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British Politics and the Media  – Constructivism, Media and Society

Constructivist ideas of the media, following these concepts, have pointed to three ways in which the media relates to society:-

People creating media messages are familiar with the types of meanings in use in society and make use of these in their content.

Judith Williamson in Decoding Advertisements (1978) argues that adverts show us that we can improve ourselves by buying the product on offer by using meanings that convey this. Political advertising looks to persuade us that the world as it affects us can be improved.

Aggressive political interviewers have come to use the meaning of the shifty and evasive individual that we know in everyday life and may seek to attach it to the politician that they are interviewing if their questions are not directly answered.

Whereas direct effect theories see the message going from the sender to the receiver unchanged, constructivism argues that people receiving messages may interpret them in different ways.

Stuart Hall used the idea of encoding and decoding to analyse this process (Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse, 1973). Media people encode the message they send with a particular meaning and the receiver then has to decode the same message and this depends on their social background.

Hall proposed three types of decoding:-

  • People accept the dominant code that the media sends them and interpret it in the way that was intended
  • People accept some parts of the message only and so negotiate the code
  • People reject the message entirely and so are oppositional in relation to the code.

Later writers, particularly those carrying out what has been called the ‘new audience research’ have found the decoding process more varied. David Morley, in The ‘Nationwide’ Audience; structure and decoding, 1980, had different social groups watching the Nationwide new programme and, although he found Hall’s categories held up reasonably well, the reaction was even more varied depending on the range of meanings that the different groups held according to their social background.

Other work has found that men and women decode media output differently and also raises the question whether, particularly for longer pieces such as a whole TV programme or newspaper article, there are not a number and even conflicting messages encoded in any one piece so that decoding is even more complicated.

The media develops its own interpretations by reconstructing existing culture in its own image.

Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death, 1985, argues that television turns the areas that it covers into a form of show business and, indeed, the medium more or less requires this.

Thus learning programmes for children have to be fun, news has to be fast moving and not dwell on detail or too much analysis, and the style of politicians becomes more important than the substance.

Bob Franklin’s book, Packaging Politics, 1994, shows how politics adjusts to this by concentrating on presentation and appearance rather than policy. Although some writers have argued that this makes politics more accessible to people who would not otherwise take an interest in politics, the majority view is that people become anaesthetized by this sort of coverage and take a less critical view towards politics issues. Political parties, as opposed to the leaders, and the civil society of interest groups become marginalised in the process.

More generally the media develops particular styles, often called genres, each with their own codes and stereotypes which the producers use and which the viewers recognise.

Some of these have been transferred from books such as the detective thriller, the cowboy western or the romance. In the western, for example, stereotypes such as the hero, the hero’s trusty sidekick, the baddy, the saloon girl who allies with the baddy but comes good in the end are recognised by the audience.

TV has added its own genres such as the quiz show or the soap opera or the 24 hour news programme or the political interview.

The soap opera is constructed as a series of events, affecting the personalities, and characters hear things about other characters that gradually reveal their personality or what is going to happen to them, so the audience is carried along with what will happen next.

The soap opera wedding, as the audience know, is not real as some disaster or change of mind by the bride or groom normally happens and this adds to the interest.

Soap operas are not necessarily politically neutral, however. Political discussion is completely eliminated, everyone seems to work for a small business and authority figures such as teachers or vicars are often unreal figure who get into trouble.

The media thus creates a new world that has been called, using the term of the postmodernist theorist Baudrillard, ‘hyperreality’, in which there is no clear distinction between reality and the world created by the media. 24 hours news is a media genre.

Murder hunts or disasters become stories that have to gradually unfold, the weather forecast is constantly updated, news has to be breaking on a regular basis and flashes up, and the political correspondent outside No 10 or in the central lobby of the House of Commons gives the impression that events are unfolding around them (one of the comedians in Grumpy Old Men commented , ‘We are all outside Number 10, I want to hear from someone inside Number 10). (John Fiske’s book Television Culture, 1987, is a fascinating analysis of TV genres and how they work)

The media creates representations which become part of everyday life.
As media presentation become hyperreality we absorb them into our everyday life so they become part of what theorists call ‘culture’.

TV presenters have to develop what Goffman (The Presentation of Self in Every Day Life, 1959) called front personalities which they present to the camera, different from their real personality.

Politicians have to do much the same sort of thing on television. This attractive personality makes them someone who is well known to the audience as almost someone in their everyday circle of friends and they will talk about them to their actual friends.

The distance of TV personalities also creates a sort of aura about them because they are not actually present.

John Brookshire Thompson develops the idea of mediated quasi-interaction as a new form of social intercourse (The Rise of Mediated Interaction, 1995) quite different from normal social interaction.

The events of Coronation Street become a major topic of conversation and people can even go to visit the set of the soap opera so that it becomes even more real. Events such as the X Factor Final or the Leaders TV debate become a national happening.