15.3 Mass Communication and Ethics

Learning Objectives

  1. Discuss patterns of ownership and control as they currently exist in the media.
  2. Explain the relationship between the media and globalization.
  3. Evaluate the diversity (or lack thereof) of representations in the media and discuss potential effects.
  4. Employ media-literacy skills to evaluate media messages.

Given the potential for mass communication messages to reach thousands to millions of people, the potential for positive or negative consequences of those messages exceed those of interpersonal, small group, or even public communication messages. Because of this, questions of ethics have to be closely considered when discussing mass communication and the media. In this section, we will discuss how media-ownership regulations, globalization, and representations of diversity tie in with mass communication ethics.

Media Control and Ownership

Media interests and ownership have become more concentrated over the past few decades as a result of deregulation. Deregulation refers to the overturning or revising of policies that were in place to ensure that media outlets serve the interests of the public and include diverse viewpoints, programs, and ownership. Deregulation occurred as a result of the rapid technological changes in the 1980s and 1990s, including the growth of cable and satellite outlets. The argument for deregulation was to make the overall market for network, cable, satellite, and other media outlets more competitive.

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Restrictions on the number of radio and/or television stations a single person could own have lessened over the years, allowing individuals to control multiple media outlets.

Timeline of Changes Made by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) (Austin, 2011)

  • 1954–84. National ownership is limited to seven stations and each station is required to be in a separate geographic market.
  • 1984. The FCC expands ownership to twelve stations as long as the number of stations owned doesn’t reach more than 25 percent of the national market
  • 1996. The Telecommunications Act eliminates a maximum on number of stations that one person or entity can own, as long as they do not reach more than 35 percent of the national market.
  • 2003. Cross-media ownership rules are relaxed, which allows for a person or entity to own both newspaper and broadcast outlets and radio and television outlets. The FCC increases the maximum audience one person or entity can reach to 45 percent of the national market, but Congress intervenes and reduces that to 39 percent.

The pressure to lessen regulations came as media outlets struggled to keep up with increased competition and technological changes and saw mergers and consolidations as a way to save money and keep a competitive edge. Television was one of the first forms of electronic mass media to begin to merge. Companies that you’re familiar with now but probably didn’t know were once separate entities include Time-Warner Cable (formed from the 1989 merger of Time, Inc. and Warner Communications, Inc.). General Electric, a company we may know for making refrigerators and stoves, bought the NBC television network in 1986. These are just two of the many megamergers that have occurred in the past few decades.[1] The merger of these media companies was meant to provide a synergy that could lower costs and produce higher profits by, for example, merging Disney (with its expertise and market share of children’s entertainment) and the broadcast network ABC (with its expertise in television and news).

As computers and the Internet began to enter households, media companies wanted to take advantage of the prospect of providing additional media services under one umbrella. Media convergence refers to the merging of technologies that were previously developed and used separately (Rayner, Wall, & Kruger, 2004). One such convergence that affects many if not most of you reading this book is the creation of broadband Internet access through existing cable lines and the bundling of cable and high-speed Internet services. This marked the beginning of a rush, on the part of media conglomerates, to own the methods of distribution for media messages as a means of then controlling the devices and technology that can be used on them. A recent and well-known example of this was iPhone’s exclusive contract with AT&T. For the first few years that iPhones were on the market, AT&T was the only service provider that worked with the phones. To handle the data load needed to service all the new phones, AT&T had to rush and spend millions of dollars to upgrade its cellular network. These moves help preserve the media conglomerates’ power, because smaller, independent, or competing companies cannot afford the time, resources, and money needed to build a competing or even functional distribution mechanism.

Consolidated media ownership has led to a decrease in localism in terms of local news and local reporters, radio DJs, and editors (Austin, 2011). Since business is handled from a central hub that might be hundreds or thousands of miles away from a market the media outlet serves, many of the media jobs that used to exist in a city or region have disappeared. While media consolidation has led to some structural and cultural changes in the United States, similar forces are at work in the process of globalization.

Media and Globalization

Globalization refers to a complex of interconnecting structural and cultural forces that aid the spread of ideas and technologies and influence the social and economic organization of societies. Just as modernization in the form of industrialization and then later a turn toward an information-based society spread across the globe, so do technologies and the forms of media they create. In all these cases, the spread of ideas, technologies, and media is imbalanced, as we will discuss more later. This type of cultural imperialism is often criticized as being a part of globalization, and scholars acknowledge that cultural imperialism is largely achieved through media messages (Siapera, 2012).

Media imperialism refers to the domination of other countries through exported media and the values and ideologies they contain (Rayner, Wall, & Kruger, 2004). Just as corporations have helped further globalization, media companies have expanded into multinational conglomerates in such a way that allows them to have power and influence that is difficult for individual nations to regulate or control. During the first seventy or so years of electronic mass media, countries could more easily control messages that were sent through cables or other hard structures. For example, telegraph, telephone, and television lines could be cut and even radio television stations that broadcast over the airwaves could be taken offline by cutting the power to the transmitter. As more information became digitized and sent via satellite, countries had much more difficulty limiting what could get in and out of their borders.

Media-fueled cultural imperialism is critiqued because of the concern that the imported cultural images and values will end up destroying or forever changing the cultural identity of the countries being “occupied” by foreign media. The flow of media is predictable and patterned. The cultural values of more-developed Western and Northern countries flow via media messages to the global East and South, mimicking the flow of power that has existed for centuries with the western and northern hemispheres, primarily Europe and the United States, politically and economically dominating countries in the southern and eastern hemispheres such as those in Asia, South America, and Africa. As with any form of imperialism, the poorest countries are the ones who are the most vulnerable and subjected to the most external control (Rayner, Wall, & Kruger, 2004). The reason more-developed countries dominate the media in other countries stems from available resources and knowledge needed to produce and transmit media content. Developing countries lack the same level of infrastructure (such as fiber-optic cables and satellite systems), technical expertise, and technology needed to produce their own content, which makes it cheaper to purchase Western, predominantly US American, content to fuel the growing desire of people in these countries to have access to media. This creates a negative cycle in which poorer countries use what resources they do have to carry Western content, which prevents them from investing in additional organic and local content and creates a demand for more Western content. Critics have also focused on the quality of the content that is exported, which is only representative of a narrow range of Western identities and values. Content tends to be dramatized programs like Baywatch, which at one point was the most-watched television program in the world. Dramas are preferred because humor is more likely to be lost in translation, while viewers can often identify with stock plot lines in dramas, which make the shows easier to translate and attracts a larger audience. The downside to this is that these narrowly chosen shows that run over and over in a specific country contribute to a stereotypical view of what life in the United States is like.

Not all the discussion of and scholarship on globalization and the media is negative. More recently, much research has focused on the notion of cultural hybridity and the ways in which some cultures take in foreign, predominantly Western media messages and representations and integrate them into existing cultural beliefs and practices. For example, one scholar writes about a quartet in Africa that takes European chamber music and incorporates African rhythms and another group that takes American hip-hop music and gives it a more traditional African flair (Rayner, Wall, & Kruger, 2004). Additionally, the emergence of social and personal media allows users in specific countries to generate their own content and adopt and utilize media platforms in their own ways. As we will learn later, social and personal media have been used to overthrow oppressive governments and to increase the flow of information in places where it was once restricted. So, in these cases, we can see that the ability of certain forms of communication to cross borders has led to positive change.

We can even examine the spread of personal media and social media as an example of globalization. Here, rather than a specific message or set of cultural values being distributed around the world, a platform was made available and adopted in a more democratic, less imperialistic way. Social media, unlike more traditional modes of media, bring people together in more self-determined ways. For example, people can connect over the Internet to a blogger with a shared interest and interact with one another via comments or other means.

Media and Representation

Another area of concern for those who study mass media is the representation of diversity (or lack thereof) in media messages. The FCC has identified program, ownership, and viewpoint diversity as important elements of a balanced mass media that serves the public good (Austin, 2011). This view was enforced through the Fairness Doctrine that was established in 1949 and lasted until the early 1980s when it began to be questioned by those in favor of media deregulation. The Fairness Doctrine was eventually overturned in 1987, but the FCC tried in 2003 to reinstate policies that encourage minority ownership of media outlets, which they hoped in turn would lead to more diverse programming. It remains to be seen whether or not minority-owned media outlets will produce or carry more diverse programming, but it is important to note that the deregulation over the past few decades has led to a decrease in the number of owners of media outlets who come from minority groups.

Scholars have raised concerns about the number of characters from minority groups on television relative to the groups’ percentage of the population. Perhaps even more concerning is the type of characters that actors from minority groups play and the types of shows on which they appear. Whether we want them to be or not, the people we see featured in media messages, especially those who appear frequently on television, in movies, in magazines, or in some combination of the three, serve as role models for many that view them. These people help set the tone for standards of behavior, beauty, and intelligence, among other things. Social learning theory claims that media portrayals influence our development of schemata or scripts, especially as children, about different groups of people (Signorielli, 2009). For example, a person who grows up in a relatively homogenous white, middle-class environment can develop schemata about African Americans and Latina/os based on how they are depicted in media messages. Cultivation theory, which we discussed earlier, also supports the notion that media representations affect our perceptions and actions. Since media messages, overall, are patterned representations, they cultivate within users a common worldview from the seeds that are planted by a relatively narrow set of content. For example, people in television shows are disproportionately portrayed as middle-class professionals. In reality, about 67 percent of people working in the United States have blue-collar or service-industry jobs, but they only make up about 10 percent of the people on television (Griffin, 2009).

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Even though the majority of workers in the United States classify as blue-collar or service workers, they only make up about 10 percent of the people on television.

African Americans, Latina/os, and women are underrepresented in television, and people over the age of sixty-five are the most-excluded group (Griffin, 2009). Studies show that there is less diversity in mediated messages relative to the population as a whole and that the images and messages in the media contain certain themes that rely on stereotypes and further reduce the complexity of our society. Over time, these recurring images and messages affect what we think and how we view the world. In particular, research based on social learning and cultivation theories find that people who watch more television have views that reflect what they see in the programming they watch.

Looking specifically at television, representations of African Americans on prime-time shows (those that air between 7 and 11 p.m.) are actually proportional to their percentage of the population. Whites, however, are overrepresented, meaning there is a larger percentage of white people on prime-time shows than there is in our actual population. This disparity can be accounted for by pointing out that Latina/o, Native, and Asian Americans, as well as African American females, are underrepresented if not invisible in much of the media (Signorielli, 2009). For example, a study of minority characters on prime-time television between 2001 and 2008 found that Latina/os make up 5 percent of the characters despite being 16 percent of the population.

As the number of minority-focused programs, especially sitcoms, has decreased in the past ten years, minority characters have diffused more into other shows. While this integration is positive in some ways, there are still many examples of shows on which a minority character is the lone person of color or gay or lesbian person. From the view of social learning and cultivation theory, this is problematic, since many people, especially children, may form their early perceptions of difference based on interactions with characters in media messages. So unless viewers intentionally seek out diverse programming, they will likely mostly see people with dominant identities represented in the media they consume (Signorielli, 2009).

Unfortunately, there has been a similar lack of diversity found among new media. In a first-of-its-kind study of gender representation in online news sources, the Global Media Monitoring Project found after analyzing news stories on seventy-six websites in sixteen countries that only 36 percent of the stories were reported by women, and women were the focus of only 23 percent of all the stories written (Global Media Monitoring Project, 2012). Another look at popular, blog-style news sites such as The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, Slate, and Salon found that representations of minorities conformed to stereotypes. For example, African Americans were featured primarily in stories about athletics, Latino/as appeared in stories about immigration, and Native and Asian Americans were absent (Jackson, 2012). Even when a major source for online information like The Huffington Post tries to include more diverse viewpoints, it does so under criticism. The website decided to add a section focused on information and news of interest to African Americans after adding twenty-six other sections ranging from information on travel to divorce. Although the editor of the section wanted to have a nuanced discussion about race, many of her ideas were discounted because they were not “buzzy enough,” meaning they might not attract enough readers. So instead of starting a dialogue about race, most of the stories featured on the first day were more “buzz worthy” and, ironically, written by white reporters (Jackson, 2012).

Some people who study and/or work in the media view media diversity as a means of expanding public dialogue, creating a more-informed citizenry, and enhancing our democracy through positive social change. Some online news sources have taken up such a call, but they fall short of the popularity or profitability of more mainstream news outlets. The online investigative news outlet ProPublica has received positive attention and awards for their coverage of a wide range of issues, including stories that focus on underrepresented communities.[2] The advent of new and personal media makes it easier for individuals and independent rather than corporate-owned media outlets to take advantage of new technologies and platforms to produce quality media products on a budget. As consumers of media, we can also keep a critical eye open for issues of representation and seek out media that is more inclusive and diverse. This type of evaluative and deliberate thinking about the media is an important part of media literacy, which we will discuss next.

Developing Media Literacy

Media literacy involves our ability to critique and analyze the potential impact of the media. The word literacy refers to our ability to read and comprehend written language, but just as we need literacy to be able to read, write, and function in our society, we also need to be able to read media messages. To be media literate, we must develop a particular skill set that is unfortunately not taught in a systematic way like reading and writing. The quest to make a more media-literate society is not new. You may be surprised, as I was, to learn that the media-literacy movement began in the 1930s when a chapter of the American Association of University Women in Madison, Wisconsin, created a newspaper column and a radio program called “Broadcast on Broadcasts” that reviewed and evaluated current media messages and practices (Dunlop, & Kymnes, 2007). Despite the fact that this movement has been around for eighty years now, many people still don’t know about it.

Media literacy isn’t meant to censor or blame the media, nor does it advocate for us to limit or change our engagement with the media in any particular way. Instead, media literacy ties in with critical thinking and listening, which we have learned about throughout this book already. Media-literacy skills are important because media outlets are “culture makers,” meaning they reflect much of current society but also reshape and influence sociocultural reality and real-life practices. Some may mistakenly believe that frequent exposure to media or that growing up in a media-saturated environment leads to media literacy. Knowing how to use technology to find and use media is different from knowing how to analyze it. Like other critical thinking skills, media literacy doesn’t just develop; it must be taught, learned, practiced, and reflected on.

Media-literacy skills teach us to analyze the media and to realize the following:[3]

  • All media messages are constructed (even “objective” news stories are filmed, edited, and introduced in ways that frame and influence their meaning).
  • Media structures and policies affect message construction (which means we need to also learn about how media ownership and distribution function in our society—a growing concern that we discussed earlier in this section).
  • Each medium has different characteristics and affects messages differently (e.g., a story presented on The Colbert Report will likely be less complete and more dramatized than a story presented on a blog focused on that topic).
  • Media messages are constructed for particular purposes (many messages are constructed to gain profit or power, some messages promote change, and some try to maintain the status quo).
  • All media messages are embedded with values and beliefs (the myth of objectivity helps mask the underlying bias or misrepresentation in some messages).
  • Media messages influence our beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors, including how we perceive and interact with others and how we participate in larger society.
  • Media messages can prevent change (intentionally presenting manipulated or selectively chosen content to inhibit change).

We learn much through the media that we do not have direct experience with, and communication and media scholars theorize that we tend to believe media portrayals are accurate representations of life. However, the media represents race, gender, sexuality, ability, and other cultural identities in biased and stereotypical ways that often favor dominant identities (Allen, 2011). Since the media influences our beliefs, attitudes, and expectations about difference, it is important to be able to critically evaluate the mediated messages that we receive. The goal of media literacy is not to teach you what to think but to teach you how you can engage with, interpret, and evaluate media in a more informed manner. Media literacy is also reflective in that we are asked to be accountable for those choices we make in regards to media by reflecting on and being prepared to articulate how those choices fit in with our own belief and value systems.

There are some standard questions that you can ask yourself to help you get started in your media criticism and analysis. There are no “true” or “right/wrong” answers to many of the questions we ask during the critical thinking process. Engaging in media literacy is more about expanding our understanding and perspective rather than arriving at definitive answers. The following questions will help you hone your media-literacy skills (Allen, 2011):

  1. Who created this message? What did they hope to accomplish? What are their primary belief systems?
  2. What is my interpretation of this message? How and why might different people understand this message differently than me? What can I learn about myself based on my interpretation and how it may differ from others’?
  3. What lifestyles, values, and points of view are represented or omitted in this message? What does this tell me about how other people live and believe? Does this message leave anything or anyone out?
  4. Why was this message sent? Who sent it? Is it trying to tell me something? To sell me something?

After asking these questions, media-literate people should be able to use well-reasoned arguments and evidence (not just opinion) to support their evaluations. People with media-literacy skills also know that their evaluations may not be definitive. Although this may seem like a place of uncertainty, media-literate people actually have more control over how they interact with media messages, which allows them to use media to their advantage, whether that is to become better informed or to just enjoy their media experience.

Key Takeaways

  • Media control and ownership has been deregulated over the past few decades, which has led to increased consolidation and merging of media outlets.
  • The media aids globalization by exporting Western beliefs and values to other countries. This trend in exporting has been termed media imperialism, since Western media tend to dominate in many countries. Certain stereotypes about the West, particularly the United States, are maintained through the narrow range of messages that are exported. Other countries do not just passively receive Western media messages, however. Some messages are reinterpreted by the local culture, creating hybrid media texts.
  • Deregulation has contributed to lack of media outlet ownership by minorities. Additionally, representation of most minority groups in media messages is not proportional to their numbers in the actual population. When minorities are included in media messages, it is often in stereotypical ways. Social learning theory states that these representations are important because they influence the schemata we develop about other groups of people, which points to how these distorted representations can actually influence how people think and act in their real lives.
  • Media-literacy skills allow us to critique and analyze the potential effects of media. Media-literate people ask critical questions about all the media messages they receive, not just the ones with which they disagree. Doing so leads people to be more accountable for their media choices and to have more control over the role that media plays in their lives.

Exercises

  1. Visit the FCC’s webpage to view its mission: http://www.fcc.gov/what-we-do. Based on what you read there, how do you think the FCC is doing?
  2. As we learned, many of the media messages that are exported from the United States to other countries end up supporting narrow stereotypes about US Americans. What media messages do you think would be better to export in order to allow other countries to see a more “accurate” picture of American life? Try to think of several examples of television programs, movies, websites, and so on.
  3. Think about the diversity in some of the shows that you watch. Before doing any research, write down the different cultural identities that you think are represented in a couple of your favorite shows or movies. Then go and actually research the show or movie (look up the cast online, etc.) to see if your perceptions matched up with reality. Are the shows diverse? Why or why not? If there are minority characters, are they portrayed in stereotypical or narrow ways?

References

Allen, B. J., Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity, 2nd ed. (Long Grove, IL: Waveland, 2011), 29, 34.

Austin, C., “Overwhelmed by Big Consolidation: Bringing Back Regulation to Increase Diversity in Programming That Serves Minority Audiences,” Federal Communications Law Journal 63, no. 3 (2011): 746–48.

Dunlop, J., and Angel Kymnes, “Analysis of Media Literacy Curriculum: The Center for Media Literacy’s Media Kit,” Smile 7, no. 3 (2007), 3.

Jackson, J., “New Media—but Familiar Lack of Diversity,” Extra!, June 2012, accessed September 20, 2012, http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=4551.

Global Media Monitoring Project, 2010, “Who Makes the News?” accessed November 11, 2012, http://whomakesthenews.org/images/stories/restricted/highlights/highlights_en.pdf.

Griffin, E., A First Look at Communication Theory, 7th ed. (Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2009), 351.

Rayner, P., Peter Wall, and Stephen Kruger, Media Studies: The Essential Resource (London: Routledge, 2004), 249.

Siapera, E., Understanding New Media (London: Sage, 2012), 23–26.

Signorielli, N., “Minorities Representation in Prime Time: 2000–2008,” Communication Research Reports 26, no. 4 (2009): 324.


  1. “Media Mega Mergers: A Timeline,” Common Cause: Holding Power Accountable, accessed September 20, 2012, http://www.commoncause.org/site/pp.asp?c=dkLNK1MQIwG&b=4923181.
  2. “About Us,” ProPublica: Journalism in the Public Interest, accessed September 20, 2012, http://www.propublica.org/about.
  3. “Core Principles of Media Literacy Education in the United States,” National Association for Media Literacy Education, accessed September 20, 2012, http://namle.net/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/NAMLE-CPMLE-w-questions2.pdf.

This is a derivative of Communication in the Real World: An Introduction to Communication Studies by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution, which was originally released and is used under CC BY-NC-SA. This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.