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Mass Media Effects On The Cultural Public

The concept of a cultural public sphere is perceived through politics, public and the sphere of private. It is exercised through various channels of mass-popular culture and it became increasingly important for the media. In the traditional libertarian theory, the interference of state with the media is minimal, media having an open path to mobilize public opinion to counterweight state power. The public sphere overlaps neither with the state nor with the market sphere since its role is to keep both autonomous. To avoid the use of media as an instrument of class or personal interest and to be considered representative of the public at large, the solution was to professionalize journalism.

Putting aside a possible discussion about the ability of media to legitimize a social order or to give consensus about society at large, a search of what constitutes ‘the public’ reveals the centrality of the issue for media discourse. Traditional approaches to this topic, assume ‘content’ as a central aspect while more modern interpretations allow ‘form’ to take a part from the load in the public sphere.

Media can have an important effect on public opinion in several ways. In Building a Theory of News Content, Pamela J. Shoemaker shapes a theory about what are the factors that influence news content and about criteria for setting social desirability of ideas for the public sphere. Comparing editorials from New York Times, Wall Street Journal or Washington Post media effects researchers, but not only them, can discover different political orientations of the papers, a different taste for setting the public agenda or, interpreting the availability of the language used, the type of the audience that is most likely to respond. „Media content is the basis of media impact” writes Shoemaker in a theory about inner mechanisms that construct a message with interest for the public sphere.

In contrast with “form”, more elusive and hard to pin down in a rigorous study, content is a subject that permits scientific scrutiny. More accessible for study, content analysis may offer inside information about the process of decision-making in the editorial hierarchy. It may be an indicator for other kinds of forces like extra organizational powers or for predicting people’s responses. Since media offers an interpretation of reality and it speaks about a novelty to the public, studying media content could provide an understanding of what reality a certain public consumes. Pamela J. Shoemaker writes in the book Building a Theory of News Content: “Simply establishing that messages are available, however, does not by any means ensure that those messages have an effect. Social reformers and special interest group members often assume that media content equals direct effect, and media "monitors" (e.g., the Parent-Teachers Association on children's television) use content research to support their push for more or less content of specific kinds”.

Cross correlations between elements of content analysis are important. Obviously, before that, a correct identification of the elements that, in the end, contribute to a certain outcome is necessary. Pamela J. Shoemaker makes a series of assumptions and propositions about the nature of media content, hypotheses about the influence on media content, and links between influences from individuals, about routines, organizational and extra media influences to end up with ideological conclusions about media content.

Media content is a construct based on real life events as to reflect objective reality. Private individuals, journalists, media routine, media organizations, and owners select topics. The selection of the stories tells us about priorities in the public sphere. Control over media is exercised through financing be that privately owned “Knowing what media content is like helps us predict its effects on the audience”, writes Shoemaker.

Television content is flooded with violence and news with easy access to (those from officials are preferred). More people with high status have access on-air, women and the aged appear less than man, white characters are shown as powerful and, as Shoemaker observe, “In the United States, news coverage of a state is not related to its population”.

Ethical judgments should prevent journalists from taking part in unethical actions; the need for objectivity is more obvious in news than in feature reports or entertainment programs. Their individual attitude does influence the outcome of a production. Routine provides a system of working with the deficiency that an event is covered in similar ways. A more negative coverage of a successful political candidate than the opponent is one of the reflexes among journalists.

In relation with organizational influences, researches shows, writes Shoemaker, that journalists in elite news organizations are more liberal. Since there is no professional decision without economic ramification, the higher the need to make a profit the easier permit for economic criteria to dominate over moral or ethical decisions. 

Extra media influences have two main sources, political and economic. Media content interesting for advertisers (especially in television programming) has a higher chance to meet the public. The more critical to a government, the higher the chance for more attention to regulate that media organization. Control can take place through professional codes, financing, licenses, taxes, access to official information. The outcome of these conditions ends in a set of conclusions for Shoemaker. They concern selection of events, predilection for a certain kind of coverage and response for financial pressure. Regardless if events are in the USA or somewhere else, deviant behavior has an open door for coverage as well as violence in general. The level of interstate relations affects choices for covering political, economic or cultural topics. The more closely media is connected to high profile political or economic elite the higher the chance for a content contaminated by their ideological viewpoints. Television coverage is more ideologically charged than the rest of the media.

Summing up social theories about the public sphere, professional analysis regarding functions and content of media, an important component in forming public opinion is framing. As a baker follows instructions for a recipe, a journalist has its own recipes to follow for different types of topics. These ‘recipes’ have the power to predict consumer’s attitude. Media agenda is set, most often, by particular circumstances, advertisements and political realm bare a heavy influence. Social desirability is important as well in the formation of public opinion with the outcome that routine repetition of the ‘recipe’ creates a false vision of truth. Between media instruments, television has been the main medium for molding public opinion.

A study of media content is not sufficient to understand what produces a certain effect in the public sphere. Apart from stylistic instruments at hand, journalists’ professional identity is presented most dramatically in movies.

Edited By: Kyenila Taylor

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