Critical Media Theory

The arguments from the critical position have a fairly broad range. Here are six positions:

1. The conspiracy theory

The minds of the populace are being manipulated deliberately by the owners of the mass media on behalf of the capitalist cause -- in the interests of profit above all. These theorists are also often known as functionalists; they tend to see social and political power as top-down and manipulative.

2. The dominance theory

The people who run the media, and the people who control business and government, have the same ends, values and socialization, and their values are reflected in the way the mass media are structured (driven by advertising revenue, for instance, thus geared toward entertainment and sensationalism) and in the content of the mass media, from the perspective of the news shows to the ideology of the prime-time dramas. Basically this can be seen as a hegemonic or class theory.

3. The homogenization theory

The media function to mainstream society, to erode independent thought and action and to render everyone more and more the same.

4. The political economy theory

The very nature of capitalism drives the economic, political and communication systems towards injustice. The emphasis is necessarily on control of the market place, including the control of labour, on profits as the only goal, and on the centralization of power in the hands of the holders of capital; to control labour one controls, among other things, information and ideas. Political economy theory tends to be based in marxist thought, and marxist thought has, in the last several decades, had a much more complex understanding of the workings of social and communication systems than do the functionalist theorists.

5. The commodification theory

Capitalism tends to turn all objects, work and relationships into commodities, things that can be bought, sold, valued; as such it totally transforms our understandings of ourselves and of our relations to others and to society. We become privatized individuals in a world of status and exchange value. In the meantime the real value of goods is replaced by their 'sign' value, or status value.

6. The erosion of rationality theory

The mass media, driven by advertising, appeal to the sensational, to images, to our dreams, and in doing so create a sense of a false world in which commodities purchase happiness and in which social problems are resolved on the level of emotion and the individual; at the same time we are rendered passive and reactive people who are pleased to be entertained, thereby making us less competent members of a democracy, as a democracy calls for an informed, rational populace.


Some problems with the critical media theory perspective

1. rarely accounts for audience meanings

2.very 'strong effects' model, denying any sense of audience resistance (or critical intelligence)

3. often does not establish just how media may shape and influence perception and behavior (see 9 below)

4. assumes that influence = attitude change = behaviour change

5. tends too often to proceed as if mass mediated communication were the only hegemonic force

6. tends to oversimplify the process of the production of the media

7. does not establish that the claims it makes are empirically or historically valid

8. diminishes the positive contributions of mass media to social and political awareness  

9. by failing to make the connection between societal and system forces, on the one hand, and the immediate effects of meidia on people, it looks like conspiracy theory rather than explanation:

from Harms and Kellner, Toward A Critical Theory of Advertising:

One persistent problem, however, has plagued critical media studies and blunted its potential impact on cultural studies and public policy.

Very rarely have critical studies of advertising and mass communications adequately articulated the linkage between the macro political economic structure of mass media and the micro mass communication forms and techniques so as to reveal both the socio-economic functions of advertising and the ways that ads actually shape and influence perception and behavior which reproduce the existing social system.

The failure to clearly and comprehensively articulate this linkage has often generated an implicit "conspiracy theory" suggesting that a few elites in control of the mass media consciously conspire to manipulate culture and consciousness.

This deficiency has plagued critical analyses of advertising and communications which have generally failed to explain how mass communications in general, and advertising in particular, can exercise the power and impact that critical theorists suggest.


Some Constraints on Critical Strong Effects Theory

1. the media just have weaker effects than more concrete, immediate institutions and relationships do

2. legislative constraints

3. media professionals' values and goals

4. audience interest

5. the 'power elite' may be less unified in values and practice than critical media theory suggests

6. demand characteristics of the media themselves


Some Strengths of Critical Media Theory

1. big business and government do work together

2. profit is the bottom line most of the time

3. the mass media are controlled to a large extent by the big business and government

4. we do get lied to

5. much of the mass media is unimaginative, sensationalist, and slanted towards the interests of the powerful

6. critical media theory teaches us to seek out and act against the abuse of power