There are various reasons why it is important to study the media. This maybe for those who will pursue a career in the media, for some it may be acting, production, behind the camera, web page designing to litterally countless other career options. Other people may be interested in studying the media because they want to be informed users. It would be considered virtually impossible to go through a day, in the developed world, and not be in contact with the media. People are constantly surrounded by television, radio, messages on paper and online. Through the study of media it is hoped the user will become more informed and able to make decisions on how much they will allow the media to influence them.
The relationship between the media and the world is a complicated one. Media texts do not simply reflect reality. Because of this we need to be able to interpret media texts to determine what information we allow to shape our sense of the world and place in it. The media can change our way of looking at the world by presenting us with information we would not normally have access too. Media is considered powerful because of the strong influence it can exert on society, study of the media gives an introspective on the nature of the influence. Media literacy is about giving a deeper perspective on the manufactured media.
Thompson (1995) argues that our sense of identity in part comes through interaction with media text. An individual meets with ideas he/she would not normally experience. Our consumption of media text takes place in a pre-existing framework of social and cultural relations. Our understanding of media text is therefor already mediated by those other social relationships.
Media studies are a relatively new discipline, and as such have had to respond quickly to the development of the mass media. Media its self is also constantly changing and changing at a fast pace. There have been large changes just in the last few years with the accessibility of the Internet.
Media messages can be presented from many different angles and have many layers of meanings. Political power or the ownership of a large media company may determine the perspective of its messages. Although the majority of a company may be owned by many shareholders generally the control of the company is in the hands of the Chef Executive Officer. It may be a concern that too much power is placed in too fewer hands. Rodman (2001) notes after years of expressing concern about newspaper monopolies, the U.S. Congress passed the Newspaper Prevention Act in 1970. This law allowed local papers to set up joint operating agreements, in which two competing papers could share printing facilities and business staff, without violating federal antitrust laws. The idea was to encourage both papers to stay alive by allowing them to enjoy some of the same economies of scale that a single chain owner would have.
Economical power can have an influence on the perspective with which media present their messages. Almost all mass media are moneymaking businesses, and as such they try to make as large a profit as possible. Individuals in the media are undoubtedly influenced by commercial pressure. Only after sorting through the economic complexity in the media can we determine the media’s perspective.
There are a number of techniques to textual analysis. When studying media it is important to look at the significance of different approaches. Keeping in mind that as McKee (2001) states “when we perform textual analysis on a text, we make an educated guess at some of the most likely interpretations that might be made of that text”.
There is no specific, true or correct interpretation of text; it is however, critical to study media and its effects on society. That is why it is important to consider different approaches to studying media.
Two traditions have shaped media studies. Theoretical traditions in media and communication contrasted research methods of ‘European’ or ‘American’. Both traditions have developed specific analytic principals. The European method developed out of literary and linguistic foundations, while the American developed from social science disciplines. The principals do not belong to one geographic region; they are merely grouped under these banners. With a mingling of theories, a hybrid method allows different aspects to of both approaches when studying media.
Both try to determine what is the role of mass media and why it is so important in our society. They have different understandings of the way society works and different understandings of what communication is. Therefore approaching the study of media in different ways and come up with very different results.
The European tradition is macro in scope, with the perspective of studying media as a whole, looking not just at the message but the production and ownership of media. Strongly influenced by the Marxist view of society the European tradition sees economy as fundamental to the structure of society. With the understanding that society is structured by the need to produce to function, then those who have means of production have the power. In Marxism the media are owned by the upper class and work to the benefit and profit of the owner, and the media are seen to reflect the inequality in society. Media is considered a major form through which ideology is circulated. “This is the ideological critique of the media – the idea that the media, taken together, form a institution within capitalism which serves to reconcile the exploited class to its fate.” Sinclar (2002).
European theory provides a way of thinking about media and power, media and ownership, and the structural organisation of media. There is a focus on how media is produced and distributed, which assists in explaining and analysing raw material.
The European tradition does not focus strongly on message content and its effect. It is not concerned with the consumption of media text by the audience, or analysing statistics on media content.
The American empirical tradition has a micro perspective, focusing on content analysis. With the theory based on a scientific model the principals of the theory were legitimated. “based on the then emergent ‘behavioural’ sciences such as psychology. Like positivism, such sciences were based on forming knowledge through direct observation, including laboratory experiments” Sinclar (2002).
Functionalism (Consensus theory) underpins the American tradition, with the view that society operates in uniform understandings and similar moral codes. The world is seen as highly structured which allows society to function with the belief that laws are just because of consensus. The role of mass media is seen as an institution for reproducing societies norms, values and attitudes. Assumptions are made that the audience is largely passive and does not have to work hard to understand media messages.
American tradition attempts to predict audience reaction, with the theory that messages illicite a particular kind of reaction. Demonstrating a direct relation between media and audience; the principal of stimulus and response.
As a stand-alone tradition there are a number of limitations to consider. It does not explain how or why society continually changes. The aspect of power is not deeply explored in relation to why one group can have control over another in society. It sees conflict only as deviate because society is based on consensus.
Being able to criticise and analyse media messages allows us to understand how the media affects our lives. Briefly, the origins of two main techniques European and American have been examined. These may not be the only theories of study, however, they form a sound approach by varying the way of analysing information thus greater depth may be gained on the subject. Regardless of the reasons for studying the media, by not simply taking all media messages at face value, a greater breadth of knowledge can be gained. This can lead to more empowered decisions being made as to what effect we will allow the media to have on our lives.