"Media" is the plural of "medium."
"Media" is shorthand for "mass media of communication"
in advanced technological society. "Medium" refers
to a single method of encoding and delivering messages to a broad
public; thus, radio is a medium, television is a medium, newspapers
constitute one medium; lumping together radio and television
in all their forms give us the electronic media; agglomerating
newspapers and magazines gives us the print media. Both print
and electronic media in all their forms make up "the media"
tout court. Note that this physical conception of the media is
essentially technological, that is, each of the media is not
defined merely as the end product in the hands of the consumer/reader/viewer.
Each medium is defined as an integrated system of invention,
composition, presentation, and delivery. As a mass medium, newspapers
must be seen as a factory system of daily predictable output
that involves brains, hands, paper, ink, steel and wheels. Borrowing
from computer terminology, the media are hardware systems for
handling the software of information, enlightenment, entertainment.
Generally, one speaks of the media in an all-inclusive sense
that embraces both the physical system and its delivered messages,
often called programming (from electronic media) or content (from
"The medium is the message," a phrase
of Marshall McLuhan's that the media have made universally known,
should be understood therefore in two senses: first, the final
display method or format of mass mediated programming has a determining
or at least limiting effect on whatever is said or shown on
the medium; second, the integrated technological organization
of a given medium invites or discourages certain types of messages,
programming, or content processed through the system because
of the system's own internal needs. Thus, on a system where time
is money, the sound-bite, slogan, or jingle is the preferred
unit of political meaning; on a system where central control
is paramount, interminable speeches from the maximum leader are
preferred. But given the choice, viewers will prefer the diverting
jingle over the long speech because of the display capabilities
of the medium. There is no market for bootlegged television speeches
of Castro in New York, but MTV is worldwide and contraband videos
of cause-related rock concerts are globally popular. Singapore,
a centrally controlled authoritarian city-state where time is
money, uses its media to enforce policy through slickly produced
television minutes, filled with music, handsome young people,
and the vacuous hope that marks product advertising in the West.
Rapid advances in communication technology
have blurred the distinctions among media systems. More and more
print media are processed electronically and the same kind of
computer systems process words, music, images, and format displays.
This is reflected in ownership patterns, where the same company,
like Sony, manufactures recording and display hardware and contracts
musicians to own the final "product:" recorded songs
or music videos. Newspaper empires often include television stations
and satellite systems that can distribute not only television
and radio but digitally encoded newspapers, including layout
and typeface, to receiving printing plants around the world.
Cable system operators buy film studios so they can have a stock
of software for their hardware.
The mass media of communication have enormous
costs of maintenance which require either state support or commercial
revenue or some combination of the two. Whatever the source of
support, its size can only be justified by an equally enormous
efficiency, return on investment or palpable political effects
on the populace. The mass media thus tend to be servants of the
established order and legitimizers of the status quo whether
they glamorize British royalty, urge higher Russian production
quotas, encourage smaller Chinese families, or happiness-through-purchase
These enormous trends toward centralization
and homogeneity still do permit room for the occasional "auteur"
film of individual artistry, the profoundly critical television
documentary, the journalistic exposé of corruption in
high places, and other examples of independent thinking or original
art. But the audience for such works is limited. The book, for
so long the intellectual medium for innovation, discovery, and
critical awareness, has become part of the book business, which
has fallen, necessarily, to the "blockbuster syndrome."
Great books and good books are still published and some even
turn a profit, but the book business is increasingly prey to
the bottom line which is enhanced by the reflections of, and
narrations about, celebrities from other media.
There is a significant but relatively minute
counter-trend to such mainstream monoliths. New technologies
centered around the increasingly more powerful personal computer
are enabling smaller entrepreneurs and public interest groups
to publish newsletters and produce radio and video cassettes
of an "alternative" provenance that criticizes the
mainstream. Green, feminist, gay, and some minority religious
movements have made effective use of "alternative media"
in the West, as have outlawed political oppositionist movements
from South Africa to Sri Lanka. By being user-friendly, communication
production relying on such "desktop" techniques demystifies
the process and encourages non-professional use. But the media
system is one of distribution as well as production and the former
seems firmly in the control of large entities: corporations,
major religions, and nation-states.
Converging ownerships, interlocking technologies,
and a common mass consumption all conspire to join the various
media into one great media system. This is observed in the increasing
legitimacy of "media" as a singular noun, which conjures
up the image of a television supermarket, with hundreds, thousands,
millions of screens all showing the same picture at once, with
legions of speakers playing the same rock music, all promoting
a film showing in hundreds of thousands of small identical theaters
worldwide on the same day. The media is the medium.
An enormous amount of research has been aimed
at the media by both its exploiters and its critics. Advertisers,
media owners, and their managers are greatly concerned about
the numbers of people they reach, about what kinds of messages
move people to act the way they want, and about the inclination
of those they reach to return to the same media source. Because
of the presumed motives of those who commission it, this type
of research is often termed "administrative," and it
is conceptually based on the transmission model of communication.
A message is aimed at a specific target through a given medium
with some kind of effect. A variant of this is the (Harold) Lasswell
formula: Who says what to whom with what effect? - a formula
at least as old as Quintilian.
This conceptualization is result-oriented
and sees communication as producing effects, much as fertilizer
grows grass or cue balls knock eight balls. Thus the "effectiveness"
of media campaigns to get people to buy soap or adopt birth control
or vote Conservative is what is sought to be measured and the
measure is tangible and finite: so many votes, so many (less)
children, so many boxes of detergent. The psychological theory
underpinning this kind of research is most often functionalism,
which sees all voluntary human activity as motivated by the desire
to find out what is going on, by the need to get along with others,
and by the urge to work out internal conflicts through some external
symbol system. The last "function" is explicitly Freudian
in premise and much programming, self-consciously or instinctively,
exploits feelings connected with sex, self-esteem, or insecurity
to motivate consumers.
Although administrative research still constitutes
the vast bulk of media research because of the resources of business,
government, and other large organizations who command media,
there is a growing body of research springing from an entirely
different set of concerns. These are the fears and grievances
of those out of the power loop of media control and the desires
of social critics and intellectuals to understand the meaning
and significance of media among individuals, societies, and cultures.
Although in fact there is no reason why the transmission model
could not be used for much of this research - as it is, for instance,
in studying the effects of pornography on youth - the preponderant
model leans away from the concern for concrete mechanical effects
characteristic of the transmission model and leans toward what
is loosely termed the ritualistic model. This model is more akin
to anthropology and other cultural studies (as the other is closer
to engineering and sociology). Here the interest is in discovering
what kind of mentality is encouraged by the daily ritual of being
exposed to mass media, with the emphasis on television, the most
powerful and pervasive of the mass media in the industrialized
world (and second only to radio, which it is overtaking, in the
developing world). "Mentality" embraces a broad sweep
of cognate concepts: "consciousness," "values,"
"social character," "psychological type,"
"psychographics," "political awareness,"
"leisure competence," and so forth. These in turn entail
a variety of methods, including that of the literary or theatrical
Because much of the pioneering work in this
type of research was done by members of the Frankfurt School
of Social Research (notably H. Marcuse, M. Hochheimer, T. Adorno,
W. Benjamin), known for so-called Critical Theory, the great
variety of this research is distinguished from the administrative
by calling it critical research, following the distinction made
in 1941 by Paul Lazarsfeld, a pioneer of modern administrative
News is a common feature of most media systems
around the world and its transformations illustrate the nature
of modern media systems as well as the guiding models for understanding
As the name implies, news is information about
some recent event, deviating from expected routine. In the ancient
world, official messengers brought news of military victory or
defeat, natural disasters, notice of future unscheduled events.
But for the most part, routine ruled human affairs and "news"
as we think we know it began with business, when trading associations
in Northern Europe shared information about commodity prices
and other conditions that would affect profit, developing newsletters
with the new print technology.
Mass media news is descended from this basic
human practice of sharing and spreading information, but modern
high technology and the political economy it serves have altered
First, news promulgation is now part of an
industrial process which needs predictability and continuity.
Thus, newspapers and news programs appear at an invariant daily,
even hourly, schedule, with roughly the same amount of space
and time allotted to news on a continuing basis. If there is
some unprecedented cataclysm, more time or space may be allotted,
but rarely is the news curtailed merely because fewer events
happened. News has become a manufactured commodity, so its content
is made to fit the amount of time or space routinely allotted
for it. This, of course, changes the nature to news from that
of the unexpected to that of the routine, for the most part.
The characters may change and details may vary, but a relatively
constant mix of crime, politics, entertainment, and business
affairs will be stretched or shrunk to fit its Procrustean medium.
The designers of the format of the news, even if guided solely
by system needs of predictability and control, still have had
an impact on what people will think about, the categories under
which they will arrange their experience, and so forth. Media
technology affects thought.
News program managers, relying on administrative
research, have discovered that in fact people who look at television
news, for instance, do not do so in order to stay abreast of
current affairs so much as they seek company and reassurance
in a society that is increasingly mobile and without the marketplace
or waterwell for friendly gossip and storytelling.
So the nature of the news program is adjusted,
now requiring attractive and friendly news-presenters, who joke
and chat among themselves with an inclusive nod to the camera.
They advise one on cooking, dining out, making friends, staying
healthy. But these "news teams" are paid companions,
whose loyalty is not to their audiences but to their employers,
who in turn are answerable to advertisers and/or the state. Their
cozy personal advice thus often dovetails with advertised products
or the government's current theme for public cooperation, be
it paying taxes early or recycling trash or avoiding excessive
cholesterol. The news has in this way become a format for socialization
and acculturation in no small measure.
What is true of news is true of entertainment,
education, or religion processed by the media system: the technology
of the medium creates formats that are shaped for maximum effect
by administrative research into a ritual whose ultimate social
and cultural (and, therefore, moral and ethical impact) is analysed
by critical research.
Ethical and Moral Issues
One must distinguish between moral and ethical
issues that arise within the context of the media and
those that are raised by the nature of the system.
Among the former we have a very familiar list
of legitimate concerns:
- The differential rights of individuals, corporations,
and governments to secrecy versus the public's right to know.
- Objectivity and fairness in coverage of controversial
- The effects of pornography and other portrayals
of objectionable or criminal acts on the impressionable.
- The validity of advertising claims and the
exploitation of certain basic insecurities as a motivation for
buying marginal products
- News management and influence peddling on
the part of government, business, labor, churches, or any powerful
- The rights of journalists to protect their
sources and their unpublished notes (in whatever medium) from
- The obligations of journalists to reveal
information to appropriate authority to protect life and property.
The "morally correct" behaviour
to be sought among these settings is usually obvious from commonplace
sources and does not require any "special media ethics."
Various professional guilds, trade associations, and public interest
groups have come up with guidelines for proper behaviour that
cover most of the common cases under the above rubrics, honored
though some may be more in the breach.
Far from obvious are the ethically appropriate
approaches to the problems of pornography, glamourized violence,
and stereotyping of any kind, especially racial or sexual. But
the moral complexity does not spring so much from the nature
of media as from the nature of art and fiction: Portrayal as
an invitation to imitation or justification for immoral behaviour
is a thorny problematic that both antedates and exceeds the context
of modern media as such. In general, the transmission model has
been applied here most unfruitfully, because its mechanistic
presuppositions have led to the imposition or violation of taboos
(nudity, Grand Guignolism, etc.).
In other words, almost all of the above cases
can be adequately dealt with in principle within the common expectations
of the system: if the media work properly, they will behave properly.
It is a matter of adjustment, power, and will - not so much understanding.
This is not true for those issues raised by
the very nature of the system: when the media work properly,
they may behave improperly and in some cases they may necessarily
The growing indispensability of mass media
for reaching electorates, political parties, church congregations,
the entire youth population and even widely dispersed intellectuals,
has forced not only politicians but educators, clergy, and scientists
to join merchants in adapting their messages to fit the exigencies
of the media system. Surviving Eastern bloc politicians as well
as electronic preachers have a common need for media consultants.
These media adaptations reach back into the
substance of the senders and alter, in varying degrees, politics,
religion, education. Even dissent and avant-gardism must now
define themselves as over against mainstream media content and
programming, which gives an unearned cachet to willed obscurantism.
In what senses are these developments for
good or ill?
As we have seen, the techno-logic of mass
media hardware is to reach larger and larger audiences. In principle,
the drive of the machine is to reach everybody in the world simultaneously
with the same message. The political economies within which media
operate also mandate maximum use either for maximum profit or
maximum control. The software must follow the hardware. And the
software is nothing less than the symbolic transmission of culture.
Over the years, therefore, mass media have
developed a language of their own, a meta-language, if you will,
that may have local dialects of French or Chinese or Urdu. The
curse of Babylon fragments the world audience, so it must be
somehow overcome: the point of the meta-language is therefore
accessibility; it must be readily understood by the largest number
The image, as film distributors learned early,
transcends the limitations of words. Nonetheless, as they later
learned, even images have a cultural setting. Thus, for truly
international distribution, films had to have slightly different
versions so as not to offend local taboos. In multi-ethnic markets,
advertising agencies have set up departments to research the
effects of images and words on cultural sensitivities. The Chinese,
as legend has it, were thus saved from marketing a car called
The Lemon and male underwear called Pansies to English-speaking
The ideal of the media meta-language, let
us call it mediaspeak, is to come as close as possible to a transcultural,
a-historical, assumption free Esperanto, that evokes no particular
heritage or tradition. It aspires to be the broader equivalent
of those indispensable graphic icons at international airports
for toilets, luggage, cocktails, cabs and medical assistance.
The export and import of consumer goods for supermarket shelves,
the internationalization of personal computers with a common
user icon-driven interface abet the global demand for a common
But language is also the vehicle for morality,
judgment, subtle analysis, religious tradition. The Christian
cross or the Buddha are symbols; they have subtle evocative meanings,
a penumbra of connotations. Airport graphics are not symbols,
but signals, extensions of traffic directions for those already
launched on a decided course. Mediaspeak strips language of its
symbolic meanings, of its historical and traditional resonances,
and pares words and pictures down to signals. It is an ideal
system for selling products and a very ideal system for dictatorships
and dirigiste regimes.
This single development has multiple moral
effects. Vast treasures have been spent by a bankrupt United
States on the Strategic Defense Initiative, an adolescent fantasy
of total protection that scores of serious scientists have scorned
as both dangerous and meretricious. But the cartoon graphics
of "Star Wars" in mass media have maintained sufficient
support among the people to force a sceptical Congress to authorize
continued billions of dollars.
The published statistics on Patriot missile
effectiveness in the Middle East indicate miserable failure,
but the pictures have mobilized not only cheering mass support,
but serious arms sales among professional dealers.
While noting the force of images of suffering
to mobilize aid for disaster victims, one must remember that
the images often obscure the culprits and causes of the suffering
so that symptoms are inadequately addressed while causes are
blithely ignored, as in Ethiopia, Iraq, the Sudan and Bangladesh.
These and other examples of the moral threat
of mediaspeak in the contexts of religion, education, politics,
and science abound - all occasions when the media system operates
as everyone expects it to.
The quotidian ethical problems of the media
business require serious attention, but they are minuscule before
the tidal wave of a-moral de-culturalization the global media
system is creating.