In attempting to understand the making of meanings in contemporary media cultures, should our focus be on forms of representation in media output or on practices of media use in day-to-day life? ‘ The understanding of the makers of meanings in contemporary media cultures is a common, albeit complex and omnipresent key debate in contemporary media studies. The areas for concern in addressing this question are firstly the media industries and their forms of representation and output, and secondly how people use those forms of output in everyday social situations.
The focus on these two key sites works to discover which area is primarily, and to what extent, responsible for making meaning in media cultures. The answer however is not so clear cut. The concern based around understanding the processes of encoding and decoding media messages is crucial, as echoed by authors such as Eldridge (1993) and Hesmondhalgh (2006).
Early work forged a casual link between mass communication and mass behaviour whereby the stimuli of media depictions invoked mass responses. However, research has since shifted its focus to counter-research in which audiences are viewed as active consumers, using the media to fulfil their interests and pleasures instead of being viewed as cultural dupes whose behaviour was tainted or determined by the so-called ‘magic bullet’ effect of the media (Davis, 2005).
Boyle and Haynes (2000:8) suggest that “the media, television and the press in particular, are playing a crucial role in producing, reproducing and amplifying many of the discourses in the modern world” and it is hypothesised that “media reception is the product of sets of production practices, framed by professional ideologies, within the context of institutional structures” (Whannel, 2002: 173).
Ideas derived from the work of Antonio Gramsci places an institution, such as the media, in a dominant position of class for which the term ‘hegemony’ is used to denote this position. Hegemony itself supposes not only political and economical control, but also the ability of the dominant class to project its own ways of seeing the world onto subordinated groups, in this case the audiences, which leads to the acceptance of their promoted ideology as ‘common sense’ and ‘natural’ (Alvarado and Boyd-Barrett, 1992:51).
Alongside the concerns of autonomy, hegemony and power in media production which Hesmondhalgh (2006) and Garnham (1990) address, there exists numerous theories and media effects models to describe and explain the ways in which media output is hypothesized to influence and exert power over its audiences and subsequently facilitate the meanings derived from media output within people’s lives.
Traditional, though highly criticised, models that exist in communication theory include the hypodermic needle model which was developed in the 1930’s from the Marxist Frankfurt School to explain the rise of Nazism and more recently associated with the formation of moral panics within society (Livingstone, 2005). After the invention of primary electronic communications, such as the radio in the 1930’s, the ability of the media to persuade behaviour and provoke confirmation, was a theory which was understandable given the historical context as radio was a breakthrough in the world of electronic communications (Lull, 2000).
It is nevertheless, a notion which is largely discredited as it yields a fatal flaw in ignoring the notion of interpretation and assumes complete passivity in audiences (McCombs, 1994). This however, paved the way for Lazarsfeld and Katz’s Two-Step Flow of Communication Model developed in the 1940’s which included the notion of human agency as part of the mass media effects process.
Subsequently, it also laid the foundations for the development of the ‘Diffusion of Innovations’ model conceived by Everett Rogers in 1962 (Williams, Strover and Grant, 1994). The diffusion of innovations model, with its great applicability to consumer cultures, also has been associated with the general theory of how ideas are “communicated, evaluated, adopted (or not) and re-evaluated” (ibid. , 1994:472) with specific emphasis placed upon human agency.
Williams, Strover and Grant (1994) outlines that the theory is based on five key stages; knowledge, persuasion, decision, implementation and confirmation, and is described as a process which acts over a time period among the people who are part of a given social system. Fundamentally, the theory outlines that whereas public communication may lead to a general awareness of ideas within society, it is interpersonal communication within human agency that may be the crucial influence in personal decision making.
This may be in terms of the consumerism of a specific product or the identification with mass communicated ideas. However, critics have suggested that other issues may directly affect the uptake of a product/idea and claim that the model somewhat simplifies complex realities of society (ibid. , 1994). Gauntlett (1998:120-127) further adds in criticism that the effects model: tackles social problems ‘backwards’, assumes a concealed conservative ideology, fails to define its objects of study adequately, is selective with its media depictions and overall is not grounded in theory.
As Livingstone (2005) previously identified the connection between media effects and the creation of moral panics, for a topic such as societal violence Hall (1978) states that the media are not only the ‘primary definers’ of the problem in which they generate their own explanations, but also the ‘secondary definers’ of the problem by presenting explanations of others.
It is therefore suggested that the media contributes to public definition of violence, the perception of what the problem is, the causes and its extent as it is relayed to the audience as a selective re-presentation through the eyes of the media, in which media language and verbal reduction play an integral part to the process (ibid. , 1978; Denham, 1999; Matheson, 2005). With this comes a sense of inevitability.