Media and Society

Social Impacts of Mass Media

Mass media have the potential to bring social benefits but also have the power to increase inequalities and manipulate large numbers of people.

Proponents of mass media argue that they are useful for many reasons. When advocating for social concerns, advertising a business, or marketing a product, producers are able to use mass media to reach a broad audience. Journalism, public service announcements, and political communications connect people and share information. Education is enriched by a timely flow of updated information regarding the world at large. Entertainment flourishes through the broadcast of acting and music performances, sporting events, and even video gaming.

The advent of digital technology increased the availability and diversity of media. However, sociologists also point out the existence of the digital divide, a gap between communities with widespread access to digital technology and those who do not have the same level of access to it. This inequality is structured along class and racial lines. As the power and role of media and digital technology grow, the digital divide presents a social challenge. Likewise, researchers point to a knowledge gap, an unequal distribution of knowledge among social groups. Knowledge is an asset, like wealth and property. This is particularly true in postindustrial societies. Critics of mass media note how powerful media platforms can contribute to social isolation and form a mass society. A mass society is a society with a lack of social connections, characterized by a homogenous culture and powerful, impersonal bureaucracies. Such a society is easily influenced by modern mass-media techniques of persuasion, including false advertising, propaganda (ideas spread to further a cause), and bias (unreasoned judgment or prejudice).

Media Conglomerates

Media conglomerates are powerful social forces, able to control the messages that are communicated to and among members of society.
A media conglomerate is a parent corporation that owns numerous companies all involved in different facets of mass media. These facets may include publishing, Internet, movies, television, and radio. Many conglomerates are also engaged in producing and selling merchandise or running businesses such as theme parks. These media conglomerates are also referred to as media groups or media institutions. Media consolidation is the concentration of media ownership, with fewer companies controlling most of mass media. For example, in the United States most media are owned by one of six conglomerates. This long-term trend is a change from the situation in the mid-20th century, when dozens of companies owned the majority of media outlets. Conglomerates often result in the homogenization of news and cultural products. As conglomerates look to further their own social, political, and financial agendas, they eliminate diversity in the approaches media take, the issues and ideas that media amplify, and the messages conveyed by media.

Consolidation of Media Ownership

Media company consolidation in the United States is a long-term trend in the United States. With fewer companies controlling most media outlets, media companies have increased social, cultural, political, and economic power.

Media and Sensationalism

Media companies often use sensationalism to attract audiences and advertisers, which can result in the spread of inaccurate messages.

Media companies and conglomerates have an economic interest in drawing large masses of the public. Some media companies and conglomerates also support a particular political agenda. One tactic media platforms use to draw large audiences and to push particular viewpoints is sensationalism, a type of editorial bias used to create interest and excitement. Sensationalism exaggerates events and topics in news stories in order to manipulate the audience into engagement. Media companies have found that sensationalist programming attracts more advertisers, the main source of revenue for media companies.

An example of sensationalism is the way mass media reported on the Y2K (the year 2000) issue at the end of the 20th century. As the year 2000 approached, it was widely reported that the shift from 1999 to 2000 would cause far-ranging technology problems because computers mostly used two-digit numbers to represent years. The concern was that computers used to process financial transactions and manage services such as electricity and water would malfunction, unable to accurately process any information involving a date. Mass media outlets, including newspapers and television news, ran many stories about the potential disasters that could occur in societies that had come to rely on computerized systems. As a result, many people made increased purchases to stock their homes as if they were preparing for a natural disaster. This was beneficial to advertisers, whose main interest is selling products. The media hype around preparing for possible disasters did not align realistically with the technological preparations that programmers carried out well ahead of time to avert potential problems.

Another example of sensationalism is the way media will report crime. Because sensational stories attract interest, media tend to focus on them. Television and newspapers often use sound effects, graphics, and language to dramatize reports about crimes. This creates an emotional response in the audience, who is both interested in dramatic stories and worried about potential danger. However, the heavy focus on crime and the hyperdramatic reporting style can serve to create a public belief that crime levels and potential dangers are much greater than they actually are. Critics of sensationalism argue that media outlets have a responsibility to provide neutral, accurate information rather than to produce or capitalize on exciting stories.