Reception analysis model states there three main types of ‘reading’ which audiences make of media content:
The dominant reading: which is the same as the media content creators.
The oppositional reading: which opposes the views expressed in the media
The Negotiated reading: where people interpret media content to fit in with their own lives.
The reception analysis model is an ‘active audience’ model associated with Morley (1980) who conducted research on how several different groups of people interpreted media messages.
Audiences are polysemic
According to Morley audiences came from many different cultures and thus there were many possible ‘negotiated’ readings. He further argued that individuals had many aspects to their identities, and they interpreted media content in a variety of ways, often chopping and changing their interpretations over time.
Morley thus believed that audiences were active rather than passive and their interpretations were not always easy to predict.
The selective filter model of audience effects (Klapper 1960) holds that media messages pass through three filters before they have an effect.
This is an active audience model which suggests that the audience do not just passively accept what they see in the media as ‘the truth’, as the hypodermic syringe model suggests.
According to this theory the three filters are:
Different groups are exposed to different media content, which will influence the effect the media can have on them.
Audiences actively choose what to watch, which is influenced by their interests, age, gender, education etc.
Censorship may also deny some groups access to certain content, thus denying them exposure. An example of this is with age-graded media content which parents might prevent their children from watching.
Audiences may reject some of the content they are exposed to, for example because what they see does not fit in with their view of the world.
Festinger (1957) argued that people actively seek out media content which affirms their already existing views of the world.
Finally, content has to stick for it to have an effect.
Audiences are more likely to remember content they agree with.
Adapted from Chapman et al: Sociology AQA A-level Year 2 student book
Van Dijk (1991) conducted content analysis of tens of thousands of news items across the world over several decades and found that representations of black people could be categorised into three stereotypically negative types of news:
Ethnic minorities as criminals
Ethnic minorities as a threat
Ethnic minorities as unimportant.
Minority groups as criminals
Wayne et al (2007) found that nearly 50% of news stories concerning young black people dealt with them committing crime.
Cushion et al analysed Sunday newspapers, nightly television news and radio news over a 16 week period in 2008-9 and found that black young men and boys were regularly associated with negative news values – nearly 70% of stories were related to crime, especially violent gang crime.
They further pointed out that black crime is often represented as senseless or as motivated by gang rivalries, which little discussion of the broader social and economic context.
Back (2002) conducted discourse analysis of inner-city race disturbances and argued that the media tends to label them as riots, which implies they are irrational and conjures up images of rampaging mobs, which in turn justifies a harsh clampdown by the police.
There is little consideration given to the view that such disturbances may be the result of legitimate concerns, such as responses to police and societal racism, which need to be taken seriously.
Minority groups as a threat
In recent years media moral panics have been constructed around:
Immigrants, who are seen as a threat in terms of their numbers and impact on jobs and welfare services.
Refugees and Asylum seekers – analysis from the ICAR in 2005 noted that asylum seekers were often portrayed as being a threat to British social cohesion and national identity, with such people often blamed for social unrest.
Muslims – who are often portrayed as the ‘enemy within’
Moor et al (2008) found that between 2000 and 2008 over a third of stories focused on terrorism, and a third focused on the differences between Muslim communities and British society, while stories of Muslims as victims of crime were fairly rare.
They concluded there were four negative media messages about Muslims:
Islam as dangerous and irrational
Multiculuralism as allowing muslims to spread their message
Clash of civlisations, with Islam being presented as intolerant, oppressive and misogynistic.
Islam as a threat to the British way of life, with Sharia law.
Amelie et al (2007) focused on coverage of veiling as an Islamic practice, and found that media coverage tended to present this is a patriarchal oppressive practice, with little coverage focusing on the wearing of the veil as a choice.
Minority Groups as Unimportant
Van Dijk (1999) further noted that some sections of the media imply that white lives are more important than non-white lives.
He claimed, for example, that black victims of crime are not paid as much attention to as white victims of crime.
Shah (2008) claims that that the BBC engage in ‘tokenism’ – Black and Asian actors are cast as presenters or in roles just to give the appearance of ethnic equality, regardless of whether they ‘fit’ into the role.
The result is that many ethnic minorities do not identify with ethnic minority characters,
As a whole the mainstream media pays little attention to the genuine concerns and interests of ethnic minorities, because the mainstream media is dominated by a metropolitan, liberal, while, male, public school and Oxbridge educated, middle class elite.
Changing representations of ethnicity
NB – the photo at the top of this post is actually taken from a recent campaign to challenge the black male criminal stereotype in the media… find out more in this BBC article.
Chapman et al (2016) Sociology AQA A-level Year 2 Student Book
Postmodernists argue that the media is an integral part of postmodern society. Individuals actively use the media to construct their identities, and there is a sense of playfulness, creativity and unpredictability about how they go about doing this.
Postmodernists criticise other theories of audience effects, especially the Hypodermic Syringe model for assuming that audiences are homogenous (the same) and any models which assume there is such a thing as one dominant or preferred reading of media messages, such as the reception analysis model.
A diverse and active audience
Individuals read media in a diverse variety of ways, and how they read media content depends on a range of factors, including the entirety of an individual’s prior life experiences. Audiences can also change the way the interpret media content over time and make multiple readings of the same content simultaneously.
It follows that of all the models of audience effects, the postmodernist model sees the audience as the most active.
No such thing as an ‘underlying’ reality
Finally, postmodernists also argue that the media is constitutive of people’s realities – there is no deeper reality underneath media representations, media representations are no less real than non-media reality (if indeed there is such a thing!). It is thus meaningless to say that the media has an ‘effect’ on audiences as to make such a claim assumes that media representations and the audience are two different things, in postmodernism they are not, they are one and the same.
This is an example of a 20 mark essay question written for the AQA’s A-level sociology paper 2, Topics in Sociology, Media option.
Read Item N below and answer the question that follows.
Applying material from Item N and your knowledge, evaluate the view that the media have a direct and immediate effect on their audiences [20 marks]
Commentary on the question
A classic essay, asking you to evaluate the Hypodermic Syringe Model, picking up on the relationship between violence and the media as an example.
Introduction – hypodermic syringe model key points
the media can have a direct and immediate effect on the audience, audience as a ‘homogeneous mass’ (all the same), and as passive
content creators can manipulate vulnerable audiences
associated with neo-Marxists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (A and H), from the the 1940s
They noted that there were similarities between the ‘propaganda industry’ in Nazi Germany’ and what they called the ‘Culture Industry’ in the United States.
A and H saw popular culture in the USA was like a factory producing standardized content which was used to manipulate a passive mass audience. The point was to creat false psychological needs and keeping capitalism going.
Pluralists and postmodernists would criticise the above theory – people have diverse needs which they actively meet through media, and especially New Media.
Other evidence that media messages can have a direct and immediate effect on audiences:
Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of ‘War of the Worlds‘ in 1938.
However, people are more media literate now.
The ‘beauty myth’, especially the representations of size zero as normal, have encouraged an increase in eating disorders.
However, evidence of women (and men) resisting such messages – and setting up ad campaigns which celebrate diverse body shapes criticises this.
Campaigns behind Trump and Brexit used sophisticated targeted advertising to nudge voters into voting for Trump and Brexit, suggesting the media can have a very direct and immediate effect on specific populations.
However, it is not quite accurate to say this is the media having a direct and immediate effect –they don’t even bother targeting the people who they know will make ‘oppositional readings’ – thus the two-step flow and reception analysis models may be more applicable.
Violence (in item)
There is some evidence that media violence can ‘cause’ people to be more violence in real-life…
The Bandura ‘Bobo Doll’ experiment
However, this experiment was carried out in such an artificial environment, it tells us little about how violence happens in real life.
A more nuanced version is ‘desensitisation’
There are enough criticisms which can be made of the Hypodermic syringe model to say that it is mostly invalid today….
model may have been true in the 1940s when the media was relatively new and audiences less literate, but in today’s new media age, audiences are more likely to criticise what they see rather than just believing it, and to check what they see with other sources.
Audiences are also clearly more diverse, active, and USE media for their own devices rather than the other way around.
Finally, it is just too simplistic a theory to explain social problems – societal violence has many causes, and it’s all too easy to scapegoat the media
This model explains little about how the media and audiences are interrelated in a complex postmodern age.
Read Item M below and answer the question that follows.
Applying material from Item M, analyse two reasons why the media often portray minority ethnic groups negatively. [10 marks]
Commentary on the question
A non-standard question about representations, focusing on ‘why’ rather than on ‘how’ one group is represented. There are two clear hooks in the item – the first about power and the second just about difference, suggesting that candidates make two points – one from a broadly hegemonic perspective, the other focussing on the public/ pluralism. Remember that you can pick up marks for evaluating in this type of 10 mark ‘with item’ question.
Before reading the answer you might like to review the material on ethnicity and representation, and some of the theories of ownership and control such as Pluralism, Instrumental Marxism and Hegemonic Marxism, all of which can be applied to this question.
The first reason why minority groups are represented negatively is because they have different values/ beliefs and practices from ‘mainstream’ society and are perceived by the wider public as not being fully integrated into the ‘British way of life’. The public at large is thus prejudiced against ethnic minorities, and anything which seems to threaten British identity.
By focusing on negative representations of minorities – Islamic terrorists, benefit claiming immigrants, Romanian beggars, for example, newspapers such as The Sun and the Daily Mail can sell more newspapers and make more profit – it is easier to do this by perpetuating stereotypes compared to running stories which challenge such negative representations.
It is relatively easy for papers to find stories about ethnic minorities which have many news values because some ethnic minorities do engage in activities which are ‘shocking’, and it’s maybe understandable why newspapers may choose not to publish stories in which minority groups are just ‘being British’ – because there’s nothing ‘newsworthy’ about such stories.
This theory fits in with the pluralist view – newspapers aren’t deliberately prejudiced against ethnic minorities, they just run stories which reflect public bias to increase profits.
Hegemonic Marxists would argue that ethnic minority groups are represented negatively because they are underrepresented in positions of power – both in society/ government and within the media itself.
According to Stuart Hall, ethnic minorities have been used as scapegoats for society’s larger economic problems – knife crime by black youths in London in the late 1970s was turned into a moral panic by negative reporting in the press, even though the rate of that crime was declining.
In a similar way gang crime today is largely constructed in the media as a black problem, rather than a multi-ethnic phenomenon.
A further reason why such negative representations are so common could be the lack of black voices among media professionals, meaning the white majority just go along with the racial victimization of young black youth by the government and police.
However, such negative representations may be changing in the age of New Media, which gives more power to ethnic minorities to challenge stereotypes and power inequalities in society more directly.
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
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.
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.
Where companies in one country buy up companies in other countries. News Corp, for example, owns media outlets in several different countries.
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.
Where traditional media companies link with IT companies to make sure their media products are available across several different devices.
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
How are different social classes represented in the mainstream media?
This post looks at how the monarchy, the wealthy, the middle classes, working classes and benefits claimaints (‘the underclass’) are represented, focusing mainly on British television and newspaper coverage.
Generally speaking the ‘lower’ the social class, the more negative the media representations are, arguably because the mainstream media professionals disproportionately come from upper middle class backgrounds.
NB Social class is a tricky concept and you might like to review it here before continuing.
Representations of the Monarchy
According to Nairn (2019) after WWII the monarchy developed close ties with the media industry and worked with them to reinvent itself as ‘the royal family’ and since then they have been represented in the media as a family that are ‘like us but not like us’, and the narrative of their lives is presented as a soap opera, and is part of our day to day media fabric, which encourages us to identify with the royals.
Media representations of royalty also reinforce a sense of national identity: The Queen is the ultimate figure head of the country and royal events form part of our annual calendar, as well as the fact that royals are often in attendance at other national events, such as sporting events for example.
Media representations of wealth
The very wealthy are generally represented positively in the media, for example Alan Sugar and the Dragons on Dragons Den.
The constant media focus on the lifestyles of wealthy celebrities tends to glamourize such lifestyles, suggesting this is something we should all be aspiring to, rather than focusing on the injustice of how much these people are paid compared to ordinary people.
The Middle Classes
Middle class (higher income) families seem to be over-represented on day time T.V. especially – in shows such as homes under the hammer, escape to the country and antiques shows featuring typically very high wealth/ income families, and yet presenting them as ‘the norm’.
Most T.V. presenters are middle class, and so they are more likely to identify with middle class guests compared to working class guests, reinforcing the concerns of former as more worthy of attention.
Most journalists and editors are privately educated which means that the news agenda is framed from a middle class point of views.
The working classes
There are relatively few shows which focus on the reality of the lives of working class people.
Mainstream soaps tend to be the most watched representations of the working classes
Jones (2011) suggests the working classes are represented as feckless racists who hate immigration and multiculturalism – coverage of Brexit seems to offer support for this.
Benefits claimants (‘The Underlcass’)
Coverage tends to focus on the poverty of individuals rather than the structural features of society such as government policy which created the underclass.
Media coverage of the underclass is generally negative and they are often scapegoated for society’s problems. Benefits Street is a good example of this.
Please see this extended post for more details on how the media portray benefits claimants in stereotypical ways.
In this post I summarize some recent sociological research which suggests newspapers and ‘reality T.V. shows represent benefits claimants in a limited range of stereotypical ways, focusing on them as lazy, undeserving scroungers engaged in immoral, wreckless and criminal behaviour.
A lot of the research below also reminds us that media representations in no way reflect the reality of being unemployed and claiming benefits in the UK.
This research is relevant to the A-level sociology media topic: representations of social class.
Stereotypes of benefits claimants in newspaper articles
Baumberg et al’s (2012) research ‘Benefits Stigma in Britain’ analysed a database of 6,600 national press articles between 1995-2011.
Baumberg et al found an extraordinarily disproportionate focus on benefit fraud: 29% of news stories referenced fraud. In comparison the government’s own estimate is that a mere 0.7% of all benefits claims are fraudulent.
Common language used to describe benefits as ‘undeserving’ included:
Fraud and dishonesty (including those such as ‘faking illness’);
Dependency (including ‘underclass’ and ‘unemployable’);
non-reciprocity/lack of effort (e.g. ‘handouts’, ‘something for nothing’, ‘lazy’, ‘scrounger’); •
outsider status (e.g. ‘immigrant’, ‘obese’)
Language used to describe benefits claimants as ‘deserving’ included:
need (‘vulnerable’, ‘hard-pressed’);
disability (‘disabled’, ‘disability’).
In general, Tabloid newspapers such (especially The Sun) focused on representing benefits claimants as undeserving, while broadsheets such as The Guardian were more likely to focus on representing benefits claimants as ‘deserving’.
NB – The Sun and The Mail are Britain’s two most widely circulated newspapers.
Stigmatising benefits claimants
Finally, the study found an increase in articles about benefits claimants which focused on the following stigmatising themes:
‘shouldn’t be claiming’ (for reasons other than fraud)
never worked/hasn’t worked for a very long time
large families on benefits
bad parenting/antisocial behaviour of families on benefits
claimants better off on benefits than if they were working
claimants better off than workers
immigrants claiming benefits
More neutral/ positive themes included:
compulsion of claimants (e.g. workfare, benefit conditionality)
cuts to benefits
As with the themes of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’, Tabloids produced more stigmatising content than the the broadsheets.
Stereotypes of benefits claimants in reality T.V. shows
The number of such shows has exploded in recent years, but while they claim to provide and honest ‘realistic’ insight into lives of Britain’s benefit claimants and those living in poverty, Patrick and others argue they are sensationalised and present stereotypical representations of those on welfare.
If we look at the opening scenes for the first series of Benefits Street for example, these featured:
sofas on the pavement,
men on streets drinking cans of lager,
women smoking cigarettes on their doorsteps.
Overall such shows present benefits claimants as lazy shirkers who don’t want to work, and as people who are different to the hard-working majority.
Such shows emphasize the difference between the working majority (‘us’) and the workless minority (‘them’) and invites us to identify ourselves against benefits claimants, and possibly to see claiming benefits as something which is a choice, long term and morally wrong, rather than as something which is a necessity, usually a short term stop-gap before a return work.
This interview with Jordan, who took feature in Benefits Britain as a claimant offers an insight into how negative representations of the unemployed are socially constructed by media professionals:
Jordan claims that he usually keeps his flat tidy, but was told by the producers to deliberately not tidy it up before they came round to shoot, because it would make people feel more sorry for him.
He also claims that the media crew bought alcohol and cigarettes for the shoot, and told the ‘claimants’ that if they didn’t consume them before the shoot was over they’d take them away again, which led to lots of images of the cast drinking and smoking, when Jordan claims he would only usually do this on special occasions.
Relevance of this to A-level Sociology/ Media studies….
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that newspapers and ‘reality’ T.V. present you with the reality of ‘life on benefits’ – in fact both of these sources present highly sensationalised accounts of what it’s like to actually be unemployed.
All of the above research is based on careful content analysis which picks out the main ways in which benefits claimants are stereotyped and thus represented in a limited way.
This post has only focused on representations, forthcoming posts will focus on why mainstream media professionals choose to represent benefits claimants in negative, stereotypical ways.
Sociologists have argued that the media historically represents disabled people in a limited range of stereotypes, such as objects of pity, unable to participate fully in social life, and in need of our help.
Stereotypes of disability
Barnes (1992) identified a number of recurring stereotypes of disabled people including:
Pitiable and pathetic – a staple of television documentaries, which often focus on disabled children and the possibilities of miracle cures
Sinister and evil – for example Villains in James Bond movies often have physical impairments
Atmospheric or Curio – where disabled people are included in drama to enhance atmosphere of menace, unease, mystery or deprivation.
Super-cripples – the disabled are sometimes portrayed as having special powers, for example blind people might be viewed as visionnaires with sixth sense.
Sexually abnormal – the media usually treat the disable as having no sense of sexuality, but when they do there are represented as sexually degenerate.
Incapable of participating fully in community life – disable people are rarely show as integral and productive members of working society – Barns calls this the stereotype of omission.
Telethons and disability
Paul Longmore (2016) suggests that telethons historically present disabled children as people who are unable to participate fully in community life (sports/ sexuality) unless they are ‘fixed’.
Telethons put the audience in the position of givers and reinforce the idea that the disable receivers should be dependent on their able bodied donors.
Because telethons are primarily about raising money rather than raising awareness of the reality of being disabled, they may end up reinforcing stereotypes of disabled people.
Newspaper representations of the disabled
Williams-Findlay (2009) examined the content of The Times and The Guardian to see whether the coverage of the disabled had changed between 1989 and 2009.
Williams-Findlay found that the use of stereotypical words had declined in those 20 years, but that stereotypical representations were still present in 2009 because journalists still assumed that disability was ‘tragic’.
Watson et al (2011) compared tabloid media coverage of disability in five newspapers in 2004-5 with coverage in 2010-11 they found that:
There had been a significant increase in the reporting of disability
The proportion of articles reporting disability in sympathetic and deserving terms had fallen.
In 2010-11 the reporting of groups with mental disabilities was particularly negative, often associated with them being welfare scroungers.
Articles focusing on disability benefit fraud increased threefold between 2005 and 2011.
Changing representations of disability?
The recent Channel 4 show ‘The Undateables‘ has certainly made disabled people more visible in the media…. but whether or not these are positive representations or whether they reinforce stereotypes is a matter for further analysis and debate!
More to follow….
This is an initial ‘place holder post’ TBU shortly!
Chapman et al (2016) Sociology AQA A-level Year 2 Student Book
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