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Defining & researching the mass media
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After studying this section, you should be able to understand:

  • key media concepts, such as formal content analysis and semiotics
  • the strengths and weaknesses of the key methods of researching the media

Defining the mass media

KEY POINT - The mass media are generally defined by sociologists as those agencies of communication that transmit information, education, news and entertainment to mass audiences.

There are broadly three types of media.

  • The print media – newspapers, magazines, comics, books and some forms of advertising.
  • The audio-visual media – terrestrial and satellite television, radio, cinema, DVDs and music. Most companies which produce this type of media are commercially owned, but state-owned public broadcasting such as the BBC also plays a big role in audio-visual production.
  • The cybermedia or digital media – these are relatively new types of media which are mainly focused on the Internet. Attention has especially been paid to interactive social networking sites such as Facebook, digital media such as mobile phones and MP3 players and the computer games industry.

Researching the mass media

Quantitative or formal content analysis

KEY POINT - The main method used by sociologists for analysing media reports, whether they are textual or visual, has been content analysis. This is essentially a quantitative method which counts the frequency of particular words, images or themes.

Most researchers use a content analysis schedule, i.e. a list of categories to be observed in the media report, which are ticked off as they are observed. Sampling is an important part of the content analysis method, e.g. if the researcher is interested in how crime is reported in tabloid newspapers, they might sample the coverage of three newspapers on three days of the week over a period of a month. If the researcher is interested in the impact of television advertising on its audience, they may sample television commercials from different parts of the day over several channels over several weeks. Library archives might be sampled to look at media trends over time.

KEY POINT - Feminist sociologists, such as Lobban, have undertaken content analyses of children’s books, to highlight how boys are usually shown in active, creative, practical roles, whereas girls are shown as passive, domestic, and as followers rather than leaders. This involves creating a list of categories such as ‘takes lead’ or ‘follows’, ‘gives orders’ or ‘obeys orders’, ‘works out of doors’ or ‘works indoors’, ‘mends car’ or ‘does housework’, and counting up each occasion on which the characters in the book do these things.

In some traditional reading books there was a clear assumption that boys were leaders and girls were followers. More recently, however, books have been written which try to avoid these stereotypes.

Formal content analysis has a number of strengths.

  • Mass media reports exist in a variety of readily available and accessible forms and consequently it is relatively cheap to construct a sample and content analysis schedule.
  • It is regarded as a reasonably reliable method, especially if a research team cross-checks its use of the content analysis schedule in order to understand precisely what constitutes a particular category or code.
  • It is a non-reactive and unobtrusive method, i.e. the document is not affected by the fact you are using it and no human sample is directly involved in the research.

However formal content analysis does have some limitations.

  • The coding results are the end product of personal interpretation which may be unconsciously influenced by the political and ideological values of the researchers, and consequently biased. Other teams of researchers might classify the media content quite differently.
  • If researchers look hard enough for something, there is a likelihood that they will find it, especially if what they are looking for is taken out of the context of the overall media report and reduced to a set of statistics.
  • Analysing media reports tells us very little about the effect on audiences – we may find evidence of what we are looking for, but that is no guarantee that audiences are taking any notice of it.
  • Content analysis ignores questions about why the media report was produced and presented in the way that it was in the first place.

The influence of semiotics

KEY POINT - Sociological researchers studying the media have developed more qualitative versions of content analysis. These have been influenced by the academic discipline of semiotics, i.e. the scientific study of signs or codes. In terms of media texts, semiotics aims to uncover the hidden meanings that lie behind the use of particular words or images. Signs are said to be made up of two parts – the signifier (or denotation) and the signified (or connotation). The signifier is quite simply what we can see or hear, whereas the signified is its meaning, i.e. what it symbolises.

Cohen looked closely at the language used in the reporting of the conflicts between mods and rockers in the mid 1960s and noted a media propensity to exaggerate the meaning of youth conflict through the use of words such as ‘battle’, ‘riot’ and ‘crisis’.

However, the Glasgow University Media Group (GUMG) were probably the first research group to formally employ semiotics in textual and visual analysis. They found that the language and images used by the media are more sympathetic to the interests of the powerful and often devalue the points of view of less powerful groups.

In their study of the way that industrial disputes were reported on television, they observed that journalists often talked about strikers making ‘demands’ whilst management made ‘offers’ or ‘proposals’ which were often ‘rejected’ by workers. The visual images used by news broadcasts confirmed this ‘aggressive greedy worker’ versus ‘passive, reasonable and generous management’ stance
constructed by the media by interviewing workers in situations which confirmed the text, e.g. on the picket line with all its associated hustle and bustle and by showing images of the inconvenience ‘caused’ by the strike. In contrast, management were interviewed in the calm environment of their offices and were very rarely called upon to justify their actions.

Similarly, individuals may also be labelled by the media as ‘scroungers’, ‘terrorists’ or ‘extremists’ – these labels serve to undermine the credibility of the powerless. In foreign news reports, the media often make the ethnocentric and ideological distinction between ‘terrorists’, who are seen as disrupting friendly regimes, and ‘freedom fighters’, who are resisting regimes hostile to the West.

The critique of semiotics
Critics of semiotic based research argue that semiotics lack methodological rigour because there are few methodological guidelines for practising semiotics.

Consequently it has a number of weaknesses.

  • It is seen to lack reliability because the method is very reliant on the researcher’s subjective and often selective interpretation of the text or image which may be at odds with the interpretations of other researchers and the audience. Consequently, it is very doubtful whether such research can be replicated.
  • It may lack validity because the data collected may merely reflect the sociologist’s own biases and prejudices.
  • It tells sociologists little about why the text was created in the way it was or about the media’s effect on the audience.

KEY POINT - Sociological researchers studying the media have developed more qualitative versions of content analysis. These have been influenced by the academic discipline of semiotics, i.e. the scientific study of signs or codes. In terms of media texts, semiotics aims to uncover the hidden meanings that lie behind the use of particular words or images. Signs are said to be made up of two parts – the signifier (or denotation) and the signified (or connotation). The signifier is quite simply what we can see or hear, whereas the signified is its meaning, i.e. what it symbolises.

The Internet
The Internet is increasingly being used as a source of information about the social world by sociologists. Lee argues that the Internet has several advantages for the sociological researcher.

  • It is generally an unobtrusive method in that sifting through the secondary data does not directly influence or harm human behaviour in any way.
  • The democratic nature of the Internet has produce fantastic amounts of data for the sociologist to explore – most of it is easily accessible and free of charge. The information available can easily be retrieved even when the data is located at a site thousands of miles away.
  • Many social activities and relationships which are difficult to study directly are recorded and can be traced on-line, e.g. many illegal and deviant activities are represented on the Internet and in chat rooms. Consequently researchers can study (by examining the websites and/or going into virtual chat-rooms) how people who subscribe to such activities relate to the activity and each other.

However, Stein (2002) urges caution in the use of the Internet as a source of secondary data because its content has not been academically or scientifically verified and checked for reliability or accuracy – much of the content of websites is inaccurate and the product of rumour and speculation. Furthermore, Stein argues that access to computers and therefore the Internet, both within western societies in terms of social class and worldwide, is still deeply unequal. This is referred to as the ‘digital divide’.

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