Preparing to Study Mass Communication

If you have any interest in why individuals are motivated to do what they do, it might be worth it to study some of the theories of mass communication, which often provide probable reasons for exactly what motivates someone to act the way they do. This article presents samples of discussion topics that are likely to come up when discussing different aspects of mass communication, including media portrayals of different groups, advertising and ethics, and the connective group activities in which members of a society participate.

Discussion Questions for Media Portrayals of Groups

How certain demographics are represented on television

1. Do satirical portrayals of negative stereotypes, where the goal is to draw attention to how ridiculous those stereotypes are, significantly change perceptions of media portrayals of certain groups? For instance, does comedy help neutralize negative portrayals that in a dramatic frame would be interpreted as offensive?

These questions draw particular attention to the responsibility of those in charge of network programming when determining what types of portrayals make it to air.

2. Do newer technologies like the Internet help to standardize potentially inconsistent reactions to characters like Archie Bunker? If the character was meant as a subversion of racist thoughts, could a racist who mighty identify with that character’s viewpoints do so effectively when the intentions of the writers and the interpretations of less prejudiced people are widely known and show the character to obviously be a satire or send-up of bigoted schemas?

Advertising and Related Questions for Discussion

Advertising and Ethics

1. If advertisers are primarily motivated to sell products, do they have an ethical responsibility to positively portray groups of people that have not traditionally had a lot of exposure on television? The best example of this is probably homosexuals, who are almost never prominently featured in mainstream commercial advertising.

This question is particularly concerned with the constraints of format. If a commercial is only thirty seconds long (or less), just how much time can an advertiser afford to spend in establishing the background and personality of those in the commercial?

2. Should the societal standards of today retroactively impact the media content of yesterday? Ratings for movies that include characters smoking are automatically higher now than they were in years past. Should movies that were initially rated G be given new ratings of PG or PG-13 if there are instances of smoking in them?

These questions show the changing face of culture as the years pass. In order to keep the past relevant, some might argue that it needs to be re-evaluated and re-codified for today's audience. Others might argue that media from the past should remain as it is, an artifact that draws stark contrast to the world of today.


Sports, Music, and Religion

Connective Tissue for Society

Many people in the world today identify strongly with at least one of these three categories: religion, music, and sports. Even if a person is not religious, they might identify their powerful connection to a sports franchise or rock band as being a form of religious practice, even if only in hyperbolic terms. This is not completely surprising, since the roots of religion also likely inform the roots of other connective social activities.

The word religion itself comes from the Latin re-ligare, literally meaning to re-link (or connect). The English word ligament also comes from the ligare part of the Latin word, and is defined in anatomy as the strong material that holds muscle to bone, connecting these elements in much the same way that religion supposedly connects a congregation to each other and to a higher power.

Similarly, sports connect congregations of fans to each other, but there are certainly some questions about how these activities are portrayed by the media.

1. Seeings a wide variety of sports on television leads to the assumption that most popular sports are popular everywhere (or at least across America). Does national television exposure for sports like basketball and football represent a true homogeneity of popularity across the nation, or are these sports still primarily more popular in certain regions? And is this changing as sports become more ubiquitous through media?

2. Glorifying violence in sports is a concern of society, with clear connections to behavior changes in stadium attendees who occasionally engage in mass rioting. Is the home audience protected from these potential behavioral changes by the mediation of the sport through radio and television? And does this mediation contribute or enhance the enjoyment of violence that is experienced vicariously?

Agenda Setting Theory

For more on agenda setting theory, check out this related article. Some of the important elements of agenda setting theory are issue salience and selective perception, and these elements are also broached in the following discussion questions.

1. Young adults and teens increasingly self-report as getting their news from late-night comedy programs such as The Daily Show. Is this a reasonable substitute for actual news, especially in light of Jon Stewart having said that he is primarily motivated to be a comedian first, not a newsman? Statements like this comes across as an attempt at absolving responsibility for misreported news stories, which could create faulty perceptions and knowledge structures in the minds of the audience.

2. Some controversial findings show that a rise in media news covering suicides leads to more actual teenage suicides. What is it about this particular type of news that causes mimicking behaviors in some teenagers, and is there a way to prevent it? Should news media spend more time constructing and setting frames for the audience that clearly defines societal attitudes for suicide as negative and undesirable, or should the media swear off bringing attention to this subject entirely for fear of encouraging more copycat behavior?

Again, we run into the issue of gatekeeper responsibility in the media, as we ask ourselves exactly what type of issue coverage should be used when covering sensitive topics like teen suicide. And that is perhaps the most important thing to take away from all these discussion questions: that responsibility for powerful ideas must be held by someone, whether that is members of the audience or those who create the schedules for mass communication.