War on Iraq - Sample Essay

Subsequent theorists have criticised the uses & gratifications model as being ‘a relatively static model’ (Philo, 1990: 6) or as having fundamental defects: that of its ‘overestimation of the openness of the message’ and its ‘insufficiently sociological nature’ (from Morley, 1992: 52-3). Besides Morley’s direct reference to our overall question, criticism of the uses & gratifications approach highlights the reluctance to assume the audience ‘knows’ when it is being affected by media, or that it can do anything about these effects.

Permitting me to proceed in an anecdotal vein (as a tribute to popular culture theorists such as Hoggart), the choices we make to socialise and ‘gratify’ ourselves are unquestionably affected by the sheer exposure to television. Very recent events in the ‘Second Gulf War’ have received unparalleled media coverage, provoking an overwhelming desensitization argument from the public. The fact that the media itself is the only information service noticing this disgruntled air is beside the point; public attitude to ‘using’ or ‘gratifying’ themselves through television is reflected in hard statistics.

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In a parallel of the ‘War on Iraq’ coverage, Nicholas Wapshott’s article in The Times noted how in the two months following September 11th 2001, people switched off the television so cinema audiences were the highest since the 1940s, and that video rentals rose 400%. ‘Escapism’ is a loosely-applied term in mass media theory, but observations such as Wapshott’s are difficult to ignore when evaluating to what extent the public do have personal choice and motivation. Halloran described this as: ‘We must get away from the habit of thinking in terms of what the media do to people, and substitute it for what people do with the media’ (Halloran, 1970; cited in Morley, 1992: 51)

Retuning to Srinati’s analysis of the distinction between the ‘effects’ and ‘uses & gratifications’ approaches, we can see how recent research contains undoubted elements of both models. For instance, he cites a five year British Film Institute research paper that ‘revealed that viewers still feel guilty about watching too much television’ (equating to the ‘effects’ approach); while also finding that ‘T.V. helped people to relax and interact’ (equating to the ‘uses & gratifications’ approach) (Srinati, 2000: 174).

Further to this realisation of a dampening of interest in approaches to understanding television through sociological means, there have been alternative explanations as to the effect of television, unsurprisingly chiefly following criticism of other paradigms. Philo (1990) says how the uses & gratifications perspective offers a relatively static model, then cites Tracey’s (1986; cited in Philo, 1990) and Cumberbach’s (1986; ibid.) theories that extend the mental model of television. Both theorists followed the general theme that ‘bias lies in the eye of the beholder’, which Philo further criticises: ‘We can accept that what people understand and believe is not simply a result of what they are told by the media. But there are problems… where do frameworks of belief come from? How do they develop over time?

In other words, by questioning the effects of television, and the way we treat the function of its influence, we open the sociological discipline up to huge philosophical debates about the individual and the existence of the Lockian tabula rasa. Hence, at this point it is courtesy to return out sociological essay back to specific examples of the study of television in society. One British proponent, Nicholas Abercrombie, focuses on the sheer importance of television: ‘Our everyday lives are so interwoven with the media that we are scarcely aware of them… Indeed, television is central to modern society altogether’ (Abercrombie, 1996: 2)

This is not to say that just because so many theorists attach great significance to television, there should be a specific domain aside for it, but in traditional sociological method, contentment has been the enemy of invention. In employing such rhetoric, we can see how Durkheimian sociological method has advanced dramatically. It would be foolish to disregard something that Allen (1992; cited in Abercrombie, 1996), says that 3.5 billion hours are devoted to every day.

Nevertheless, sociological method is not the only way analysts have studied television. A figurative signpost to this can be seen in Goodwin (1990; cited in Abercrombie, 1996), who notes that many authorities, even those within television organizations; appear to believe that visual material is inherently inferior to print. A look back at Fiske’s work hints at the literary textual approach employed. For instance, authors such as McQuail have looked at how audience research has swayed uneasily between television as mass consumption or mass communication. McQuail et al (1972) classified under four headings the relationship of media content to audience use: 1) Diversion 2) Personal relationships 3) Personal identity 4) Surveillance (McQuail, 1972: 47)

According to Fiske, this was a reaction to an overemphasis on that loose term of ‘escapism’ as the primary function of television, when the over-riding importance of communication was being largely ignored. In this vein, he shifts toward linguistics and the semiotic approach, so ‘the image on the screen would hardly be able to make itself understood at all were it unable to rely upon the resources of everyday verbal language’ (Fiske, 1978: 83). It seems clear that studying television as an extension of literary linguistics maps well onto early cultural works like Hoggart’s ‘The uses of literacy’, (1957) and Hall & Whannel’s ‘The popular arts’ (1964), yet contemporary theory is not content with a skimmed analysis of this.

The intervention of politics into television, as well as into media forms, gives us a substantive case for a sociology of television. The linguist Jakobsen (1958; cited in Fiske, 1978: 83), makes reference to the ‘poetic function’ of communication through slogans on television, such as in Eisenhower’s 1953 presidential campaign [‘I like Ike’]. British contemporary politics it seems is no different, Abercrombie (1996) comments how in the 1994 Labour Party debate over its next leader, Robin Cook was ruled out ‘because he would not look good on television’ (Abercrombie, 1996: 3). A further case for the importance of television as a party politics weapon can be seen in the discussions of children’s television.

Buckingham, Davies, Jones & Kelley discuss how children are caught between two worlds of leisure and school (1999: 176). Television, no matter how it is sold or consumed, ultimately has the goal to keep its audience, chiefly through entertainment. The educational value of the programme, which may or may not be as high in the producers’ minds, must come at an unequal price. Television is increasingly linked to film and computer games where children are concerned, so the mass consumption paradigm swings back to be dominant, as children can be seen to have ‘less choice’ over influence (ibid.).

Indeed, the overriding criticism from a view of children’s television as being somehow more important to monitor (e.g. the 1995 Melbourne World Summit on Children’s Television’s drawing up of a Children’s Television Charter) is from the of such an assumption. The fact that it would be scarcely possible to conduct research comparing television’s influence between viewers and non-viewers must not mean that moral obligation should make way for an indifferent shrug. Issues of control, censorship and regulation should not be arbitrarily trawled through at this point, but it is vital to remember the sentiments of writers like Postman.

He argues that television has trivialized the public’s interest in all things public: politics, education and the consumption of morals (Postman, 1986). Before this essay doubles-back on its arguments from the previously-discussed ‘effects’ paradigm, we should consider the relative futility of a 1986 book compared with Packard’s 1957 ‘antihumanistic’ message about television. Not that an admitted futility in some way validates arguments that television has irreversibly harmed the civilized human world. More that we cannot truly know the effects that any media form has on out world without comparison with a [non-existent], untouched populous.

Turning back to the established literature on stages of interpretation of television’s function, we should consider the potential of television to typify the social spirit of postmodernism. Srinati gives us these thoughts: ‘A postmodern society is one in which it becomes increasingly difficult to distingish between the sense of reality which exists inside and the sense of reality produced by the mass media’ (Srinati, 2000: 231)

The old adage of ‘life imitating art’ takes on a new meaning here, and presumptions as to whether television is ‘art’ or ‘life’ in this case needs contemplation. A good example of postmodern study is that of gender representation. For instance, Meehan (1983; cited in Barker, 1999) identified ten stereotypes of women in U.S. television (from the ‘imp’ to the ‘courtesan’ and ‘bitch’). Anecdotal evidence from the many extensive studies of soap operas undertaken by sociologists of mass media undoubtedly shows that we frequently equate such ‘real characters’ inexplicably with the actor that plays them, or with character ‘types’ from out own lives. This is not to say that soaps epitomise postmodernism, but that in its fragmented yet established self-parodying basis, contemporary television cannot help but conform to stereotype-based reality-blurring prescriptions.

This essay has hopefully illustrated the wealth of literature that is already established in the field of cultural and mass media studies on television. Our answer as to whether or not a true ‘sociology’ exists was never really an issue, as conscious efforts to decide if sociological discipline should be employed only incite dithering around the subject. The deeper question implied her is ‘if so… how can it be studied?’ While a simple answer is not given here, a glance over the ideas of the old ‘effects’ and ‘uses & gratifications’ approaches leads us to the conclusion that a unified paradigm of study is applicable in this case. A look at the psychological research into ‘flashbulb memories’ will provide a fitting d�nouement to this discussion.

Atkinson et al (1993) describe how the image domination so topical for this of War coverage on television leads us not to ask ‘where were you when… [JFK was shot, the statue of Saddam in Baghdad was torn down]’, but more accurately ‘which television screen were you watching when… happened?’ Denying that a sociology of television exists would be a folly, considering the evidence of such a social importance of the media form.



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