Evaluate the pluralist view of the ownership and control of the media.

Read Item N below and answer the question that follows.

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Applying material from Item N and your knowledge, evaluate the pluralist view of the ownership and control of the media.

Commentary on the Question

This seems to be a standard question, with the item picking up on the fact that the media are democratic and provide equality of opportunity and that they respond to the needs of the audience.

 Answer (plan)

Intro – outline Pluralism

  • content of the media broadly reflects the diverse range of opinions found in any democratic society.
  • audiences control media content as media professionals and owners produce what audiences demand because they are motivated primarily by profit.
  • media companies are in competition and if a media company doesn’t produce what audiences want, another company will and will attract more viewers.
  • In this essay I will evaluate the two points brought up in the item, using Marxist theories to develop my evaluation points.

Media are part of the democratic process

  • media are an important part of the democratic process: give different interest groups the opportunity to put forward their views (in item!)
  • Elections/ Brexit – media play a crucial role. no way that parties can get their views across to millions of voters without access to the Media.
  • The news has commentators from different political parties, suggesting that the people are well represented.
  • Social media the above seems especially true –political leaders and parties use Twitter and other outlets to voice their opinions, Donald Trump/ Momentum.
  • However, Marxists argue that there is a subtle bias in news broadcasting which favours right wing views because media owners and journalists are themselves part of the elite.
  • Gatekeeping used to keep issues damaging to the right out of the news agenda
  • Agenda setting skews debates in favour of right-wing arguments – the Green Party gets hardly any air time compared to the Brexit Party.
  • Fiona Bruce is notorious – sides with the right and is barely able to hide her sneering contempt for those on the left (e.g. Dianne Abbot). Perpetuates Dominant Ideology.
  • Some radical thinkers have been censored by social media platforms – Tommy Robinson is one example of this.
  • Advertising in political campaigns costs money – so the more money a party can spend, the more of a voice it has – the Trump campaign spent a fortune on the last election for example. Supports the Instrumentalist Marxist view that those with money control media content.
  • Social media encourages ‘echo chambers’ – while most groups are free to express themselves, they are only ever preaching to the converted – Labour’s views probably won’t be reaching Brexit voters, for example. Thus the media isn’t quite working democratically – it isn’t encouraging debate.

Media respond to the demands of the audience

  • Advertising is used effectively in the media by a range of companies to advertise their products and provide people with information about what they want.
  • Amazon, with its cheap products and peer reviews of products provide people with access to consumer goods and useful information more efficiently than ever.
  • However, from a Marxist point of view, the internet is primarily about advertising, and it is used by companies such as Facebook to manipulate people into buying things they wouldn’t otherwise – creating false needs.
  • This isn’t helped by concentration of ownership – especially vertical integration and lateral explanation
  • The fact that advertising revenue accounts for so much profit of the big four tech companies suggest more support for Marxist theories rather than pluralism –most people do not advertise anything online.
  • Advertising even influences what search results one gets on Google – suggesting that the answer to any question you ask is influenced by money.

Conclusion

In conclusion, while there is some support for the fact that New Media do allow more freedom of expression than traditional media, so there is some support for Pluralism, the content of such media does appear to be biased and limited in subtle ways, so that in terms of what we actually see, there isn’t equality of opportunity, and we are not provided with the information we want or need, so I reject the Pluralist view of the media, it remains too simplistic!

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What is concentration of media ownership?

Concentration of media ownership is the trend towards fewer individuals and/ or companies owning a higher proportion of the media.

Increasing concentration of ownership has long been a concern of sociologists. For example, In 2004 Bagdikian pointed out the following trend towards increasing ownership of the media:

  • In 1983, 50 corporations controlled the majority of news media in the USA
  • By 1992, 22 companies owned and operated 90% of the mass media

By 2014, United States media ownership was concentrated mainly in the hands of six companies: Comcast, Disney, 21st Century Fox/ News Corporation, Time Warner and Viacom

In the United Kingdom in 2017 10 companies received 70% of the revenue generated by all media companies, and 40 companies received 92% of all of the revenue (source: Deloitte media metrics, 2017).

 

The following were the three largest media companies by revenue in the UK in 2017

 

How do we measure concentration of ownership of media? 

Looking at revenue share as the above examples do is only one way of measuring concentration of ownership, however, there are several other ways concentration may be occurring which are not measured simply by looking at how revenue is distributed.

Below I outline several different ways in which media ownership can become more concentrated 

Vertical Integration

Where one company owns all of the stages of production of media products – for example a company owning a film production studio, and the cinema where the film is shown.

Horizontal integration

Where one company diversifies to own more types of media – e.g. when a film production company also gets into book publishing.

Lateral expansion or diversification

When media companies branch out into non media areas – e.g. Virgin Media getting into trains and insurance.

Global Conglomeration

Where companies in one country buy up companies in other countries. News Corp, for example, owns media outlets in several different countries.

Synergy

Where a media product is sold in several different forms – often as a form of marketing. For example, a company produces a film for cinema, then a DVD, a T.V. spin off series, a sound track for download, maybe a cartoon strip and some action figures too.

Technological convergence

Where traditional media companies link with IT companies to make sure their media products are available across several different devices.

Final thoughts 

Intuitively it seems likely that there is increasing concentration of ownership, especially with the rise of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple, but at the same time it is difficult to say for certain given the complexity of the concept of concentration of ownership

The British Media: a very upper middle class institution

Michael Buerk recently lamented the retirement of John Humphrys from Radio Four’s today programme – because his departure means one less working class voice on the BBC: once Humphrys goes all of the remaining Today presenters will have been privately educated.

In fact Buerk suggests that Humphrys further represents an older generation of media presenters: he broke into media in a more meritocratic age, when it was possible for ordinary working class kids to be socially mobile and get ‘middle class jobs’.

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John Humphrys: the only working class presenter in the BBC village?

Today it seems this is much harder, and there’s a lot of evidence that our media companies are stuffed full of middle class media professionals, with the working classes woefully underrepresented behind the scenes.

Below I summarise some of the stats, all of which offers support for the neo-marxist theory of ownership and control of the media.

Surveys on the class backgrounds of media professionals show they are overwhelmingly upper middle class

Research conducted by Sam Friedman of the London School Economics found that

67% of Channel 4 staff had parents who worked at professional or managerial level and only 9% identify themselves as coming from a working class background.

The BBC came out best, but still had 61% of staff reporting they were from upper middle class backgrounds. 17% of staff and 25% of BBC management when to private school, well above the 7% for the population as a whole.

ITV only provided data for those in senior management roles, so are probably even more upper-middle class than Channel 4.

OFCOM has criticized the BBC for being too white, middle-aged and middle-class, and being out of touch with a wide tranche of the UK population.

Stef McGovern argues that BBC needs to do more to recruit people from working class backgrounds, and she even thinks that she’s paid less because she’s not posh, suggesting that people from wealthy backgrounds such as Fiona Bruce are able to negotiate better pay deals, at least partly because of their class.

Why are media professionals mainly upper middle class?

This brief article from the inews suggests that part of the reason the BBC and Channel 4 are so middle class is because they are both based in London, as are 2/3rds of media jobs. It also reminds us that to break into a job in media, people typically have to do long internships for very low pay, which is only possible with several months of parental support, which is much easier for upper middle class parents with 6 figure salaries to be able to afford.

According to a recent OFCOM report on how people of different socio-economic backgrounds are portrayed in the BBC:

  • working class people generally feel as low there are fewer representations of them than there are of the middle classes.
  • One programmer from the BBC even said that: “Too often people [from working class backgrounds] are merely the subject of documentaries made by white middle-class people for white middle-class people”.

The Marxist Instrumentalist Theory of Media

Marxist Instrumentalist theory holds that media owners control media content, and that the media performs ideological functions. The primary role of the media is to keep a largely passive audience from criticizing capitalism and thus maintain the status quo.

Marxist Instrumentalist Theory is also known as the Traditional Marxist or Manipulative Approach to the media.

This post is primarily written for students of A-level sociology, studying the AQA 2019 specification.

Marxist media sociology

Media owners control media content 

Media owners are part of the ruling class elite and they consciously manipulate media content to transmit a conservative ideology to control the wider population and maintain their wealth and privilege.

The content of the media is thus narrow and biased and reflects the opinions of the ruling class generally and the media owners in particular.

The government does not effectively regulate media content because the political elite are also part of the ruling class like the media owners.

The media performs ideological functions 

According to Instrumentalist Marxists, the primary role of the media is to spread ruling class ideology and maintain the status quo, keeping the current unequal capitalist system in place.

The media performs ideological functions in many ways:

  1. We see many favourable representations of (rather than critical commentary on) the wealthy – for example Royalty, millionaires on Cribs, and middle class lifestyles more generally in all of those hideous programmes about spending £500K on a house in the country.
  2. It spreads the ‘myth of meritocracy’ – Dragons Den and The Apprentice are two wonderful contemporary examples of this.
  3. The News often dismisses radical view points as extremist, dangerous or silly, and a conservative (ruling class) view of the world as normal.
  4. Negative portrayals of ethnic minorities and immigrants serve to divide the ruling class and discourages criticisms of the ruling class.
  5. Entertainment distracts the public from thinking critically about important political issues.

The audience are passive 

Marxist instrumentalists see the audience as a mass of unthinking robots who are passive and easily manipulate. They essentially take what they see in the media at face value, and believe what they see without questioning it.

Supporting evidence 

Curran (2003) suggests that there is a lot of historical evidence of media owners manipulating media content. He carried out a historical analysis of UK media, broken down into four historical periods.

Control by owners was most obvious in the era of the Press Barons in the early part of the 20th century, when some even said that they used their newspapers to consciously spread their political views.

Rupert Murdoch’s control of his News Corporation since the 1970s is another good example of an owner controlling media content. All of his newspapers have a strong right wing point of view, which reflects his values.

A specific example of Murdoch’s control is that all of his news outlets supported the Iraq War in 2003, a war which he personally supported. It’s unlikely that all the editors of all his newspapers globally shared this view.

Criticisms 

Pluralists are the biggest critics of Manipulative Marxists.

It is impractical for media owners of large corporations to control all output on a day to day basis. At some point they have to trust editors.

Pluralists argue that media owners are primarily motivated by making a profit and thus would rather provide audiences with the diverse content they want rather than use their media companies to spread their own narrow view of the world.

The previous criticism follows on from the Pluralist view that audiences are not just passive and unthinking, they are active and critical, and thus not easily manipulated: they can easily choose to switch off if they don’t like what they see.

The rise of the New Media especially undermines the Manipulative approach – New Media encourage audiences to be more active and allow for a greater range of people to produce and share media content. It’s simply not possible for owners to control such content.

Sources 

Modified from…

  • Ken Browne (2016) Sociology for AQA Volume 2
  • Chapman (2016) Sociology AQQ A-Level Year 2

 

A Level Sociology of Media Bundle

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my A Level Sociology of the Media Revision Bundle which contains the following:

  1. 57 pages of revision notes covering all of the sub-topics within the sociology of the media
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  3. Short answer exam practice questions and exemplar answers – three examples of the 10 mark, ‘outline and explain’ questions and three of the 10 mark ‘analyse’ with item questions, all take from the specimen paper and the 2017/2018 exam papers.
  4. Three essays and essay plans, taken from the specimen paper and 2017 and 2018 exam papers.

The pluralist view of the media

Pluralists argue that power in democratic, free market societies is spread out among diverse competing interest groups, and not concentrated in the hands of a minority economic elite, as Marxists suggests. According to pluralists, no one group has a monopoly on power. Their view of the media reflects their view of power in society more generally.

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Media content driven by profit

Pluralists argue that in democratic, free market economies different media companies must compete for customers, and so they must provide the kind of content those customers want in order to make a profit and survive. If a company fails to provide the kind of news and entertainment that people need and want, customers will simply stop buying their media products and go elsewhere, forcing that company out of business.

It follows that control over media content ultimately lies with consumers, not the owners of media, because the owners need to adapt their content to fit the demands of the consumers.

Media owners primarily want to make money and so they would rather adapt their media content to be more diverse and keep money coming in, rather than use their media channels to publish their own narrower subjective views and opinions.

Media content thus doesn’t reflect the biased, one sided views of media owners, it reflects the diverse opinions of the general public who ultimately pay for that media content. The public (being diverse!) generally don’t want one-sided, biased media!

Consumers determine content

From the pluralist perspective audiences are active rather than passive and not easily manipulated. They are free to select, reject and re-interpret a wide range of media content, and they increasingly take advantage of new technologies and new media to produce their own content.

It is thus ultimately the consumers of media/ the wider audience who determine media content rather than the media owners.

Journalists not controlled by owners

Finally, pluralists point out that on a purely practical level media owners of large global corporations cannot personally determine the content of all their media products, there are too many products and too many global-level management issues to keep them occupied. Thus producers, editors and journalists have considerable freedom to shape media content, free from the control of the big bosses.

Criticisms of Pluralism

  1. Ultimately it is still owners who have the power the hire and fire journalists and they do have the power to select high level editors who have similar views to themselves, which may subtly influence the media agenda.
  2. It still requires a lot of money to establish a large media company, and ownership remains very concentrated. There is relatively little journalism which is both independent and widely consumed.
  3. Owners, editors and most journalists share an upper middle-class background and a conservative worldview.
  4. The pressure to maintain profits has led to narrowing of media content – more towards uncritical, sensationalist entertainment and less likely to be critical and independent.