle with drugs and depression, he committed suicide in 1994. The problem that Cobain and other punk and grunge rockers encountered was that themes of alienation resonate strongly with young people, leading the artists to experience the kinds of success that they were rebelling against. Rebels don't sell out, they simply become part of the mainstream whether they want to or not.
Or consider the children’s show Shining Time Station, featuring the lovable Thomas the Tank Engine and his train friends. The show also features a live-action Mr. Conductor, first played by Beatles drummer Ringo Starr, and then by comic George Carlin. Carlin’s position as a wholesome children’s show host was particularly surprising, given that he built his fame on the wildly offensive comedy routine "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television." But the process shouldn't be surprising. Both Starr and Carlin started out as counterculture figures who made world-wide reputations for themselves through media portrayals. Then, as their fans grew older and had children of their own, these counterculture figures became mainstream.
An alternative approach is to look at how the media accelerates the adoption of activist language into the mainstream. Take the medical term "intact dilation and extraction" that describes a controversial type of late-term abortion. A search of the Lexis-Nexis news database shows that newspapers used the medical term only five times over a six-month period. On the other hand, "partial birth abortion," the term for the procedure used by abortion opponents, was used in more than 125 stories during the same time period. Opponents even got the term used in the title of a bill passed by Congress that outlawed the procedure, thus moving the phrase into the mainstream through repeated publication of the bill’s name.
This process is not a product of a liberal or conservative bias by the news media, it's simply a consequence of the repeated use of the term in the press.
Truth Four is a little different than the oft-repeated slogan "Those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it." Instead, it says that media face the same issues over and over again as technologies change and new people come into the business.
The fight between today’s recording companies and file sharers has its roots in the battle between music publishers and the distributors of player piano rolls in the early 1900s. The player piano was one of the very first technologies for reproducing musical performances. Piano roll publishers would buy a single copy of a piece of sheet music and hire a skilled pianist to have his or her performance recorded as a series of holes punched in a paper roll. That roll (and the performance) could then be reproduced and sold to anyone who owned a player piano without further payment to the music’s original publisher.
Then again in 1984, Sony successfully defended a lawsuit from Universal Studios, by arguing that it had a right to sell VCRs to the public even though the video recorders could be used to duplicate the studio’s movies because there were legitimate, legal uses for the technology. Before long the studios quit trying to ban the VCR and started selling videocassettes of movies directly to consumers at reasonable prices. All of a sudden the studios had a major new source of revenue.
More recently the recording industry has done its best to force consumers to buy their music on little plastic discs, having gotten the courts to levy large fines against consumers who are “sharing” copyright music over the Internet. In the mean time, Apple sells millions of songs a week through its online iTunes music store at 99 cents a pop. And as of fall 2005, Apple started selling current television episodes commercial free through iTunes, a move that has revolutionized our notion of television.
Concern about how new media will affect our lives is nothing new. Known as the legacy of fear, it dates back at least to the early twentieth century.
In the 1930s there was fear that watching movies, especially gangster pictures, would lead to precocious sexual behavior, delinquency, lower standards and ideals, and poor physical and emotional health. The 1940s brought concern about how people would react to radio programs, particularly soap operas.
Comic books came under attack in the 1950s. The notion that comic books were dangerous was popularized by a book titled Seduction of the Innocents, by Dr. Fredric Wertham, who also testified before Congress that violent and explicit comic books were a cause of teenage delinquency and sexual behavior. The industry responded to the criticism by forming the Comic Code Authority and ceasing publication of popular crime and horror comics such as Tales from the Crypt and Weird Science.
The 1980s and 1990s saw controversies over rap and rock lyrics, and several lawsuits charged that hidden messages on heavy-metal albums had led teens to suicide.These controversies reflected widespread concern about the portrayal of drugs, violence, and sex in the media; the perennial fear is that "bad" content would lead to damaging social, emotional, and moral effects, especially in children.
Numerous media critics and scholars have argued that television and movies present a distorted view of the world, making it look like a much more violent and dangerous place than it actually is. More recently, wireless telephones have been blamed for a range of social ills, from brain tumors caused by radio waves, to car accidents caused by distracted drivers.
Why has there been such long-running concern about the possible effects of the media? Media sociologist Charles R. Wright says that people want to be able to solve social ills, and it is easier to believe that poverty, crime, and drug abuse are caused by media coverage than to acknowledge that their causes are complex and not fully understood.
Writing in 1948, sociologists Robert Merton and Paul Lazarsfeld identified four major aspects of public concern about the media:
The five truths we've examined so far lead us to the conclusion of Truth Six-- critics of the mass media are not necessarily interested in giving an honest analysis of how the media affect the public at large. Instead, critics may have an agenda that has nothing to do with the actual nature of our mass media. When senators hold hearings on violent video games and television programming, they may well be concerned about the effects of electronic violence on children. But they may also be trying to show that they are concerned about America's children, or that they are getting tough on violence, or that they want to lend support to a cause that their contributors feel strongly about. Take as an example the following excerpts from a press release supporting a bill that would limit "gratuitous and excessive" television violence:
"Increasing fines is an important way to tell broadcasters that we are serious about taking action against indecent material," [the senator] said. "For the sake of our children, we are not going to tolerate indecency, which seems to appear at all hours of the day on more TV channels than ever. We know from numerous studies that such gratuitous and graphic programming negatively affect our children."
"But it’s not enough to increase fines. We need to take on this problem in a truly comprehensive and systematic way that will enable us to diminish the appetite that television producers have for producing shows full of sex and violence. Instead of merely reacting to one or two high profile incidents, we need to preempt these incidents by fundamentally transforming the culture of programming. Only then will we be able to give parents more control of what their children are watching."
"That's what... parents want. I hear over and over from them that they are very concerned about what their children are watching. I believe we have a moral imperative to meet this issue head on."
[The senator’s] bill enjoys wide support from a variety of groups, including: Parents Television Council, Benedum Foundation, Children Now, Children’s Media Policy Coalition, Kaiser Family Foundation, National Association for Family and Community Education, National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families, and the National Institute on Family and the Media.
Look through the quotes for the signs of activism: "for the sake of our children," "that’s what parents want," "the bill enjoys wide support from a variety of groups." While the senator sponsoring the bill certainly is concerned about the issue of television violence, he has also through this criticism of media violence managed to ally himself with parents and several significant organizations in a way that is relatively safe.
The response that we as media consumers ought to have whenever we hear criticism of the media is to ask ourselves, "What is the critic’s agenda?"
Listen to media criticism for very long, and there’s a pair of words you will hear used over and over again: they and them. It is easy to take potshots at some anonymous bogeymen -- they -- who embody all evil. I even engaged in it at the beginning of this section with the title "Seven truths 'they' don’t want you to know about the media."
So who are they? No one. Everyone. A non-specific other we want to blame. Any time I used "they" in a news story, my high school journalism teacher would always ask who "they" were. And that’s what you need to ask whenever you hear criticism of the media. (Actually, there really is a "they" out there, but he's not who you think....)
It isn't that the criticism is not accurate. It very well may be. But it probably applies to a specific media outlet, a specific journalist, a certain song, or a particular movie. But there are very few generalizations we can make about an industry so diverse that it includes everything from giant corporations producing the $300 million Pirates of the Caribbean 3 movie to kids posting photos on Facebook. There’s a lot of media out there, but no unified them.
So that's the seven truths "they" don't want you to know about the media. As you spend time each day with your favorite media outlets, think about them, and see how many apply in your life.
Ralph E. Hanson
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