THE AUdiENCE iN COMMUNiCATiON THEORY ANd RESEARCH Critical Perspectives Perceptions of the audience have often been influenced by negative views about mass media in general and have ranged from simple prejudice and snobbery to sophisticated exercises in media analysis. The first category is exemplified by the view that equates large media audiences with the “lowest common denominator” of taste and that assumes that “mass culture,” “low taste,” and “mass audience” are more or less synonymous. This way of thinking has been described as an “ideology of mass culture” (Ang, 1985), according to which much popular entertainment is automatically condemned as inferior, and those who like it as lacking in taste and discrimination. A more sophisticated critique of mass culture was mounted from the left of the ideological spectrum, especially from the perspective of the Marxist “Frankfurt School” in the 1940s and 1950s. The mass audience was pictured as the more or less helpless victims of manipulation and exploitation by capitalist media devoted to purveying “false consciousness,” meaning essentially the loss of any sense of class identity and solidarity (for accounts see, e.g., Hart, 1991; Jay, 1973; Rosenberg & White, 1957). The victimized working classes were unable to defend themselves against propaganda and manipulation because of their lack of education and their experience of mindless and exhausting labor, from which mass culture, however unedifying, was a pleasant relief. C. Wright Mills (1951, 1956), in his radical critique of American society in the 1950s, elaborated on the extreme dependence and vulnerability of the ordinary person in the face of the monopoly media and advertising industry. The media were attributed the power to create extreme dependence in respect of basic psychic needs for identity and self-realization. The way they were organized made it virtually impossible to answer back and the media could impose a “psychological illiteracy.” According to Marcuse (1964), incorporation into the mass audience was part of the process of control and homogenization that led to a “one-dimensional society,” meaning a society in which real differences of class interests were concealed without being resolved. Consumer and audience demands were interpreted in critical theory as “false needs” (artificially stimulated) whose satisfaction benefited only the ruling capitalist class. The generation of media critics of the immediate post Second World War period were often populist and pro-democratic in their aims, but also pessimistic about the will and the capacity of the media audience to resist exploitation by the sophisticated new “consciousness industries.” They believed in the possibility of redemption, but only if the capitalist system could be removed or reformed. The cultural critics of the succeeding generation, represented mainly in Britain by Hoggart (1957), Williams (1961), and Hall (1977) and in the United States by Gitlin (1978), Carey (1974, 1975, 1977), Newcomb (1976), and others, reinterpreted the predominant tastes and preferences of the “mass” audience in a positive way. They rejected the concept of mass and refused to equate popular culture with “low culture” (McGuigan, 1992). Popular culture was seen as different in kind from “high” culture rather than inferior, and best interpreted according to its local and particular meanings. Even so, the main thrust of critique from the Left remained grounded in an attack on the commercial exploiters of more or less vulnerable media consumers. According to Gitlin (1978), the representation in communication research of the audience as active and resistant (as noted above) was itself largely an ideological move designed to obscure the continuing reality and to deflect the attack on monopolist, capitalist media. The school of audience research (especially the “uses and gratifications” approach) that emphasized the audience as being “in charge” of their media experience (see “The Behaviorist Tradition: Media Effects and Media Uses,” this chapter) was also attacked for overstating the real autonomy of the audience (Elliott, 1974). In an innovative and sophisticated move, the Canadian Dallas Smythe (1977) gave birth to the theory that audiences actually work for advertisers (thus, for their ultimate oppressors) by giving their free time to watch media, which labor is then packaged and sold by the media to advertisers as a new kind of “commodity.” The whole system of commercial television and the press rests on this extraction of surplus value from an economically exploited audience. The same audience has to pay yet again for its media, by way of the extra cost added to the advertised goods. It was an ingenious and convincing piece of theorizing that revealed the mass audience phenomenon in quite a new light (see Jhally & Livant, 1986). It is plausible to suppose that the media need their audience more than audiences need their media, and there is also reason to view audience research as primarily a tool for the close control and management (call it manipulation) of media audiences. A more recent critical view charges the media industry with routinely transforming the actual television audience into a piece of commercial information called “ratings” (Ang, 1991). Ratings are described as forming “the basis for the agreed-upon standard by which advertisers and network buy and sell the audience commodity” (p. 54). Ang reminds us that “watching television is an ongoing, day-to-day cultural practice engaged in by millions of people” and the “ratings discourse” serves to “capture and encompass the viewing practice of all these people in a singular, object-ified, streamlined construct of ‘television audience.’” These comments essentially label the industry view of the audience as intrinsically dehumanizing and exploitative. Again, it reflects the view that commercial mass media are served by their audiences rather than vice versa. Up to a point, critical theory does no more than put an extra interpretive gloss on views about the power of the media to hold and attract their audience. These ideas are much more widely held and also carry more “scientific” credentials. For instance, the still widely current media dependency theory of Ball-Rokeach and DeFleur (1976) is based on an assumption of audience submission to the media system as a normal condition of modern society. The cultural indicators theory of Gerbner and associates (Signorielli & Morgan, 1990) also presumes a degree of addictive power on the part of the medium of television. As we will see, there is a strong and continuing strand of judgmental attitudinizing with respect to audiences. Ideological critique, social concern, moralizing, and cultural pessimism are intermingled, and the more recent effort by the field of cultural studies to liberate the audience from these shackles has not fully succeeded (Ferguson & Golding, 1997; McGuigan, 1992). Goals of Audience Research Because the audience has always been a contested category, it is not surprising that the purposes of doing research into audiences are varied and often inconsistent. All research shares the general characteristic that it helps to “construct,” “locate,” or “identify” an otherwise amorphous, shifting, or unknowable social entity. But the methods used, the constructions of the audience arrived at, and the uses to which they are put all diverge considerably. Leaving aside the purposes of theory building, we can classify research goals in terms of the main uses to which information about the audience can be put. These include: accounting for sales (bookkeeping) measuring actual and potential reach for purposes of advertising manipulating and channeling audience choice behavior looking for audience market opportunities product testing and improving communication effectiveness meeting responsibilities to serve an audience evaluating media performance in a number of ways (e.g., to test allegations of harmful effects) Perhaps the most fundamental division of purpose is that between media industry goals and those that take the perspective and “side” of the audience. Research can, as it were, represent the voice of the audience, or speak on its behalf. The goal of meeting responsibilities to the audience often guides research carried out by public broadcasters (e.g., Emmett, 1968). It is also represented by recent developments in the United States referred to as “public” or “civic” journalism (Rosen & Merritt, 1994). Newspapers, for instance, are urged to take better account, in selecting news, of the needs and interests of their own (usually local) readers through intensive and continuous research. Although it is not at all sure that audience research can ever truly serve the audience alone, we can provisionally view the different purposes of research as extending along a dimension ranging from AUDIENCE CONTROL to AUDIENCE AUTONOMY. By far the greatest quantity of audience research belongs at the Control end of the spectrum, since this is what the industry wants and pays for (Beniger, 1986). Few of the results of industry research appear in the public domain and are consequently neglected in academic accounts of the audience. Despite this overall imbalance of research effort, the clearest line of development in audience theory has been a move away from the perspective of the media communicator and toward that of the receiver. Accounts of audience research have increasingly tended to emphasize the “rediscovery” of people and the notion of an active and obstinate audience in the face of attempted manipulation or persuasion. Alternative Traditions of Research Jensen and Rosengren (1990) distinguished five traditions of audience research that can be summarized as having to do with: effects; uses and gratifications; literary criticism; cultural studies; and reception analysis. For present purposes, it is convenient to deploy a somewhat more economical typology of audience research, by identifying three main variant approaches under the headings “structural,” “behavioral,” and “sociocultural.” The first of these is not well covered by Jensen and Rosengren’s scheme and the “literary criticism” heading is of little relevance here. The Structural Tradition of Audience Measurement The needs of media industries gave rise to the earliest and simplest kinds of research, which were designed to obtain reliable estimates of what were otherwise unknown quantities—especially the size and reach of radio audiences and the “reach” of print publications (the number of potential readers as opposed to the circulation or print-run). These data were essential to management, especially for gaining paid advertising. In addition to size, it was important to know about the social composition of audiences in basic terms—the who and where of the audience. These elementary needs gave rise to an immense industry interconnected with that of advertising and market research. The structural approach is theoretically important because it can help to show the relation between the media system and individual media use (Weibull, 1985). For instance, choice is always limited by what is available in a given media market. It is also important in research on communication effects, as when opinion, attitude, or reported behavior data are interrelated with data about media use patterns and with demographic data. The amount and kind of media “exposure” is always a key variable in effects analysis. The structural approach can also be used to study the “flow” of an audience over time between different channels and content types (e.g., Barwise & Ehren-berg, 1988; Emmett, 1972). It can be used to establish typologies of viewers, listeners, and readers (e.g., Espé & Seiwert, 1986; McCain, 1986; Weiman, Wober, & Brosius, 1992) by relating media use behavior with relevant social background characteristics. Not least, it has a role to play in making media more publicly accountable. Audience surveys can measure the relative satisfaction or trust that different sectors of the media enjoy. The Behaviorist Tradition: Media Effects and Media Uses Early mass communication research was mainly preoccupied with media effects, especially on children and young people, and with an emphasis on potential harm (see Klapper, 1960). Nearly every serious effects study has also been an audience study, in which the audience is conceptualized as “exposed” to influence or impact, whether of a persuasive, learning, or behavioral kind. The typical effects model was a one-way process in which the audience was conceived as an unwitting target or a passive recipient of media stimuli. Much early effects research followed the experimental approach, in which communication conditions (of content, channel, and reception) were manipulated in the search for general lessons about how better to communicate or to avoid harmful consequences. An early example was the wartime research program into film as a motivational and training tool for recruits (Hovland, Lumsdaine, & Sheffeld, 1949). The appeal of, and response to, portrayals of violence and related phenomena in the media have mainly been investigated within this tradition. The Payne Fund studies into the effects of film on youth (e.g., Blumer, 1933) provide the first example of such research. Many studies of elections, beginning with Lazarsfeld, Berelson, and Gaudet’s (1944) classic study of the U.S. 1940 presidential election have sought to relate audience behavior to voting behavior. The second main type of “behavioral” audience research was in many ways a reaction to the model of direct effects. Media use was now central and the audience was viewed as a more or less active and motivated set of media users/consumers, who were “in charge” of their media experience, rather than passive “victims.” Research focused on the origin, nature, and degree of motives for choice of media and media content. Audiences were also permitted to provide the definitions of their own behavior (see Blumler & Katz, 1974). Pioneering examples can be found of research into the motives and selection patterns of audiences, mostly conducted in a social-psychological mode (e.g., Cantril & Allport, 1935, on the radio audience; Lazarsfeld & Stanton, 1949; Waples, Berelson, & Bradshaw, 1940, on reading). This tradition subsequently developed by way of many studies into mass media violence (see Comstock, Chaffee, Katzman, McCombs, & Roberts, 1978) and into the uses (positive as well as harmful) of mass media by children (Rosengren & Windahl, 1989; Schramm et al., 1961). A distinctive subtradition later crystallized out in the form of research into the motives for media choice and the perceived gratifications and uses of media (Blumler & Katz, 1974; Rosengren, Palmgreen, & Rayburn, 1985). The “uses and gratifications” approach is not strictly “behavioral,” since its main emphasis is on the social origins of media gratifications and on the wider social functions of media, for instance in facilitating social contact and interaction or in reducing tension and anxiety. The Cultural Tradition and Reception Analysis The cultural studies tradition also occupies a borderland between social science and the humanities. It has been almost exclusively concerned with works of popular culture in contrast to an early literary tradition. It emphasizes media use as a reflection of a particular sociocultural context and as a process of giving meaning to cultural products and experiences. This school of research rejects both the stimulus-response model of effects and the notion of an all-powerful text or message. At first, attempts were made (e.g., Morley, 1980) to show that messages could be “read” or “decoded” quite variously by differently constituted social and cultural groups and also differently than intended by their originators. As decoding research merged into the general rise of media cultural studies in the 1980s, it became axiomatic to expect, and not too hard to prove, that most media messages were essentially “polysemic” (i.e., having multiple meanings) and open to several possible interpretations (Liebes & Katz, 1986, 1989, 1990). The other main strand of the culturalist approach involves a view of media use as in itself a significant aspect of “everyday life.” Media use practices can only be understood in relation to the particular social context and experience of a subcultural group (Bausinger, 1984). Media reception research emphasized the study of audiences as “interpretive communities” (Lindlof, 1988). This concept refers to shared outlook and modes of understanding, often arising out of shared social experiences. Reception analysis is effectively the audience research arm of modern cultural studies, rather than an independent tradition. It strongly emphasizes the role of the “reader” in the “decoding” of media texts. It has generally had a consciously “critical” edge, in the terms discussed above, claiming for the audience a power to resist and subvert the dominant or hegemonic meanings offered by the mass media. It is characterized by the use of qualitative and ethnographic methods (Morley, 1992; Seiter, Borchers, Kreutzner, & Warth, 1989). The main features of the culturalist (reception) tradition of audience research can be summarized as follows (though not all are exclusive to this approach): the media text has to be “read” through the perceptions of its audience, which constructs meanings and pleasures from the media texts offered (and these are never fixed or predictable) the very process of media use and the way in which it unfolds in a particular context are central objects of interest media use is typically situation-specific and oriented to social tasks that evolve out of participation in “interpretative communities” audiences for particular media genres often comprise separate “interpretative communities” that share much the same forms of discourse and frameworks for making sense of media audiences are never passive, nor are all their members equal, since some will be more experienced or more active fans than others methods have to be “qualitative” and deep, often ethnographic, taking account of content, act of reception, and context together (Lindlof, 1991) It is fairly obvious that this tradition has little in common with either the structuralist or behaviorist approaches. Ang (1991) criticized the “mainstream” audience research tradition for adopting an “institutional” view that aims to produce commercial and institutional knowledge of an abstraction of the audience for purposes of control and manipulation. She argues that media institutions have no real interest in knowing their audiences, only in being able to prove there is one, by way of systems and techniques of measurement (e.g., “people meters”) that convince their clients, but that can never begin to capture the true essence of “audiencehood.” Behaviorist and psychological approaches may get nearer to the goal of describing the nature of audience experience but from the cultural perspective the outcomes of research remain abstract, individualized, and desiccated renderings that can only lend themselves to manipulative purposes. The three traditions are summarily compared in Table 2.1. There are some indications of increasing convergence in research approaches (Curran, 1990; Schrøder, 1987), especially in the combination of quantitative and qualitative methods, but large differences of underlying philosophy and conceptualization remain between the alternative schools. These differences have implications for the goals of research and for the choice of methods. Issues Arising This brief review of alternative research approaches helps to identify the main issues and problems that have shaped thinking and research about mass media audiences, aside from the obvious practical need to have basic information. The issues range from the industry-practical and the social-problematic to the purely theoretical, although practice and theory are always connected. As we will see, the transformation of a straight question about the audience into an “issue” or a social problem normally requires the injection of some value judgments, as described in the following paragraphs. Media Use as a Social Problem Media policy has often been driven by normative assumptions about the mass audience and a good deal of noncommercial research has been guided by the notion that media use may in itself be problematic for society as well as for the individual concerned. “Excessive” media use has been viewed as harmful and unhealthy (especially for children), leading to addiction, dissociation from reality, reduced social contacts, and diversion from education. Television has been the most usual suspect, but before television, films and comics were regarded similarly, while video games and computers have become the latest perpetrators. This pessimistic view is often disputed, and the issue can also be posed positively, in terms of the need to attract audiences to media content that is educative, culturally enriching, or pro-social in its influence. Whatever else, it seems that audience membership readily lends itself to moral and social assessment, and the audience itself is aware of a social norm that condemns undue time spent on media. TABLE 2.1 Three Audience Research Traditions Compared The Mass Audience and Social Atomization The oldest as well as the most general theoretical question about the audience is whether or not it should be treated as a social group (or a public, in the sense outlined earlier) or simply as a mass of isolated individuals. To qualify as the former, an audience would need to show conditions of having boundaries, self-awareness, internal interaction, systems of normative control (Ennis, 1961). The more an audience is viewed as an aggregate of isolated individuals (or a market of consumers), the more it can be considered as a mass. Many subsidiary questions flow from this, including the issue of whether new interactive media possibilities can help to restore group-like collective features to audience experience. As noted already, there are always alternative ways of regarding the same audience phenomenon and often there are vested interests in such choices. The industry clients of most applied media research and the typical methods of large-scale sample surveys have a bias toward conceiving the audience in terms of aggregate individual behaviors. Survey methods inevitably decompose groups and social networks and can only produce information about aggregates of individuals. This reinforces the tendency to think of “audience behavior” as the outcome of acts of individual consumption rather than as social actions in the Weberian sense of “behavior which is oriented to others” (Freidson, 1953). The group character of audience is ignored or lost sight of as a result. Audience Behavior as Active or Passive? Another broad theoretical issue concerns the degree of “activity” or “passivity” that can be attributed to the audience. By definition, the audience as a mass is passive, because it is incapable of collective action, whereas any true social group has the means and may have the inclination to be active in the sense of choosing a shared goal and participating in its pursuit. Individual acts of media choice, attention, and response can also be more or less active, in terms of degree of motivation, attention, involvement, pleasure, critical or creative response, connection with the rest of life, and so forth. There has always been a tendency, whether explicitly or not, to view active media use as “better” than passive spectatorship. It is usually supposed that the more active the audience in the senses mentioned, the more resilient and resistant it will be to persuasion, influence, or manipulation, which is also generally viewed as good, although advertisers and propagandists may have other ideas. In principle, active audiences provide more feedback for media communicators, and the relationship between senders and receivers is more interactive. Newer media technologies are thought to have a greater potential for interactivity. There are new possibilities for audience definition and new types of audience are emerging. Instead of an audience as the attentive mass or group we can, for instance, increasingly speak of a “taste culture” or a “lifestyle” to describe patterns of choice. The more that individuals are free and able to compose their own media “diets” as a result of new technology, the more such types of audience will emerge, having no clear definition in terms of social categories, but held together, nevertheless, by a convergence of cultural tastes, interests, or information needs. Audiences are now smaller, more numerous, and much less likely to have a fixed and predictable membership. The media have increasing difficulty in identifying and retaining “their” particular audience. Patterns of media use will simply be a part of varied and changing lifestyles. The issue of whether an audience is a group or not might seem to have become increasingly irrelevant. However, it has acquired new currency as a result of new interactive media that seem to have a potential for creating new kinds of “virtual communities.” Alternative Perceptions of the Audience At one extreme, we find a view of the audience as either a consumer market or a commodity to be sold to advertisers, at so much per thousand. What counts are numbers and purchasing power. Alternatively, the audience can be approached in normative and relational terms, with a genuine communicative purpose. What matters then is its composition, its engagement with communicators and content, the quality of attention and response, its loyalty, commitment, and continuity. Also at issue here is the dilemma referred to above, between research for control or for liberation and protection of the audience. Whose side is the researcher on? This question has become inextricably mixed up with the question of methods and the built-in bias of different research approaches. The history of research into audiences has been troubled by a fundamental conflict of view between practitioners of quantitative, survey, or experimental research and advocates of alternative, more qualitative, and intensive research. The former seems more inclined to serve the goals of management, the latter claims to take the point of view, and to “be on the side,” of the audience. The qualitative option, which is often claimed as more critical of the media and more sympathetic to the audience, requires close attention to the details of the context of reception and use and also to the meanings that may be derived from content received. It also involves a resistance to the head-counting of commercial audience research for control and management. Implications of New Media Technology Finally, there is the question of the future of media, especially as a result of the changes in communication technology described above, which have led to opposing predictions and valuations. One proposition is that audiences will become more and more fragmented and will lose their national, local, or cultural identity. There will also be an increasing gap between the media rich and the media poor. Another negative view of new electronic media is that they strengthen the potential for social control and surveillance (Gandy, 1989; Spears & Lea, 1994). On the other hand, new kinds of integration may compensate for the loss of older forms, more options for audience formation are available to more people, and there could be more freedom and diversity of communication and reception. The critical theorist Enzensberger (1972) was one of the first to envisage a radical transformation as a result of new communication technologies, undermining the old state and capitalistic monopolies. New types of community could also emerge, based on interactive communication, untrammelled by cultural barriers. These predictions remain largely in the realm of speculation. The search for answers depends not only on collecting evidence but also on the value perspective adopted. Do we, for instance, prefer the collective virtues of old mass media audiences or the cultural mobility and freedom from social ties of the electronic highway? Conclusion As long as the media continue to grow and to matter to society, we can expect audience theory and research to flourish. This review of issues suggests that there are some perennial concerns, although there are also some shifts, reflecting changing technology and changing social values and conditions.
MLA (Modern Language Assoc.)
Denis McQuail. Audience Analysis. SAGE Publications, Inc, 1997.
APA (American Psychological Assoc.)
Denis McQuail. (1997). Audience Analysis. SAGE Publications, Inc.
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MLA (Modern Language Assoc.)
Denis McQuail. Audience Analysis. SAGE Publications, Inc, 1997.
APA (American Psychological Assoc.)
Denis McQuail. (1997). Audience Analysis. SAGE Publications, Inc.
Deliverable 2 – Commencement Address
Analyze audience, occasion, and purpose in message strategies.
Knowing how to analyze who your audience is, what the occasion calls for and what the purpose of a speech is a process that is imperative before presenting information.
For this assignment you are going to prepare a written speech that you would deliver if you were asked to deliver the commencement address at your Rasmussen graduation.
At the top of the written speech please identify who you believe will be in the audience, what a graduation speech calls for and the purpose. Then write out a manuscript of the speech. The entire document should not exceed 2 pages and the speech should not exceed 10 minutes.