Mass media and culture

A screenshot from New York magazine

The April issue of Vogue includes a story about a mother who put her 7-year-old on a diet, forcing her to lose 16 pounds before a photo shoot.
New York magazine criticized the story. Readers weighed in on the debate – no pun intended. Said one reader:

I just think that with this image obsessed world, the girl will have a lifetime to obsess about her weight but it shouldn’t start at 7.

The Vogue story didn’t surprise me, but that’s probably because I had been reading a textbook called Introduction to Mass Communication by Stanley Baran. It said:

  • By the time they enter the first grade, 40 percent of girls say they are happier when on a diet.
  • By their 17th birthday, 78 percent say they hate their bodies.
  • 90 percent of high school girls think they are overweight, up from 34 percent in 1995.
  • Americans spend $12 billion on cosmetic surgery per year.

Today in Introduction to Mass Communication class, we’ll talk about the impact of the media on culture. Notes for discussion from the Baran’s textbook are below.

Who is better known: Lisa Leslie, Olympic medalist and former star of the WNBA, or Heidi Montag? And why?


From a NY Daily News story on Montag:

Last month, Montag appeared on “Primetime” to claim she did not feel “prepared” for the procedures, which were performed by celebrity surgeon Dr. Frank Ryan just nine months before his fatal car crash.
“I definitely think I should have been way more informed. I think that doctors should really walk you through all aspects of it, not just the glamorous side of it,” the busty blond told ABC News’ Cynthia McFadden. “Doctors, it’s like they’re selling you cookies or something.”
Desperate to move on with her life, Montag told Life & Style that her scars serve as constant reminders that she made a big mistake last year.
“I would love to not be ‘plastic girl’ or whatever they call me,” she told the mag. “Surgery ruined my career and my personal life and just brought a lot of negativity into my world.
“I wish I could jump into a time machine and take it all back. Instead, I’m always going to feel like Edward Scissorhands.”

How does the media impact our society and our culture?
Historical roots. Influence of media on society. Early example: Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of movable metal type. First Gutenberg Bible was produced in 1456. The technology of print triggered mass communication. Literacy, education and new ideas spread. This sped up the development of capitalism and democracy. Printing gave ordinary people a voice. Culture no longer revolved around the spoken word. Said tech writer Kevin Kelly:

When technology shifts, it bends the culture.

Science and math found in books helped drive the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s (18th century). More workers had factory jobs – and leisure time.

Power of books: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Rallied public feelings against slavery.  John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” followed the plight of migrant farmers.

Newspapers: Penny press, 1-cent newspapers. Yellow journalism. Emergence of modern newspaper. Impact: Watergate, public service journalism.

Magazines: Mid-1800s to early 1900s – era of the muckrakers. Price dropped to as little as 10 to 15 cents. Targets of coverage: Corruption and greed in business and politics. Unsafe food, child labor, discrimination against African Americans, civil rights abuses.

Media literacy is tied to democracy and full participation in a nation’s culture. Discuss:

From the report, “The Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age” (download PDF here):

Great opportunities remain for TV and newspapers. Newspapers were supposed to be destroyed by radio which was supposed to be destroyed by TV which was supposed to be destroyed by the Internet. Each of these predictions has been only partly right. The new technologies did forever change the media landscape; the previously dominant medium never regained its previous stature. But many did adapt, survive and, in some cases, remain just as profitable as ever. It is now clear that in many communities the dominant online players in local news are the new media manifestations of old media companies, most notably the websites of local newspapers and TV newscasts.

Elements of media literacy

  1.  Ability to think critically.
  2. Knowledge of the role of media companies. How do media companies operate? What are their obligations to us?
  3. Awareness of mass media’s impact on society.
  4. Understanding of media messages and content (examples: camera angles, lighting, photo placement).
  5. Understanding that media content gives insight into our culture.
  6. Ability to enjoy, understand and appreciate media content.
  7. Ability to produce media content.
  8. Understanding of our ethical and moral obligations.
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One thought on “Mass media and culture

  1. Pingback: COM 208: Introduction to Mass Communication – Exam notes | Writing • Photography • Blogs • Journalism

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