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15.2: Mass Media as a Social Institution

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    • Describe the types of mass media in the United States.
    • Explain the different sociological perspectives of mass media.
    • Describe some issues affecting mass media today.

    Universal Generalizations

    • Mass media influences socialization.
    • To be productive members of society, people need to know what is going on around them.
    • People are bombarded by advertisements regardless of the media.
    • Americans have become more and more disconnected from civic and social life.
    • Life without mass media is inconceivable.

    Guiding Questions

    • Does media play an important role in your life?
    • Do video games contribute to violence?
    • How does the mass media influence socialization?
    • What are some advantages of mass media?
    • What are some negative effects of mass media on society?
    • What are some issues that mass media is facing today?
    • How much power does the news media have?
    • What role does television play in the socialization of children?
    • Does the Internet encourage disengagement from civic and social life?

    Mass Media as a Social Institution

    A Facebook page is shown.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Facebook does more than expand one’s circle of friends from a few dozen to a few hundred. It changes the way we interact with our world. (Photo courtesy of Frederick M. Drocks/flickr

    “A social institution is an organization that is critical to the socialization process; it provides a support system for individuals as they struggle to become members of a larger social network” (Art Silverblatt, American Behavioral Scientist, 2004)

    How many good friends do you have? How many people do you meet up with for coffee or a movie? How many would you call with news about an illness or invite to your wedding? Now, how many “friends” do you have on Facebook? Technology has changed how we interact with each other. It has turned “friend” into a verb and has made it possible to share mundane news (“My dog just threw up under the bed! Ugh!”) with hundreds or even thousands of people who might know you only slightly, if at all. Through the magic of Facebook, you might know about an old elementary school friend’s new job before her mother does.

    At the same time that technology is expanding the boundaries of our social circles, various media are also changing how we perceive and interact with each other. We don’t only use Facebook to keep in touch with friends; we also use it to “like” certain TV shows, products, or celebrities. Even television is no longer a one-way medium but an interactive one. We are encouraged to tweet, text, or call in to vote for contestants in everything from singing competitions to matchmaking endeavors—bridging the gap between our entertainment and our own lives.

    How does technology change our lives for the better? Or does it? When you tweet a social cause or cut and paste a status update about cancer awareness on Facebook, are you promoting social change? Does the immediate and constant flow of information mean we are more aware and engaged than any society before us?

    These are some of the questions that interest sociologists. How might we examine these issues from a sociological perspective? A functionalist would probably focus on what social purposes technology and media serve. For example, the web is both a form of technology and of media, and it links individuals and nations in a communication network that facilitates both small family discussions and global trade networks. A functionalist would also be interested in the manifest functions of media and technology, as well as their role in social dysfunction. Someone applying the conflict perspective would probably focus on the systematic inequality created by differential access to media and technology.

    Traditional social institutions such as church, government, school and family once served the role of providing individuals with the knowledge and communicative tools needed to successfully integrate into society. It was here we learned what was right or wrong in the world, and how to communicate to others through language, appearance or actions, if we were to become upstanding members of society in church we learned through religious doctrine and beliefs. In school, we were educated in the ways of the professional world, and how to be part of a collective of academics. Through government we learn of law and order, justice, and criminality, the repercussions of violating societies written rules. As a member of a family we learn of love and care for others, close knit bonds, and the vital knowledge and ways of the world, passed down from a father or mother to a son or daughter during childhood and adolescence, becoming the scriptures guiding you for the rest of your life, and passed on again to your own sons and daughters. For most of modern history, these institutions have played these roles and educated us as a society, of how thing should be and the reasons behind them, guiding our morality and sense of justice, This is no longer the case.

    With the emergence of mass media towards the end of the 20th century through televised programming, movies and radio, and accelerated further with the booming growth of the Internet in recent decades; mass media is now becoming the dominant social institution, catering for the needs of society and educating its citizens. In a fast-moving and mobile modern society, mass media provides a medium easily accessed through technology, making the traditional social institutions of family, church, government of school redundant in their former roles. Individuals are increasingly looking to the media for direction in rules of behavior and societal values, while being provided with a sense of membership through the programs we watch or media trends we follow. Order and stability is provided by the media through scheduled programming affecting how people arrange their daily routines and ultimately affecting cultural lifestyle through what we wear, listen to, say and do day to day. The Internet, a vast source of instantaneous information, now fulfills an educational role in society, catering an individuals personal preferences and ideals.

    Mass Media and Technology as a Social Institution

    Pages of newspaper are shown flowing through a printing press.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): The modern printing press (as well as its dated counterparts) embodies the intertwined nature of technology and media. (Photo courtesy of Anuj Biyani/flickr)

    From the time the printing press was created (and even before), technology has influenced how and where information is shared. Today, it is impossible to discuss media and the ways that societies communicate without addressing the fast-moving pace of technology. Twenty years ago, if you wanted to share news of your baby’s birth or a job promotion, you phoned or wrote letters. You might tell a handful of people, but probably you wouldn’t call up several hundred, including your old high school chemistry teacher, to let them know. Now, by tweeting or posting your big news, the circle of communication is wider than ever. Therefore, when we talk about how societies engage with technology we must take media into account, and vice versa.

    Technology creates media. The comic book you bought at the drugstore is a form of media, as is the movie you rented for family night, the internet site you used to order dinner online, the billboard you passed on the way to get that dinner, and the newspaper you read while you were waiting to pick up your order. Without technology, media would not exist; but remember, technology is more than just the media we are exposed to.

    Never in the world's entire history has there been such a vast availability of media than in this current day and age. Books; newspapers (although these may completely disappear in their paper format); TV channels; cell phone texts, Internet-capable phones, video, photos, and Internet connections; e-books; radio and satellite radio; movies and DVDs/Blue Rays; magazines and e-zines; billboards; and who knows whatever technology might come out by breakfast time tomorrow. We are surrounded by and figuratively swim in mass media every day of our lives. A recent US Census Bureau report highlighted the availability of technology to US Families between 1984 and 2011 and there is a great deal of access to it for many. About 67.2 percent had access to the Internet via a Smartphone while over 7 out of 10 homes had a computer and Internet access in 2011, up from about 50 percent back in 2001 (retrieved 10 June 2014 from P20-569 May 2013 Computer and Internet Use in the US; Figure 1 Household Computer and Internet Use: 1984-2011.

    Mass Media are channels of communication in a mass society, especially electronic and print media. Mass media are not verbal and represent the use of technology in communication. Media can be found in artifacts from lost civilizations thousands of years into the past. Paintings on cave walls, pottery, or even field sculptures of stones all represent some of these ancient forms. Etchings on metal plates or writings on skin or paper scrolls were made at great expense in the past. They were rare then and only a few are still available today.

    In the early 1400s Johannes Gutenberg, who was a goldsmith, invented the world's first mechanical press. The Gutenberg Bible was the first ever mass produced book and its introduction into society marked the beginning of printed media. Gutenberg not only invented a printing press, he facilitated the ability of the masses to learn how to read. He also created a logical cultural process in Western Civilization, wherein most of us learned how to read, think, store, and process information. Top to bottom, left to right, punctuation, spelling, and grammar considerations all became part of the mainstream culture.

    Many cultures have different rules about how to read and write, yet all follow a logical and linear pattern of reading and writing. This pattern remained in place, un-challenged until the Internet came onto the scene. Over the last 30 years, technology that led up to the Internet as we know it today changed the rules of reading and gathering information through the media. The Internet currently connects over a billion online users together worldwide. Whereas the paper form of media is bound by its physical mass, the Internet form of media is limitless because it is based on light and electricity, both of which travel very fast and facilitate information sharing in nearly limitless volumes and rates of speed.

    The media has societal functions as one of the seven basic social institutions in our modern societies. First the media disseminates information. Not all of that information is created equally. Some media is the focus of tremendous protest and outcry while other forms of media are less conspicuous and controversial. The media also molds and shapes public opinion while reporting current events. Because media corporations have rather strict control over the stories they tell, we in the US often don't even find out about many salient international issues. These issues may be crucial to non-US citizens, but are not reported by US media outlets. Often the US is criticized for its narrow world view.

    Types of Media and Technology

    Media and technology have evolved hand in hand, from early print to modern publications, from radio to television to film. New media emerge constantly, such as we see in the online world.

    Early forms of print media, found in ancient Rome, were hand-copied onto boards and carried around to keep the citizenry informed. With the invention of the printing press, the way that people shared ideas changed, as information could be mass produced and stored. For the first time, there was a way to spread knowledge and information more efficiently; many credit this development as leading to the Renaissance and ultimately the Age of Enlightenment. This is not to say that newspapers of old were more trustworthy than the Weekly World News and National Enquirer are today. Sensationalism abounded, as did censorship that forbade any subjects that would incite the populace.

    The invention of the telegraph, in the mid-1800s, changed print media almost as much as the printing press. Suddenly information could be transmitted in minutes. As the 19th century became the 20th, American publishers such as Hearst redefined the world of print media and wielded an enormous amount of power to socially construct national and world events. Of course, even as the media empires of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer were growing, print media also allowed for the dissemination of countercultural or revolutionary materials. Internationally, Vladimir Lenin’s Irksa (The Spark) newspaper was published in 1900 and played a role in Russia’s growing communist movement (World Association of Newspapers 2004).

    With the invention and widespread use of television in the mid-20th century, newspaper circulation steadily dropped off, and in the 21st century, circulation has dropped further as more people turn to internet news sites and other forms of new media to stay informed. According to the Pew Research Center, 2009 saw an unprecedented drop in newspaper circulation––down 10.6 percent from the year before (Pew 2010).

    This shift away from newspapers as a source of information has profound effects on societies. When the news is given to a large diverse conglomerate of people, it must (to appeal to them and keep them subscribing) maintain some level of broad-based reporting and balance. As newspapers decline, news sources become more fractured, so that the audience can choose specifically what it wants to hear and what it wants to avoid.

    Television and Radio

    Radio programming obviously preceded television, but both shaped people’s lives in much the same way. In both cases, information (and entertainment) could be enjoyed at home, with a kind of immediacy and community that newspapers could not offer. For instance, many older Americans might remember when they heard on the radio that Pearl Harbor had been bombed, or when they saw on the television that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. Even though people were in their own homes, media allowed them to share these moments in real time. This same kind of separate-but-communal approach occurred with entertainment too. School-aged children and office workers gathered to discuss the previous night’s installment of a serial television or radio show.

    Right up through the 1970s, American television was dominated by three major networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) that competed for ratings and advertising dollars. They also exerted a lot of control over what was being watched. Public television, in contrast, offered an educational nonprofit alternative to the sensationalization of news spurred by the network competition for viewers and advertising dollars. Those sources—PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), the BBC (British Broadcasting Company), and CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company)—garnered a worldwide reputation for quality programming and a global perspective. Al Jazeera, the Arabic independent news station, has joined this group as a similar media force that broadcasts to people worldwide.

    The impact of television on American society is hard to overstate. By the late 1990s, 98 percent of U.S. homes had at least one television set, and the average American watched between two and a half to five hours of television daily. All this television has a powerful socializing effect, with these forms of visual media providing reference groups while reinforcing social norms, values, and beliefs.

    Television Viewing

    We in the US love media in all its forms. Nielsen Media Research regularly reports on how much TV people in the US typically watch. In the US during the year 2013, each day, the average person watched about 4.5 hours of TV, spent more than 2 hours online; listened to the radio for nearly 1.5 hours; and read paper-printed magazines and newspapers nearly 30 minutes per day (retrieved 10 June 2014 SOURCE. Digital Set to Surpass TV in Time Spent with US Media: Mobile helps propel digital time spent with US media, e-article).

    If they are pretty close on their estimate and each of us watches about 4 hours per day, then that's a great deal of TV in a lifetime. Multiply 4 hours by (7 days then 52 weeks), you'll find that we watch an estimated 1,456 hours of TV per year. If we maintained that every year from Kindergarten through 12th grade we'd end up having watched about 17-19,000 hours of TV by the time we graduated high school (give or take a few hours per week). Interestingly, K-12 typically equals about 16-17,000 hours of at school learning by the time of graduation. Not only do we watch TV shows but we also watch TV commercials-perhaps a quarter million by the time we graduate high school. Estimates vary but we also use the Internet, radio, cell phone, video games, and big screen movies as forms of daily media consumption.

    Television viewing is not completely without effect upon the viewer. George Gerbner (1919-2005) was a professor of Communications. He founded the Cultivation Theory which claims that the types of TV viewing we watch accumulate within us and impact our world view. In other words, if we only watched crime, detective, and forensic shows we would have the additive effect of these shows on our perception of how the world really is. The types of TV we watch passively, yet persistently shape our world view.

    The Mean World Syndrome is the tendency to view society as being meaner and more violent than it really is because of the violent and harsh TV shows one has watched over the years (see George Gerbner's (1994) "Reclaiming Our Cultural Mythology." In The Ecology of Justice (IC#38), Spring page 40, Context Institute retrieved 16 April 2009 from ).

    If someone preoccupied their daily TV viewing to soap operas then Gerbner would say that that person would have a world focus that overemphasized soap opera-melodramatic themes. The same could be said of anyone who watches mostly: police shows, pornography, sports, news, or reality TV.

    But, keep in mind that TV is not produced by people who simply want to entertain us. So, what is the main purpose of media in our day? Money. Entertainment, access to information, advertising, and/or attitude shifting is at the core of most media-based ventures. They charge money for the commercial time or product placement. What they really want is for you to watch their shows and see their advertisements and buy a product or service because you were watching. The online Television Advertising Bureau (TAB) reported that most people use broadcast television and that during a recession most people sacrifice pricey cable for the bare minimum broadcast television (see SOURCE . Most importantly as we focus on the for-profit advertising issue, in 1970 $3,596,000,000 was spent on US television advertising alone. In 2012 that was up to approximately $74 billion (retrieved 19 May 2014 from SOURCE

    Profit Motive of Mass Media

    In Western society, privately owned media was never intended to serve this new role as social institution. Rather instead serve to draw in audience by any means necessary and make a profit for the company or organization funding the media content. In state-owned media, found in countries such as Vietnam and China, the power of media as a social institution is fully realized by using it to tell audiences (and therefore its people) what to think and what to do. It allows governments to maintain political agendas and ensure public opinion is positive and passive, therefore ensuring social stability.

    Western media, being predominantly privately owned, seeks solely for profit, often by producing content of no benefit to society, but instead to attract audiences and generate revenue. With this model of media increasingly being used as societies moral guidance and support, we need to ensure that it is monitored and critically examined, so as to ensure the messages and knowledge gained from it is meaningful and of benefit to society.


    The film industry took off in the 1930's, when color and sound were first integrated into feature films. Like television, early films were unifying for society: As people gathered in theaters to watch new releases, they would laugh, cry, and be scared together. Movies also act as time capsules or cultural touchstones for society. From tough-talking Clint Eastwood to the biopic of Facebook founder and Harvard dropout Mark Zuckerberg, movies illustrate society’s dreams, fears, and experiences. While many Americans consider Hollywood the epicenter of moviemaking, India’s Bollywood actually produces more films per year, speaking to the cultural aspirations and norms of Indian society.

    New Media

    The Twitter logo is shown on a computer monitor screen.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Twitter has fascinated the world in 140 characters or less. What media innovation will next take the world by storm? (Photo courtesy of West McGowan/flickr)

    New media encompasses all interactive forms of information exchange. These include social networking sites, blogs, podcasts, wikis, and virtual worlds. Clearly, the list grows almost daily. New media tends to level the playing field in terms of who is constructing it, i.e., creating, publishing, distributing, and accessing information (Lievrouw and Livingston 2006), as well as offering alternative forums to groups unable to gain access to traditional political platforms, such as groups associated with the Arab Spring protests (van de Donk et al. 2004). However, there is no guarantee of the accuracy of the information offered. In fact, the immediacy of new media coupled with the lack of oversight means that we must be more careful than ever to ensure our news is coming from accurate sources.

    The Influence of Mass Media

    Media Effects

    This video, produced in collaboration with the World Bank Institute, uses animation as an innovative learning medium designed to present in an engaging format key communication concepts and principles.

    This page titled 15.2: Mass Media as a Social Institution is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by CK-12 Foundation via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.