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    Denham and Matheson Essay (1670 words)

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    The media is able to build up an explosive cocktail, manufacturing stories, reporting on events before they occur and producing alarmist forecasts so that if and when a problem occurs it achieves the notion of a self-fulfilling prophesy. As Poulton (2005:31) describes: “The media thus provides the news that fulfils the expectation they create, whether or not they elicit fulfilling behaviour… this demonstrates how news values ‘work’ and how the media actively engage in ‘news-making”.

    Poulton’s (2005) description of the process of ‘news-making’ not only emphasises a manufactured process, but allows for further debate concerning the capitalist economy of ‘news-making’. From a general production perspective, Marx (1946, in Murdock, 2000) states that in a capitalist economy, raw materials are transformed into saleable goods and services. Whether it is to achieve audience ratings or actual consumer purchases, the media are part of a capitalist economy.

    Where television works to gain ratings and advertising revenue, the printed press works to sell copies of newspapers or magazines and so on. The needs and wants of the consumers must be met in order to create capital and recognition of the processes of manufacturing are an integral part to production (Ang, 1991; Hagen, 1999). The media violence debate has also extended to include thoughts concerning media output and its influence on human behaviour. In the past this has been documented in many high profile violence and murder cases such as the James Bulger case and the Columbine killings.

    Livingstone (2005:12) suggests that the media has often been the scapegoat for the “supposed moral impact of family life, on ethnic stereotyping or on crime statistics”; however this is contested by an audience research agenda which is driven by the conflict of interests surrounding the issue (ibid. , 2005). Violence is only one such representation which is discussed in terms of media output and the influence upon audiences, other popular topics include: politics, health, racism and war (Iyengar, 1997).

    When approaching the subject of direct media influence upon crime rates using stimulus/response research, Berkowitz and Macaulay (1971, in Berkowitz and Heimer Rogers, 1986) found significant increases in the rate of violent crimes following several sensational murders in the 1960’s. However, Berkowitz and Heimer Rogers (1986) go on to propose that these incidences are not like for like copycat incidents. They claim that the concept of cognitive-neoassociationism provides a framework to analyse these phenomena.

    They state that, “people’s reactions to what they read, see, or hear in the media depend considerably on the way the message is interpreted and the thoughts and memories that are consequently activated” (ibid. , 1986:58). The media and popular culture are hypothesised to be part of a set of factors that contribute to societal violence as it is difficult to measure human thought or to precisely know how media influence their audiences (ibid. , 1986).

    This particular stance further supported by Lull (2000:100) who argues that “people mediate the influence of the media”, particularly if they are within a setting that allows for social mediations to occur, i. e. with family, friends or peers. This allows recipients to raise questions, pose criticism or reinforce positive messages. Lull (2000) claims that the media audience has not changed much, but that it has just taken researchers longer to describe the complex relationships between the media and its’ interpreters.

    As an alternative to principally analysing the direct effects of media output, research has shifted to include the audience into the large body of research. Allor (1988, in Mosco and Kaye, 2000:31) suggests that “the concept of the audience… is the underpinning prop for the analysis of the social impact of mass communication in general”. Though Moores (1993:1), finds difficulty in defining what the audience actually is, suggesting that “there is no stable entity which we can isolate and identify as the media audience”.

    To Mosco and Kaye (2000) the concept of audiences was born out of companies who were marketing products through the media. To the discipline of mass communication, large groups of people who are exposed to media texts are commonly known as the audience. Though Moores (1993:2) prefers the use of the plural, audiences, which denotes “several groups divided by their reception of different media and genres, or by social and cultural positioning”, both Moores (1993) and Mosco and Kaye (2000) articulate a conceptual difficulty with the term and express their concerns for further study into researching the concept of audiences.

    This however, appears to be the definition which authors such as Mosco and Kaye at present (2000) settle upon for use in the media studies domain in determining and explaining media audiences. Some of the earliest work concerning media output and the audience as a combined entity was carried out by Stuart Hall. Classical work from Hall (1973:1) suggests that the “communication between the production elites in broadcasting and their audiences is necessarily a form of ‘systematically distorted communication'” which propagates the mediated re-presentation of realities and events to the viewing audiences (Whannel, 1998).

    Hall (1973:1) further argues that the aspect of communication production which distinguishes itself from other types of production as different is the notion that “the ‘object’ of production practices and structures in television is the production of a message”. Achieved by specific organisation and adherence to particular codes “within the syntagmatic chains of a discourse”, messages are produced within mediated texts and circulated to audiences (ibid.

    , 1973:1). Kinkema and Harris (1998:34) believe that “although it is clear that audiences interpret media texts in a variety of ways, texts are thought to sway audiences towards particular interpretations rather than others”. Media texts may encompass manifest or latent meanings by which textual/content analysis can uncover different layers and levels of meaning.

    Additionally, preferred readings of media texts are constructed to encourage a dominant or consensual interpretation. However, the idea of polysemic texts denotes that media texts are capable of many potential meanings and readings and may be decoded in a variety of ways according to many factors, particularly the situated culture (O’Sullivan, Dutton and Rayner, 2003) and cultural capital of the reader (Bourdieu, 1986).

    It is the suggested polysemic nature of media texts which strengthens the competence of Hall’s (1973) encoding/decoding model in which the audiences, in relation to social positioning, hypothetically may wholly accept the preferred meaning of the text, may accept parts of the text whilst rejecting others, thus creating a ‘negotiated’ meaning, or may reject the text’s preferred meaning in its entirety, thus creating an ‘oppositional’ meaning.

    The model allows the consumer to decode media texts in relation to their cultural competence and class position, fundamentally allowing for a variation in responses and interpretations (Moores, 2000). This particular framework was adopted in Morley’s (1980) analysis of audience responses in relation to a television news/cultural affairs text in which different demographic groups were devised by the division of profession and cultural background.

    Hall’s system of categorisation was used and to a certain extent was successful as various groups accepted, negotiated or rejected the preferred meaning, however, particular groups felt the text had little relevance to them and furthermore proposed an oppositional reading of a different kind in that they displayed a refusal to engage with the text (Moores, 2000). In this study, the categories of Hall’s model “lacked the subtlety to cope with certain contradictions which arose in an analysis of the group responses” (ibid. , 2000:28).

    The responses in many cases could be simply attributed to tastes and preferences of the group (Morley, 1992). Morley (1992: 89-90) identified that the “readings can then be seen to be patterned by the way in which the structure of access to different discourses is determined by social position”. This notion regarding differential access to discourses can be related to the various kinds of ‘capital’ outlined by Pierre Bourdieu – particularly ‘cultural capital’ (which relates the construction of ‘taste’) and ‘symbolic capital’ (communicative repertoire) of which interpretation is a key field.

    Klapper (1966:18) theorises that generally people will “expose themselves to those mass communications which are in accord with their existing attitudes and interests”. With this in mind, it is taste and pleasure which Ang (1985) and Radway (1991) emphasised was a key positive effect that audiences derived from media texts, which Ang (1985:17) further comments is an idea “which is at odds with the doctrine that mass culture primarily manipulates the masses”. Though Marxist beliefs will detail that the pleasure derived from texts is a “false kind of pleasure…

    a trick of manipulating the masses more effectively in order to lock them in the eternal status quo of exploitation and oppression” and to further the capitalist economy, it only presents one side of the argument because to successfully sell a commodity, such as a media text, the commodity itself must have some usefulness (ibid. , 1985:17-18). Morley (1992) added that there is the potential for different individuals or groups to operate different decoding strategies in relation to different topics and different contexts.

    A person might make ‘oppositional’ readings of the same material in one context and ‘dominant’ readings in other contexts. He further noted that in interpreting viewers’ readings of mass media texts, attention should be paid not only to the issue of agreement (acceptance/rejection) but to comprehension, relevance and enjoyment (ibid. , 1992: 126-127). Further Criticism of Hall’s model raises the question; does the preferred meaning actually exist?.

    Moores (1993:28) asks of the preferred meaning, “Where is it and how do we know if we’ve found it? Can we be sure we didn’t put it there ourselves while we were looking? And can it be found by examining any sort of text? “. Moreover, Morley (1981:6) pondered whether it might be the “reading which the analyst is predicting that most members of the audience will produce” and wondered whether the concept may be applied more easily to news and current affairs than to other mass media genres.

    Based upon the assumption that “widely available communication forms play an important role in mediating society” (Matheson, 2005:1), both Matheson (2005) and Wareing (2004) highlight the potential ability of language to create new meanings and inflict power upon society. The previous discussion regarding the media and violence authors such as Denham (1999) and Matheson (2005) detailed the process by which media discourse and verbal reduction may shape forms of representation and ultimately create meaning and agenda.

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