Media theory

·I’m better but still not back. This morning a local journalist I know a little shared this article on Facebook. I had one of those rare moments that the words just flowed out in response. The thrust of the article was that a lot of journalists have s low regard for their audiences. Once upon a time I wanted to study audience behavior for a living. Then, like the seminarian who becomes an atheist on the eve of ordination, I quit believing in audiences.

The following is what I wrote in my comment:

“The disconnect comes from the use of the word ‘audience’ as if it were a good analogy for the actual relationship between parties. If we’re in a theater or classroom or concert hall the audience is easy to pick out. It is useful to think of them as a group because they are linked through physical proximity and all the usual social psychologies of the mob apply. Laughter, anger, applause, boos, and standing ovations are ad-hoc conventions tacitly agreed upon by people who have formed a group, at least for the duration of the performance. Ever had a stranger you were in a theater with want to keep applauding the movie once you’re outside? You run. The group bonds no longer exist.

The first requirement of a group? A collection of people who say to themselves “I am a member of this group.”

Media doesn’t have that. When I consume media it’s a solitary act. I have my own reasons for doing it and it seldom has anything to do with anyone else. You get people who bond over TV shows at work and book clubs form up but it’s the exception not the rule. It’s ephemeral.

If modern media has a motto it’s “don’t read the comments.” That’s the opposite of an “audience.”

It’s not that there aren’t people actually watching and reading and listening. There are. It’s just that they aren’t doing it as part of a larger social process. Social groupings may form over particular content, but filling a bucket with content doesn’t mean the people who show up are a herd. They all just showed up. You can call them an audience, but they aren’t one. No matter how badly you want them to be one.

Back in my grad school days, one of the big research programs came under the heading of “Uses & Gratifications of Media.” Ask someone why they’re watching or reading or listening to whatever and I’ll lay serious cash on the chances the answer will be “I’m bored and had nothing better to do.” I once suggested we start a publication called “Studies of People with Nothing Better to Do.” Another colleague suggested forming the Center for Frivolity Research.

Here’s the dirty little secret: communication among large groups of people will continue to happen. It always has. What’s not required is that someone makes buckets of money doing it. That’s the historical anomaly.”

This is how media sees itself:

This is how it really works:


2 thoughts on “Media theory

  1. Susan Lea Rudd

    One of the reasons I can’t watch/listen to Fox news or other conservative outlets is they continually (IMHO) talk down to their audience – and the audience has no clue!! They use the term “sheeple” which to me descibes perfectly Fox viewers – enough though they are trying to apply that to liberals. Who is the “sheeple” if you only follow one newsource because they tell you they are the only reliable one???

    My job at Dish affords me the opportunity to talk to a huge smattering of those unwashed masses. I have to constantly remind myself after the last a** I talked to that I’ve talked to 25 nice people before that. The Moron or Buttwipe leaves a much longer lasting impression than the Good Ones. I expect the same is true in journalism.

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