The Media as a Social Problem
The mass media plays a large role in modern society. Indeed, many have argued that people spend more time in “mass-mediated” interaction than in actual human interaction. The mass media, then, would seemingly be an excellent position to initiate social change, positively affect social problems, and help combat social ills that are considered normal patterns of behavior. Yet, the mass media has largely failed in addressing and helping to solve social problems. As seen through its presentation of the three major variables of race, class, and gender, the mass media has actually served to contribute to the social problems it covers, reinforcing them, and creating an inter-related cycle in which these problems continue.
TV has become perhaps the primary vehicle that society receives its information and presents its values and expectations. One of the most important roles television plays is its presentation of news and information. What a station chooses to present as newsworthy can play a strong role in how people view their society and the world around them. Often, television news sources have followed a philosophy of “if it bleeds, it leads”, focusing on violence in urban environments. This violence occurs more frequently in black neighborhoods, resulting in what amounts to essentially as a steady, nightly stream of reports on violence in the inner-city by and among African-Americans. In this way, the television media plays a strong role in formulating racial problems as seen by the interactionist approach. With the constant display of these images two problems quickly emerge. First, the minority groups become subject to stereotypes as the images presented become fixed mental images and are exaggerated and applied to the group as a whole. Whites, according to this model, “learn” that minority groups are “less intelligent, more violent, or generally less human”. Additionally, the minority groups themselves can develop reactions that are turned inward and create a sense of hopelessness, despair, and self-doubt that can lead into even more sociological problems in the form of alcoholism, drug abuse, aggression, and crime. Thus, the images presented by television news help contribute to this vicious, self-reinforcing, cycle as the news they present help to continue and promote the problems and the stereotypes.
Closely linked to race becomes issues of class. As those in minority areas are portrayed and viewed negatively a flight of capital and economic activity develops in conjunction with the stereotypes. Those with capital, typically white, avoid neighborhoods seen as violent or dangerous, and money is not spent or invested in these communities. Once this happens, “the catastrophe of the inner-city increasingly becomes one of economic isolation more than simply of race”. Jobs quickly disappear, and welfare reforms are doomed to failure without hope of potential employment. Once the welfare system fails the “United States will further divide into two societies: one multiracial and reasonably prosperous; the other, disadvantaged and often dark skinned, living in semi-permanent poverty”. As the inner-city minority neighborhoods become increasingly poor vis-a-vis society as a whole, it becomes increasingly likely that the members of the television news media will not come from this area of society and continue to promote the fixed images they have developed of these neighborhoods, perhaps ignoring other methods to present the problems of the inner-city. Thus, the two concepts of race and class are closely related and act to reinforce one another.
While failing to contribute to a solution to the problems of race and class, the television news media has been much more successful in promoting gender equality. News features often show and expose problems important to women such as domestic violence, gender discrimination, and sexual harassment. Additionally, within the television media itself, women often fill prominent positions in broadcasting and reporting. This helps to promote the interactionist hope that gender symbols can be positively changed. The television news media, like the print media, have even made an effort to change language that can validate subordinate of marginal status based on gender.
Print media is another important vehicle in which social problems are developed. As in television media there can be a large discrepancy in the types of coverage paid to issues of race, class, and gender. Newspapers, when formulating their reports and coverage, have focused heavily on the problems of gangs in inner-city minority neighborhoods. Reporters have been found to have devoted tremendous time both gang activity as well as community response to such activity. As a result, the print media has created an environment of great concern about gangs and gang crime in the inner-city. The gang problem becomes a constructed image with great power in public discourse. The fight against gangs can be used to initiate social control- even in areas where gangs are not a significant issue:
Ironically, conformist juveniles are those most often affected by such control strategies, which take the form of curfews, dress codes, and rules of participation. Thus, the symbolic power of the gang metaphor lies in its successful application in settings where the gangs are relatively unimportant or inconsequential. Whether it is used to justify or forbid a particular style of dress, defend skateboarding, or enhance a politician’s prospects on election day, the gang metaphor is a powerful tool for conjuring up an image that can be exploited by a host of social actors in the quest for power and the negotiation of social influence.
Thus, print media can actually construct a social problem and portray it is more prevalent then reality would actually suggest.
Print media also has great influence in class and gender. By selecting ways in which to present a story on a labor strike the print media can help influence the success of one class over another, and how these classes are perceived. Additionally, as described previously in relation to television news media, and linked to the issue of race is that media can further the economic difficulty of urban areas based on their coverage. Finally, print media can also reinforce and influence gender patterns and constructions through their coverage.
Film is yet another powerful form of media, acting to convey messages and platforms of those who may not typically be able to find a voice in the political system. Through film, these minority voices are often heard first and from there able to assert themselves on the wider social agenda. Films often have a smaller intellectual circle from which they are developed, enabling a single director, such as Spike Lee, to effectively present the agendas of many. Studios also often have economic incentive to develop films that provoke thought or are provocative. Film can thus play a pivotal role in presenting new perspectives on issues of race, class, and gender. Films such as “Boyz in the Hood” and “American History X”, have acted to counter stereotypes and fixed images of minorities. Additionally, films can act in a similar manner in order to promote class or gender issues. A film detailing the struggles of a homeless man, an influential woman, or even homosexual lifestyles can help dispel these constructions too.
Of course, due to the variety of films produced it is possible that individual films may also have the reverse effect too. Film can cement stereotypes or caricature minorities in ways detrimental to social progress. Likewise, many movies use sex and violence in ways that play to the most base elements of entertainment that further contribute the problems with gender and class. For instance, research has shown that, “males are considerably more likely to be depicted and that women, when depicted, are more likely to be shown in gender stereotypical and subordinated roles. Yet, while individual films may and do act in this manner, it is important to bear in mind that, when taken as a whole, film offers one of the few openings in which a minority voice can first be hears. A single film may do much to challenge the social problems that ten others reinforce. In this way, film, as opposed to the other forms of print and television media previously discussed, can and has acted as a more positive force in race, class, and gender as social problems.
The mass media is important in examining social problems, both how they are born and how they persist. The media, through the selection of its coverage and the issues it chooses to present, is extremely powerful in forming models as explained by the interactionist approach. It is important to remember that these models of race, class, and gender are not mutually exclusive. Each, especially race and class, are closely related as stereotypes perpetuated by the mass media about a single of these “variables” often leads directly to social problems in the other variables as well. The three are also closely linked in helping to explain why media operates in the ways that it does. Helpful in understanding this concept are the other major theories of conflict and functionalism. Media may present information in the manner it does in order to perpetuate the social institutions and behaviors that have been functional for its existence up the present time. Additionally, media can also be seen as operating in the manner it does because the system helps to keep rich, white, males- the primary owners and distributors of mass media- in a position of power. What both of these approaches suggest is that the mass media must be made more open to different perspectives and viewpoints in order to eliminate the social problems it contributes to. Modern society must strive to make all of its media outlets more similar to the genre of film, where powerful voices can emerge that challenge different viewpoints on society. When this is able to occur, the society around us will move closer to curing ills among the social variables that the current mass media in large part contributes to.
Mass media, primarily print and television news has acted to perpetuate the social problems it covers. The mass media must be considered to be a large part of the problem in areas of race, class, and gender. In order to combat this situation the mass media must follow some of its own leads in making itself more open to different perspectives as it has done in film, and also challenging traditional models of race and class as it has with gender.