Media Essay

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Discussions of media in a social context are generally concerned with mass media and, more recently, new media. Mass media are defined as communication systems by which centralized providers use industrialized technologies to reach large and geographically scattered audiences, distributing content broadly classified as information and entertainment. Media reaching mass populations emerged in the late nineteenth century -newspapers, magazines, the film industry – and expanded to include radio from the 1920s and television broadcasting from the 1950s. A range of new media” developed from the 1980s, including video, cable and pay TV, CD-ROMs, mobile/ cellular phones, and the Internet. In twenty-first century societies media are pervasive and integral to modern life. Even in less developed societies they are widespread, although disparities in access remain. Economic profitability is also seen as a defining feature of modern media, reflecting the importance of commercial considerations to media institutions.

The newspaper press was the first mass medium.” In the late nineteenth century social and economic change (industrialization, growing urban populations, expanding education and rising literacy, changing patterns of work and leisure), technological developments (telegraph, telephone, printing technologies, the spread of railways), and policy changes such as the abolition of stamp duties that had restricted newspaper circulation, opened the way to development of newspapers attracting a mass readership. Changes in economic organization were crucial: the rise of advertising made it possible to sustain a cheap popular press; and the development of newspaper (and magazine) chains achieved economies of scale.

Film also emerged as a medium of mass entertainment in the late nineteenth century, drawing on inventions and technological developments in the USA, the UK, France, and Germany (the application of electricity, developments in photography and celluloid film, invention of the motion picture camera, new projection techniques). Initially an urban, working-class entertainment, in the early twentieth century film became respectable,” appealing to middle-class audiences as film’s potential to tell stories was exploited, permanent movie theaters were built, and more efficient distribution methods introduced.

Radio developed as a mass medium in the 1920s. The US Navy was an early user of wireless telegraphy; technological developments contributed to the development of radio broadcasting, as did the pioneering work of individuals (Gugliemo Marconi from Italy, Lee De Forest in the USA) and enthusiastic experimentation by amateurs with crystal sets. Building on technical developments during World War I, radio rapidly gained popularity in the 1920s, bringing information and entertainment into the home at a time when there was increasing emphasis on the private sphere in industrialized societies, and when other changes such as the spread of electricity made it possible to use radio sets.

Limited television broadcasting began in the 1930s in Germany, the UK, and the USA, but the outbreak of war in 1939 delayed its development, and it was not until the 1950s that television developed as a mass medium. It too drew on various developments (in electricity, telegraphy, photography, motion pictures, radio) and the work of inventors (including John Logie Baird in the UK and the Russian-born Vladimir Zworykin in the USA on scanning devices). Television remains a powerful mass medium, although affected by changing contexts and patterns of ownership – the strength of free market ideologies, deregulation, and the quest for profits by the conglomerates that absorbed the networks. The influence of commercial interests has encouraged a blurring of the distinction between advertising and programs (product placement in entertainment programs is an example) and a proliferation of popular talk and reality” shows with low production costs.

A range of new media developed from the 1980s. Again, technological innovation was essential, with the expansion of digital technologies allowing the convergence of previously separate media and more sophisticated links between traditional media and new information and communication technologies (ICTs). The expanding range of new media includes video recorders, home videotape players, pay TV delivered by cable and satellite, direct broadcasting by satellite, multimedia computers, CD-ROMs, digital video discs (DVDs), the Internet and World Wide Web, mobile/cellular phones, and various handheld devices (the latest generation” of these technologies offers not only telephone and messaging services but also commercial and personal video, photographs, and graphical information services). These have revolutionized communication, introduced opportunities for convergence of media content, and expanded audience choice and opportunities for interactivity.

There has been debate about the relationship between media and society, especially since mass media developed in the late nineteenth century. Various theoretical approaches have been employed, drawing on different disciplines and areas of study. Fundamental to media research has been an understanding of human communication, with basic questions about who says what, using which “channel,” to whom, with what effect, underpinning different perspectives.

“Mass society” approaches have been influential in media studies. Early critics (T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis) deplored the effects of mass media, seeing packaged” popular culture as inferior; their views reflected critical anxiety” about the media, apprehension about mass society that grew as media industries developed. The Marxist Frankfurt School (Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse) saw the mass media as industries used to control the masses. The media contributed to the survival of capitalism by encouraging the working class to be passive recipients of the dominant ideology, allowing social control and maintenance of capitalist values. Other advocates of an ideological control” approach (for example, Louis Althusser) saw media or their messages as supporting those in power (conveying a false view of reality, encouraging passivity and acceptance of the status quo). Theorists have pointed to the use of media in totalitarian societies to gain support for the ideology of those in power, and  in  democratic  states  to   foster powerful consumer cultures. Mass society approaches became less influential in the late twentieth century as the concept of mass society lost ground and media institutions and patterns of ownership changed. Nonetheless, notions of media and the reproduction of ideology, linked to analysis of audience interpretations and reception of media messages, remained influential in late twentieth-century cultural studies. ”Effects research” (reflecting sociological and psychological interests) shifted attention from the impact of media on mass society to audiences and their uses” of, and responses to, mass media.

Contemporary media studies has vast scope, and many examples illustrate interest in the ways media influence or reflect social or individual experiences. Examples include the relationship between media and politics; the relationship between media and military during war and (a related issue) the use of media as propaganda tools; and the impact of media on sport.


  1. Briggs, A. & Burke, P. (2002) A Social History of the Media: From Gutenberg to the Internet. Polity Press, Cambridge.
  2. Craig, G. (2004) The Media, Politics and Public Life. Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest.
  3. Curran, J. & Gurevitch, M. (eds.) (2005) Mass Media and Society, 4th edn. Arnold, London.
  4. Gorman, L. and McLean, D. (2009) Media and Society into the 21st Century: A Historical Introduction, 2nd edn. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford.

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