What Do The Media Do To People Media Essay

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In 1959, E.Katz, a psychologist by profession was trying to grapple with the question “what do the media do to people?” which other researchers were attempting to answer. According to Katz, what people did with the media was more important and worthy of research. He assumed that mass media audiences are active participants in the interaction and therefore it was important for the research to focus on motivations for selecting a medium and the expected gratification from it. This led to the development of uses and gratifications theory.

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Uses and gratifications theory attempts to explain the uses and functions of the media for individuals, groups, and society in general. There are three objectives in developing uses and gratifications theory: 1) to explain how individuals use mass communication to gratify their needs. “What do people do with the media”. 2) to discover underlying motives for individuals’ media use. 3) to identify the positive and the negative consequences of individual media use. At the core of uses and gratifications theory lies the assumption that audience members actively seek out the mass media to satisfy individual needs. It is an audience-centred approach. When an audience actively seeks out media, they are typically seeking it in order to gratify a need. For example, in social situations, people may feel more confident and knowledgeable when they have specific facts and stories from media to add to conversation. By seeking out media, a person fulfils a need to be informed. Social situations and psychological characteristics motivate the need for media, which motivates certain expectations of that media. This expectation leads one to be exposed to media that would seemingly fit expectations, leading to an ultimate gratification.

There are three main paradigms in media effects: hypodermic needle (i.e., direct, or strong effects), limited effects, and the powerful to limited effects. “Uses and Gratifications” falls under the second paradigm. The hypodermic needle model claims that consumers are strongly affected by media and have no say in how the media influences them. The main idea of the Uses and Gratifications model is that people are not helpless victims of all-powerful media, but use media to fulfil their various needs. These needs serve as motivations for using media. The media dependency theory has also been explored as an extension to the uses and gratifications approach to media, though there is a subtle difference between the two theories. Dependency on media assumes audience goals to be the origin of the dependency while the uses and gratifications approach focuses more on audience needs, however both theories agree that media use can lead to media dependency.

The media dependency theory states that the more dependent an individual is on the media to fulfill needs, the more significant the media becomes to that person. DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach (1976) illustrate dependency as the relationship between media content, the nature of society, and the behaviour of audiences. Littlejohn (2002) also explained that people will become more dependent on media that meet a number of their needs than on media that touch only a few needs. Dependency on a certain medium is influenced by the number of sources open to an individual. Individuals are usually more dependent on available media if their access to media alternatives is limited. The more alternatives there are for an individual, the less is the dependency on, and influence of, a specific medium.

Kazt supported the idea of studies which sought to find out what people do with the media. He cited a 1949 Berelson study conducted by interviewing people during a newspaper strike about what they missed in the newspaper. Many read because they felt it was the socially acceptable thing to do, and some felt that the newspaper was indispensable in finding out about world affairs. Many however, sought escape, relaxation, entertainment, and social prestige. These people recognized that awareness of public affairs was value in conversations. Some wanted help in their daily lives by reading material about fashion, recipes, weather forecasts and other useful information Severin and Tankard Jr. (1992:270). Davidson in Severin and Tankard Jr. (1992:269) argues that the communicator’s audience is not a passive recipient; it cannot be regarded as a lump of clay to be moulded by the master propagandist. Rather the audience is made up of individuals who demand something from communications to which they are exposed, and who select those that are likely to be useful to them. In other words, they must get something from the manipulator if he is to get something from them. A bargain is involved. The uses and gratifications approach involves a shift of focus from the purposes of the communicator to the purposes of the receiver. To a large extent, the user of the mass communication medium is in control.

Uses and gratifications approach reminds us that people use the media for various purposes. Studies have shown that bored audiences use the media for exiting content while stressed subjects would use relaxing content, supporting the idea that audiences choose media content to provide gratifications they are seeking. Elliot and Rosenberg concluded that much of mass media use might be merely a matter of habit. They carried a study in which people indicated that they watched some soap operators out of habit which they enjoyed doing. Jay G. Blumler and Elihu Katz devised their uses and gratifications model in 1974 to highlight five areas of gratification in media texts for audiences. These include:

Escape – some media texts allow the user to escape from reality. For example, video games.

Social interaction – People create personal relationships with the characters in a media text. Potentially this could become dangerous if people do not question the reality of such texts. It also creates a common ground for conversation in people’s everyday lives.

Identify – People often identify a part of themselves in a media text, either through character or circumstance. For example, hair style trends stemming from a magazine feature. This can go a long way in people’s ideologies.

Inform and educate – the audience gain an understanding of the world around them by consuming a media text, for example print and broadcast news.

Entertain – consumed purely for entertainment purposes, meaning that text need not have any other gratifications.

The Uses and Gratifications Model of the Media

The mass media is a huge phenomenon. Through the various different platforms, print or broadcast, the media is able to reach millions of people like no other force. Without the media, powerful speeches by politicians would affect no one, local events would remain local, and performances by great actors would be seen only by the people in the immediate audience. The media overcomes distances, and builds a direct relationship with the audience. Many sociologists have attempted to explore what effects this has on society, and how the media fits in to our social network. Through many programmes of research, including focus groups, surveys, questionnaires, clinical studies and plain hypothesising, a number of models describing the media’s relationship with audiences have been drawn up.

Initially, researchers approached the subject from the angle of how the media is able to manipulate audiences, injecting messages into their minds. This ‘hypodermic’ model, as discussed in the earlier part was rejected after closer examination. The ‘Uses and Gratifications’ model represented a change in thinking, as researchers began to describe the effects of the media from the point of view of audiences. The model looks at the motives of the people who use the media, asking why we watch the television programmes that we do, why we bother to read newspapers, why we find ourselves so compelled to keep up to date with our favourite soap. The underlying idea behind the model is that people are motivated by a desire to fulfil, or gratify certain needs. So rather that asking how the media uses us, the model asks how we use the media.

The model is broken down into four different needs.

Surveillance: The surveillance need is based around the idea that people feel better having the feeling that they know what is going on in the world around them. One of the genres this is often applied to is news. By watching or reading about news we learn about what is happening in the world, and as the news is usually bad news, this knowledge leaves us feeling more secure about the safety of our own lives. This idea might seem a bit strange, that the more we know about tragedies the safer we feel, but sociologists argue that ignorance is seen as a source of danger, and so the more knowledge we have the safer we feel. When looking at the news it’s easy to spot news items that give us this reaction. For example if it wasn’t for watching the news we might be unknowingly become vulnerable to the latest computer virus or end up in a hospital with an epidemic like swine flu. It’s not just news that fulfils the surveillance model however; the theory can also be seen in many consumer and crime-appeal programmes. These appeal directly through the idea that they are imparting information that people need to know. The programmes talk far more directly to the viewer, and even try to get the viewer involved in the programme. Because these programmes deal purely with national and local concerns, without such vagaries as world news, the issues apparently have the potential to affect the viewer directly. This explains why certain channels like Aaj Tak and IndiaTV show programmes which have wide viewership in rural areas. Some of the contents of these channels would never be appreciated by the urban audience. The surveillance model then is all about awareness. We use the mass media to be more aware of the world, gratifying a desire for knowledge and security.

Personal Identity: The personal identity need explains how being a subject of the media allows us to reaffirm the identity and positioning of ourselves within society. This can most be seen in soaps, which try to act as a microcosm of society as a whole. The characters in soaps are usually designed to have wildly different characteristics, so that everyone can find someone to represent themselves, someone to aspire to, and someone to despise. For example someone might feel close to a character who is always falling victim to other people, and this connection might help him/her to understand and express his/her feelings. Someone may also really like a character who seems ‘cool’ and leads a aspirational lifestyle everyone would desire to lead. This relationship could act as a way to channel your one’s life, helping to set goals to work to. Finally there may be a character one really can’t stand. By picking out their bad characteristics and decisions, it helps audiences to define their own personal identity by differentiation. The use of the media for forming personal identity can also be seen outside soaps. Sports personalities and pop stars can often become big role models, inspiring young children everywhere (which is why there’s such an outcry when one of them does something wrong). Even the ‘seriousness’ of news can lend itself to gratifying personal identity, by treating news anchors as personalities, rather than simply figureheads relaying information.

Personal Relationships: Audiences can form a relationship with the media, and also use the media to form a relationship with others.

Relationships with the Media : Many people use the television as a form of companionship. The television is often quite an intimate experience, and by watching the same people on a regular basis we can often feel very close to them, as if we even know them. When presenters or characters in a soap die, those who have watched that person a lot often grieve for the character, as if they have lost a friend. Some events can even cause media outcries, such as the recent reality shows where the events within the show became main stories on the TV/News channels. The more we watch the same personalities, the more we feel we get to know them. Reality TV shows such as Big Brother and its adapted versions in India give us such a feeling of intimacy with the participants that they can become part of our lives. Even though the relationship is completely one-sided, it’s easy to see how we can fall in love with TV personalities.

Using the Media within Relationships: Another aspect to the personal relationships model is how we can sometimes use the media as a springboard to form and build upon relationships with real people. Having a favourite TV programme in common can often be the start of a conversation, and can even make talking to strangers that much easier. Some families use sitting around watching the television as a stimulus for conversation, talking to each other about the programme or related anecdotes while it is on.

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Diversion: The diversion need describes what’s commonly termed as escapism – watching the television so we can forget about our own lives and problems for a while and think about something else. This can work with positive programmes, such as holiday shows or the constant happy endings which help to cheer us up and forget our own problems, and with negative programmes, such as a tragic film, which help to put our own problems into perspective. The diversion model also accounts for using the media for entertainment purposes, such as a good spy film, and for relaxation. The media can give us emotional release and also sexual arousal, which includes a sexy scene in a film as well as pornography.

Altogether, the Uses and Gratifications model outlines the many reasons we have for using the mass media, and the kind of functions that the media can play within our lives.

New media and current scenario

The shift of media and media industry over the past few years into new forms, such as DVD/ Blue ray and the internet based social networking sites, changes the modalities available for audiences to consume and receive media. The change has caused some media theorists to call into question the influence that the media has over attitudes and beliefs. Urbanization, industrialization and modernization create social conditions in which the mass media is developing and reshaping. Mass media plays a crucial role in forming and reflecting public opinion: media connects the world to individuals and reproduce the self-image of society. Contemporary global media scenario presents a more complex interaction between the media and society, with the media generating information from a network of relations and influences. The individual interpretations and evaluations of the information provided sometimes lead to consequences and ramifications of the mass media which may relate not merely to the way newsworthy events are perceived (and which are reported at all), but also to a multitude of cultural influences that operate through the media.

The media has a strong social and cultural impact upon society. This is predicated upon its ability to reach a wide audience which often sends a strong and influential message. It is through the persuasiveness of media such as television, radio and print media that reach the target audience. These have been influential media as they have been largely responsible in structuring the daily lives and routines of millions across the globe. Television broadcasting has a large amount of control in influencing the content that society watches and the times in which they are viewed. This is a distinguishing feature of traditional media and although they are by no means redundant, the development of the internet has challenged the traditional participation habits involved in media such as television. The internet has lifted some of the restrictions placed on society by allowing for diversification of political opinions, social and cultural differences and heightened level of consumer participation. There have been suggestions that allowing consumers to produce information through the internet will lead to a bombardment of too much information. It can however allow society a medium for expressing opinions and moving away from the political restrictions placed on society. The uses and gratifications theory of Blumler and Katz (1974) and other group studies in social psychology provide such major motivations for individuals to join virtual communities on social networking sites like facebook, orkut, twitter etc, as the need for social integration (belong and be affiliated), the need for help in achieving goals (e.g. by obtaining information), the need for realizing economic exchanges, the need for status enhancement (by impressing and manipulating others), and the need for entertainment.

Some of the other ways in which uses and gratification becomes relevant in the Indian/Global media scenario are:-

Media can also influence the way people converse due to embedding their minds with particular thoughts and feelings via their various media outlets. Certain movies have quotes that can be engrained into the minds of the audience. However, these quotes can be either appropriate or inappropriate. When someone hears something in the media and it is reinforced through the various media channels i.e. TV, radio, newspapers etc, general members of the public become more susceptible as taking the news as the whole truth, and this can then be accepted as the norm within society.

Many famous trials about celebrities have ended in such bad publicity and negative depictions of the people involved that their reputation gets damaged forever, irrespective of the outcome of the trial. The general public already forms their opinion even before the trials are conducted.

In the United States the election of many politicians has been enormously influenced by media. Most notably John F. Kennedy’s victory in the presidential race of 1960 against Richard Nixon has been described by many as the result of his more handsome and good looking appearance on television, especially when compared with Nixon. Also Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger whose fame as actors helped them to gain more media attention and eventually the victory in their elections as president or governor. Similarly Barrack Obama used all the forms of media to build a public opinion in his favour and exploited the latest available social networking platforms to maximize the multiplier effect. The results of the last general elections in India and the victory of Congress party can be linked to a similar media strategy.

Criticisms of uses and gratification theory

Many people have criticized this theory as they believe the public has no control over the media and what it produces. It can also be said to be too kind to the media, as they are being ‘let off the hook’ and do not need to take responsibility for what they produce. It is not always safe to assume that people choose the media based on their needs. There are other factors which restrict choices of the audiences, virtually leaving them with a very few or no alternatives.

Some of the other criticisms of the theory as found in the literature have been quoted below:-

“The nature of the theory underlying Uses and Gratifications research is not totally clear,” (Blumler, 1979)

“Practitioners of Uses and Gratifications research have been criticized for a formidable array of shortcomings in their outlook — they are taxed for being crassly atheoretical, perversely eclectic, ensnared in the pitfalls of functionalism and for flirting with the positions at odds with their functionalist origins,” (Blumler, 1979).

The biggest issue for the Uses and Gratifications Theory is its being non-theoretical, being vague in key concepts, and being nothing more than a data-collecting strategy (Littlejohn, 2002; Severin and Tankard, 1997; McQuail 1994).

It seems that using this theory has little to no link to the benefit of psychology due to its weakness in operational definitions and weak analytical mode. Also, it is focused too narrowly on the individual and neglects the social structure and place of the media in that structure (Severin and Tankard, 1997).

Due to the individualistic nature of Uses and Gratification theory, it is difficult to take the information that is collected in studies. Most research relies on pure recollection of memory rather than data (Katz, 1987). This makes self-reports complicated and immeasurable. uses and gratifications research portrays media consumption as primarily rational and individualistic, whereby individuals control consumption according to conscious goals. This assumes (contrary to Attribution Theory) that respondents are aware of every factor entering into their media choices and do not misjudge the causes of their behaviour. Little attention is therefore accorded to the ways in which media may be consumed “mindlessly or ritualistically” (Littlejohn, 1989, p. 276). Critics argue that needs for attending to certain media are formed and informed by culture as well as by certain psychological predispositions particular to individual consumers of media products. According to Littlejohn (1989), criticism of this approach may be divided into three major strands: (a) lack of coherence and theory in the tradition; (b) social and political objections; and (c) the instrumental (versus ritualistic) philosophical bias of uses and gratifications (p. 276).

This theory has also been blasted by media hegemony advocates who say it goes too far in claiming that people are free to choose the media fare and the interpretations they want (Severin and Tankard, 1997). Other motives that may drive people to consume media may involve low level attention, a habit or a mildly pleasant stimulation. Uniform effects are not the kind of factor the Uses and Gratifications approach would predict (Severin and Tankard, 1997).

 

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