Communication researchers have a variety of theoretical perspectives within which to examine the act of mass communication, many of which are considered to operate within one of two paradigms. The dominant paradigm “combines a view of powerful mass media in a mass society with the typical research practices of the emerging social sciences” (McQuail, 2010, p. 62). With origins in functionalism and information theory, the dominant paradigm is hallmarked by acceptance of the liberal-pluralist ideal, a bias towards studying the effects of a powerful mass media, and emphasis on quantitative research (McQuail, 2010). Critical of the liberal-pluralist ideal, the alternative critical paradigm examines the political, economic, and cultural character of mass media, adopting an interpretive and constructionist view (McQuail, 2010). Moreover, the alternative critical paradigm favors a qualitative research approach (McQuail, 2010). In order to develop a perspective on the value of each paradigm to researching the act of mass communication, this author chose to analysis a local newscast from 9 News, using the scientific approach inherent with the dominant paradigm, and the socio-cultural approach inherent in the alternative critical paradigm. Whereas the scientific approach to mass media analysis was useful insofar as it provided a useful lexicon for breaking down and describing the act of communication, the critical and qualitative nature of the socio-cultural perspective allowed this researcher gain greater insight into the various facets of the communication, without being bound by normative thinking.
In order to understand the value of both the scientific and socio-cultural approaches to the mass communication act, this author recorded and analyzed a local newscast from 9 News of Denver, using the main features of theories from both paradigms to understand the types of knowledge each provided. Exploring the scientific approach, the communication act was analyzed with Laswell’s (1948) functional view and Westley and MacLean’s (1957) conceptual model, whereas, with the socio-cultural approach, the communication act was analyzed using critical political-economic theory and the major propositions of commercialization.
Lasswell’s (1948) described mass communication in a functional transmission model as ‘Who says what to whom, through what channel and with what effect?’ Attempting to answer the question for the newscast is the basis for the analysis. The sender is the 9 News organization, part of a local television station owned by the Gannett group, a $5 billion media conglomerate with significant newspaper, television, and digital properties, notably including the USA Today newspaper (Gannet Co. Inc., 2010). While the founder was considered conservative, no information on potential political affiliation was noted during the communication act. The newscast included coverage on weather, traffic, crime, politics, human-interest stories, sports, public service, and advertising. The newscast was broadcast over the air and through cable and satellite television providers, and also online at 9news.com to roughly 6000 Denver households representing 12% of the total market (Ostrow, 2012). The newscast informed local residents of newsworthy stories, public service information, and issues affecting Coloradans, in order to increase market share, associated advertising revenue, and company earnings. In addition, the newscast helped shape discourse on notable events in the local public sphere, such as the recent Colorado theater shooting.
Westley and MacLean’s (1957) conceptual model structured the functional view differently, incorporating the role of communicator as a selector and interpreter of “events and voices in society” (McQuail, 2010, p. 70). The newscast had a number of significant events, notably including both the Olympics and the Colorado theater shooting. The Olympic coverage was largely oriented towards U.S. victories resulting in medals, with a local interest story on Missy Franklin, a Coloradan swimmer and recent bronze medalist. The interpretive context of the newscasters appeared to orient towards U.S. athletic dominance in the games. The theater shooting coverage included an update on the court proceedings of shooting suspect James Holmes, hearing primarily from the police, district attorney, and victim’s families. The interpretation of the shooting event centered on implied theories for the shooters deviance, including potential mental health problems. Westley and MacLean’s (1957) description of voices and events had this author wondering whether the shooter’s intended message was being communicated and whether the interpretation being provided would prove to be accurate in the long run.
In summary, the scientific approach, while lacking any quantitative analysis was useful as a framework to describe functionally the communication act. In addition, the approach lent itself to breaking down the act to understand the media organizations, potential for bias, the role of media in shaping discourse, the nature of the medium, the nature of the audience, and the effects of the act. However, the scientific approach left questions on the table including:
- Does the news describe events objectively?
- Are opposing voices heard?
- How does the make-up of the audience shape the news?
Beginning with critical political-economic theory (McQuail, 2010), this author sought to determine whether content and audience is commoditized, whether opposition and alternative voices were present or marginalized, and whether the public interest is subordinated to private interest?
It appears clear that the Gannet Company seeks to own a large diversified share of media audience, given audience reach is a core metric in their annual report (Gannet Co. Inc., 2010). According to their SEC 10-K filing, the Gannet Company reaches 18% of U.S. households through their television stations with an “online U.S. Internet audience [totaling] 52 million monthly unique visitors, reaching about 24% of the Internet audience” (Gannet Co. Inc., 2010, p. 3). Both the content and the audience are clear commodities to be sold as “marketing solutions” to businesses nationwide.
McQuail (2010) describes the consequences of the commodification of audience and content in suggesting that content diversity decreases as and opposition voices are marginalized as the media conforms to normative ideas of acceptable content to preserve share and avoid competitive risk. In the observed newscast, a case can be made to support this notion. Political perspectives provided in the newscast were only shared from Republican and Democratic viewpoints, ignoring lesser parties like the Green Party or the Libertarians. Perhaps the absence is one of necessity given the limited time for broadcasting the newscast, however, the fact remains the opposing viewpoints were missing and as a result, were marginalized. Given the need for the Gannet Company to preserve more than $6 billion in annual revenues, it appears possible that the public interest is subtlety subordinated insofar as the marginalization of opposition viewpoints limits public discourse and favors the maintenance of the political and economic status quo.
Coincident with critical political-economic theory is the notion of commercialization. While critical political-economic theory describes the commodification of audience and content, commercialization highlights the role of media in “the promotion of consumerist attitudes to culture and life” (McQuail, 2010, p. 125). As a case in point, the newscast had a public service piece on tips for refinancing a home, certainly a hot topic given the real estate meltdown of the last several years. The newscast presumed a single model for consumers to purchase a house, through borrowing money from major banks, rather than discussing alternative models such as purchasing with savings, borrowing from retirement plans, or using local credit unions. In a sense, the 9 News staff chose to advocate the dominant model for consumption, favoring commercial interests.
The socio-cultural approach lent itself to a critical analysis of the communication act that challenged normative assumptions about society and culture, in effect, opening doors of inquiry that may have remained closed using a scientific approach.
Both the scientific and socio-cultural approaches provided valuable insights during the analysis of the 9 News broadcast. The scientific approach provided a useful lexicon for breakdown the act of communication into its constituent parts while illuminating the role of media organizations, the type of content, information on the medium, and the potential effects of media. However, the critical and qualitative nature of the socio-cultural perspective provided greater insight into the nature of the mass communication, without being bound by normative thinking.
Gannet Co. Inc. (2010, December 26). Annual Report, from http://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/39899/000095012311017139/c11288e10vk.htm
Lasswell, H. D. (1948). The structure and function of communication in society. In Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Institute for Religious and Social Studies. & L. Bryson (Eds.), The communication of ideas (pp. ix, 296 p.). New York,: Institute for Religious and Social Studies distributed by Harper.
McQuail, D. (2010). Mcquail’s mass communication theory (6th ed.). London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.
Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Ostrow, J. (2012, March 4, 2012). Ostrow: Denver’s TV ratings race is a metrics mashup. Television Retrieved July 29, 2012, from http://www.denverpost.com/television/ci_20082452
Westley, B. H., & MacLean, M. S. (1957). A conceptual model for communcations research. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 34(2), 31-38.