The term mass media is essentially information which is targeted at a large audience. The Mass media is a global industry which has played a major role in shaping society over the 20th century. As technology has developed and created the opportunity to communicate with huge numbers of people, the mass media has developed and with it the medias impact on society. Over the last fifty years the media has changed its shape yet again to fit in with our increasingly technological society; various forms of new media have appeared: smartphones, laptops, internet and ipods. The general aim of these new mediums is to allow greater flexibility to the user and access media while mobile, also they are not physical forms of media but electronic, which has its own advantages and disadvantages.
There have also been major changes in ownership and control of the media; it has become both increasingly concentrated and transnational. An example would be the controversial Mr. Murdoch. His News International group owns over one third of newspapers in Britain, Two other companies, Mirror Group Newspapers and United Newspapers own another 40 per cent between them. This clearly shows that the bulk of the power is held by only a few individuals, this creates very serious political and economical implications. Murdochs paper has been partially responsible for getting each government elected over the past fifty years; every party he has supported over the years has won. Two main sociological theories are used to explain ownership and control of the mass media: Pluralist theory and Marxist theory. Each have there own interpretations of the issues and subsequent strengths and weaknesses which I shall now discuss.
Pluralist theory is all about power in society. They believe that no one group or elite dominates society. It is essentially a functionalist view. Instead Pluralists believe that there is a range of interest groups who share power. Pluralists argue that the mass media reflect such a range of interests. They argue that the mass media simply reflect what we, the public, want. If it is biased it is because that is the view people want to hear, it simply reflects the publics opinion rather than trying to make people think a particular way.
For example the British press is generally conservative; Pluralists argue this is because British society is generally conservative. Pluralists would also say that the mass media provides a wide and diverse choice for the consumer. Therefore there is no single dominant ideology but a genuine choice for the consumer. Minority views are expressed just the same as the dominant views. Because of this Pluralists argue that the mass media has little or no influence on the views of the masses. At most it simply reinforces what people already believe.
Pluralism recognizes the ability of the individuals to make up there own mind about key issues. For example, in the general elections of 1997 and 2001 viweing figures dropped sharply during the campaign, suggesting most people had decided who to support before the campaign even started. Furthermore in the 1992 elections the swing to the conservatives was just as great from the neutral Independent as is was from those who read pro-conservative tabloids. Even readers of The Sun, which was strongly against a conservative government, indicated in election polls that they had voted conservative.
The Pluralist perspective is criticized for ignoring clear evidence of bias, mainly political bias and the influence it can have on society. For example, the political party supported by Rupert Murdochs papers has won every election since 1979. When he decided to switch from Labour to Conservative in 1997, there was a 15 per cent swing to Labour amongst readers of The Sun. This clear evidence of bias due to the views of a single man is ignored by the Pluralist perspective. The impact of the mass media is obviously key to election campaigns and has a massive impact on society as a whole. Arguably Rupert Murdoch alone has been responsible, in part, for getting each government elected since 1979. This clearly is very undemocratic and bad for the country.
The Marxist conflict theory views the mass media as a means of not only influencing people, but also controlling them. It is used as a tool by the ruling class to maintain control and power through transmitting a conformist conservative view of the world. Sociologist have created two general views within Marxism, Manipulative Marxism which places emphasis on the mass media as a form of economic capitalism and Hegemonic Marxism which emphasises the mass media as a means whereby the ruling class project a culture which reflects their own norms and values, to the exclusion of all others.
The concentration of ownership increases such control. Marxists also argue that the ruling class use the media as a filter through which information is passed to the mass of the population. In emphasizing the acceptance of the status quo, the media resists change and therefore works against the interests of the working class. The media therefore will project capitalism positively, creating a false class consciousness to the proletariat to prevent them realizing their exploitation and thus overthrow capitalism. Because of the established media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch it is difficult for small firms and individuals to gain much credit and fame.
The Marxist perspective is seen as strong in analyzing the mass media from a conflict perspective. In doing so it helps to explain the mass media as a source of inequality within capitalist society. It also helps to explain the perceived bias within the media. For Marxists this is particularly important in a political and economical context. Marxism identifies and analyses political bias within the media, for example the consumerism culture that the newspapers promote.
However, the Marxist theory is criticized for underestimating the ability of individuals to absorb information and make up there own minds about what they agree with or disagree with. Critics argue that people are not like robots who passively accept what they are told, rather they critically judge a variety of issues and make up there own mind using what they have been told and their own individual experience with the issue.
James Curran, in Mass Media and Democracy: A reppraisal (1991), argues that the growth of commercial radio and television re-affirms the view that there is a widespread choice with a core public sector combined with an expanding private sector. Thus, the impact of ownership and control is negligible given the real and diverse choice that exists. Currans study supports the Pluralist perspective.
Studies such as Currans are strong in recognizing the changing nature of British industry and how it applies to the mass media. Such conclusions are supported by the reality of the mass media that, despite a concentration of ownership, is run by a diverse range of individuals from different social backgrounds, through joint stock companies. However, this tends to ignore the fact that the largest proportion of shares in any public liability company is owned by either wealthy individuals or large institutional shareholders.
From a Marxist perspective the ruling class is seen as an agent of ideological control in modern society, used by the ruling class to establish and impose its values on the working class. This is a view taking by Miliband in The State in Capitalist Society (1973).
Miliband argues that the mass media is an agent of capitalist control, rejecting the pluralist theory that there is genuine choice.