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Media Theory and Theorists

Below is a list of influential media theorists which you should be familiar with and be able to quote in your
essays for all three exam papers. It is neither an exhaustive nor a prescriptive list. Please feel free to quote
your own pet theorists. The important thing to remember is that whatever view or position you hold when
discussing theories of the media is to be able to support what you say from theorists and specific examples,
so in all cases you should ensure that detailed examples are learned or quoted. You have enough examples
from classwork but again your own examples are just as valid.

Most of these references are taken from Stuart Price’s book Media Studies, Longman, 1993, with the occa-
sional reference to Studying the Media (O’Sullivan, Dutton & Rayner, Arnold, 1994), a copy of which is in
the Library or available at a good Broome-cupboard near you.

Gurevitch and Roberts Mass communication is ‘mediated’ through a specific set of technologies which
stand between the senders and receivers. ‘Mediation’ is the process of the
representation of events through the media.
(Price, p.8-9)

Note also the Schramm, Lasswell, Shannon-Weaver models of communication

McQuail He describes 3 alternative models of communication:

1. The command mode which considers that there are differences in power
and authority between senders and receivers, that the senders are in a domi-
nant position, so that no feedback was allowed or only that which was
acceptable by the sender.

2. The service mode is “the most frequently occurring form of relationship”
between sender and receiver, where they are both united by a mutual inter-
est “within a market situation”.

3. The associational mode states that shared beliefs attach a particular group
or public to a specific media source (not particularly relevant to the mass


“Narrative is a way of organising material” (Price, p.245)

Todorov He proposed the idea that a narrative has 5 distinct transformations through
which the story proceeds. These are :

1. the state of equilibrium - all is in order

2. a disruption (disequilibrium) of the ordered state by an event

3. a recognition that a disruption has taken place

4. an attempt to repair the damage of the disruption

5. a return to some kind of equilibrium

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Apply this to any fictional or non-fictional form. Perhaps too general and can never reveal the true detail of
narrative. (Price, p. 248)

Branigan Thought that people tend to remember stories in terms of “categories of infor-
mation” and that narrative is an “activity that organises data into a special
pattern which represents and explains experience”:-

1. introduction of setting and characters

2. explanation of state of affairs

3. initiating event

4. emotional response or statement of a goal by the protagonist

5. complicating actions

6. outcome

7. reactions to the outcome (Price, p.248)

Propp Russian critic of fairy tales in 1928, he identified 32 categories of action and
over 30 character-types who have a specific function within the narrative to
cause events:

1. the hero, who seeks something

2. the villain who hinders or is in competition with the hero

3. the donor who provides some kind of magic talisman that helps the hero

4. the helper who aids the hero and his/her quest

5. the heroine/princess who acts as a reward for the hero and is the object of
the villain’s schemes

6. the dispatcher who sends the hero on his/her way by providing a message

7. the false hero who disrupts the hero’s hope of reward by pressing false

8. the princess/heroine’s father who acts to reward the hero for his efforts.

The categories of action are:

1. Preparation

2. Complication

3. Transference

4. Struggle

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5. Return

6. Recognition

These are all elements that can occur at different points in the tale. (Price, p.245 ff.)


Genre can mean ‘type’ or category of text.
Neale Genres are “systems” of “expectations and conventions” that circulate
between “industry, text and subject”.

“The idea of an audience’s foreknowledge (knowledge of genre in advance, based
on experience of other texts) will obviously lead to a certain set of expectations. It
is these expectations which are then used to catch the attention of the audience
whenever a film is being publicised.” (Price, p.254)

“Repetition is a key element in the way audiences understand and relate to narra-
tives.” (Studying the Media (O’Sullivan, Dutton & Rayner, Arnold, 1994)

Ideology refers to systems of belief.
McLennan In The Power of Ideology, he set out 3 conditions which must be fulfilled if ideas and
beliefs are to be regarded as ideological:

1. the ideas concerned must be shared by a significant number of people

2. the ideas must form some kind of coherent system

3. the ideas must connect in some way to the use of power in society

(Price, p.57)
Coates He describes 4 traditions of thought as a way of understand-
ing society, but also add feminist and ecological approaches as well.

1. Liberalism — derived from Adam Smith’s economic theories about self-
interest as being beneficial to society; sees society as composed of “rational
individuals in pursuit of their self-interest”. The state provides “external
defence and internal order”, and individuals produce wealth not for pure
self-interest but ultimately for society’s general good.

2. Marxism — Karl Marx believed that individuals only truly existed in social
relationships and that only through mutual co-operation would society ben-
efit. Thus the class system of the bourgeois who owned property and the
means of production hindered the proletariat who merely worked for them.
When the proletariat combined then the bourgeois would perish and society
would move forward.

3. Social Reformism — derived from the thinkings of John Stuart Mill who
believed in moral development, reform and education with the greatest

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number of people participating in society through these activities.

4. Conservatism — the primary aim of conservatives is to maintain the status
quo, whatever that might be at the time, because, they believe “The present,
with all its inequalities, is based on the accumulated wisdom of previous

“The role of the mass media [in a Liberal society] is to provide accurate and
reliable information, upon which rational economic decisions can be made; the
media must respect the rights of the individual; the media are made up of groups
of energetic entrepreneurs; the media should not be run by the state, although
sensible regulation is necessary.”

(Price, p.14)

“The mass media [in a Marxist view of capitalist society] exist to maintain the
capitalist state in power.”

(Price, p.15)

“The role of the mass media [in a Social-Reformist society] is to play a construc-
tive part in a mature democracy.”

(Price, p.15)

“The role of the mass media [in a Conservative society] is to act as a force for
social cohesion.”

(Price, p.15)
McQuail He describes a number of alternative models of society, often
growing out of Marxist thought:

1. Mass society theory, where the institutions with power (the establishment)
support each other; the population is offered entertainment by the media as
a diversion from their subordinate or lower position.

2. Classic Marxist theory states that the capitalist class dominates and ex-
ploits the working class, whilst the mass media, being owned by the capital-
ists, circulate ideas that will keep them in power.

3. Political-economic theory stresses that information which circulates in
society is valued according to its possible profitability; the uneven distribu-
tion of resources prevents critical voices being heard. One development of
this theory is that the media’s role is to produce and deliver audiences as
sources of profitability.

4. The theories of the Frankfurt school and Marcuse suggest that the work-
ing class has been diverted by the mass production of goods, ideas and
culture, and that marginal groups in society can resist and change even
though they do not have the same control over the working class.

5. Theories of hegemony come from the belief that the dominant ideas of the
ruling classes reproduce themselves in the minds of the subordinate. Ruling
ideas would become the ideas of the whole of society and capitalism is able

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to survive.

6. Social-cultural theory tries to understand how marginal group in society
make use of mass culture offered by the media and how in turn mass culture
draws these younger people and ethnic minorities into society.

(Price, p.16)
Representation is “the way in which ideas, objects, people, groups and life-forms are depicted by the mass
media…[and] is the method used by the mass media to create meanings.”
(Price, p.33)

“A stereotype is a label which involves a process of categorisation and evalua-
tion… an easily grasped characteristic (usually negative) is presumed to belong to
a whole group…”

(O’Sullivan, Dutton & Rayner, p.126)

But Perkins (1979) argues that:

1. some stereotypes are positive ( “The French are good cooks.”)

2. they are not always minority groups or the less powerful

3. they can be held about one’s own group

4. they are not rigid or unchanging

5. they are not always false

Indeed, she argues that stereotypes would not work if they were so simple and erroneous.
(O’Sullivan, Dutton & Rayner, p.127)

Feminist perspective on representation of women
E. Ann Kaplan She defined feminist thought into the political and the philosophical:
Philosophical approach is either ‘essentialist’ or ‘anti-essentialist’.

1. Essentialist argue that women are a distinct group of people “in terms of an
essence that precedes culture and is ultimately biological in origin.” Women
therefore possess essential humaneness to combat men’s competitiveness.

2. The anti-essential view is one that does not look for the essential femininity
but tries to understand the process by which the female is ‘constructed’ by
a male-dominated society.
The political categories are:

1. Bourgeois feminism means the concern of women to obtain equal rights
and freedoms within a capitalist system

2. Marxist feminism which links the specific oppression of women within the
larger structure of capitalism

3. Radical feminism which sees women as different from men and pursues
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completely separate communities for women with their specific needs and

4. Post-structural feminism where we analyse the language order “through
which we learn to be what our culture calls women”

(Price, p.309)

Meehan She conducted a big survey of prime-time US drama series in the 1970s and
came up with ten types of representation of women and called for new repre-

“it’s time to tell the stories of female heroes - heading families, heading corpora-
tions, conquering fears, and coping with change.”
(Price, p.311)

“This is the system which organises representations into recognisable forms.”

Alvarado He and his co-authors suggest 7 categories which cover the list of institu-
tional determinants:

1. finance

2. production practices

3. technological elements

4. legislative frameworks

5. circulation

6. audience construction

7. audience’s use
(Price, p.35)
Much research and theorising into what an audience is has been carried out.
Burton He defines 3 ways in which an audience can be seen to be specific

1. where they are defined by a particular product (a Guardian reader)

2. where there is a specific audience for a type of media product ( a computer
magazine reader)

3. where audiences belong to pre-existing groups (defined by age, gender,
class etc.)

Hartley lists 7 types of elements that go to create the social position of an individual (category 3 above):

1. self

2. gender

3. age group

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4. family

5. class

6. nation

7. ethnicity
Fiske adds to this list:

1. education

2. religion

3. political allegiance

4. region

5. urban versus rural background
(Price, p.114)

There are a variety of methods of measuring an audience. McQuail offers these 4:

1. empirical method involves counting the number of people who use a cer-
tain product, usually done after a product has been consumed (for product
read media text). An audience breakdown can be done detailing groups and
sub-groups of people who consume products. (c.f. Daily Express audience

2. the view of the audience as a mass of individuals with a brief and inconsist-
ent composition with no conscious group identity i.e. the mass audience for
cinema, for TV etc.

3. the idea of an audience which is a distinct social group in its own right
which may be served by a particular or specialised medium, but which does
not depend on the media for its existence, i.e. the audience for a local pub-

4. the deliberate targeting of particular sections of the mass audience. So-
cial, economic or even lifestyle groups can be persuaded that certain prod-
ucts and services are especially suitable for their needs, although that group
only comes into existence when the targeting takes place.
(Price, p.115)

Behaviour of audiences
There are various ways of studying audiences:

1. effects tradition dwells on the effect that forms or contents of the media
have, specifically watching TV in general, for example, has an effect, so the
effect of violence on TV would be valid research topic

2. uses and gratifications as a theory is concerned with what audiences do
with the media. A specific group would be researched so that the empirical
method (McQuail) could be used.

3. content investigation might focus on the different interpretations different
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identifiable groups or sub-groups ( e.g. socio-economic groups or ethnic
minorities) might give a media text). See Morley below

4. there is the investigation on how audiences are positioned by texts, where
an audience is offered a social space and ideological interpretation by a text
. Also known as interpellation.

[uses and gratifications: Blumler and Katz (1974) listed 4 broad needs fulfilled by watching TV:

1. Diversion — a form of escape or emotional release from everyday pres-

2. Personal relationships — companionship via TV personalities and char-
acters, and sociability through discussion about TV with other people

3. Personal identity — the ability to compare one’s life with the characters
and situations within programmes, and hence explore personal problems
and perspectives

4. Surveillance — a supply of information about ‘what’s going on’ in the

(O’Sullivan, Dutton & Rayner, p.156)

Media Effects Studying the effect of media texts on an audience may produce the following
behaviour, according to Price:

1. Socialisation is where the mass media help to introduce an individual into
social behaviour by presenting norms of behaviour

2. Social control is the way the media reproduces the social order by reinforc-
ing the status quo, as most institutions force out dissent

3. Agenda setting is a more indirect process where the media selects events
or issues which merit attention and is a means of doing 1 and 2 above.

4. Moral panics are effects which are supposed to emerge when the media
consistently represents a subgroup as dangerous or deviant and the general
population attribute all kinds of social ill on them (Road Rage, Trolley Rage,
stalkers, killer dogs etc.)

5. Attitude Change where the public is imagined to be vulnerable to persua-
sive messages so that changes in attitude towards a range of issues may be
effected. Often associated with political campaigns.

6. Behavioural change is meant to occur as a result of traumatic exposure to
media input which is exciting or distressing or as a result of a successful
alteration in the way people think about an issue thus preparing them to act
on their new perceptions (famine victims in Ethiopia, Bosnia war crime
(Price, p.338)
Mass media are seen to have a direct effect on the public, especially so in former Eastern bloc countries

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where violence and coercion are also present. One of these direct effects is the hypodermic needle effect
whereby “media content is supposedly ‘injected’ into the consciousness of an audience”(Price, p.340) This is
largely a dead theory and only used by moral campaigners to suggest the evil affects of the media on the
public. No account is taken of the filtering agents at work within social groups or within individuals.

The inoculation theory suggests that continued exposure to specific TV messages (like violence, for exam-
ple) would lead to an audience becoming desensitised so that real violence in this case is dismissed as being
too ordinary and unimportant.

The psychodynamic model after DeFleur included the persuasive effect of the message being dependent
upon the psychology of the individual.

Persuasion can be defined as:

“a successful intentional effort at influencing another’s mental state through com-
munication in a circumstance in which the persuadee has some measure of free-

(O’Keefe, quoted by Price, p.341)
This would need to affect the attitudes, beliefs and values of an individual (c.f. O’Keefe and Myers &

When looking at the effects of the media upon audience problems occur when:

1. one assumes the audience is passive

2. there is confusion between short- (an election) and long-term (the ideologi-
cal change on gender, for example) effects

3. it is virtually impossible to measure media effects of the media cannot be
isolated from other social influences
Halloran’s phrase is useful here:

“We must get away from the habit of thinking in terms of what the media do to
people and substitute for it the idea of what people can do with the media.”
(quoted by O’Sullivan, Dutton & Rayner, p.155)

Morley Morley researched Nationwide, a magazine-type current affairs TV pro-
gramme in the 70s.

He “wished to understand how meanings are experienced by people through the
process of living in society, and how these meanings are then put into a form that
can be recognised and understood by other people…[he was not] impressed by
research which concentrates on the supposed power of mass communication con-
tent to overwhelm audiences.”

(Price. p.119)

Morley explains his view that:

“…the TV message is treated as a complex sign, in which a preferred meaning has
been inscribed, but which retains the potential … of communicating a different

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(quoted by Price. p.119)

Morley thought that audiences decoded texts according to the following factors:

1. The position people occupied in the structures of age, sex, race and class

2. the involvement of people in cultural identities (i.e. membership of trades
unions, political parties or specific sub-cultural groups based on age, ethnic
origin etc.)

3. the relationship between the particular message and a group’s experience of
it (had they heard of it before or only through the media?)

4. the context in which the decoding takes place and the possible difference in
the details of the decoding which may be affected by situation( at school,
home, with friends, etc.)
He believed that groups should be used not individuals as social context was considered important. Class
features prominently and followed Fiske and Hartley’s list (see above) but also add Rosen’s (1972) list of
history, traditions, job experience, residential patterns, and level of organisation.

Parkin is criticised by Morley for only offering 3 positions for an audience to take:

1. Dominant, where the audience accepts the viewpoint of the producers (
sometimes known as the preferred meaning)

2. Negotiated where the ideological content is altered to fit with the audi-
ence’s own viewpoint

3. Oppositional where the dominant viewpoint is understood but contested
and a reading which opposes it is produced.

Hall also produced a model which looks remarkably like the one above and is quoted in Studying the Media
(O’Sullivan, Dutton & Rayner, Arnold, 1994) (p.164) with the difference that the dominant position is known
as the dominant hegemonic position.

Brunt and Jordin argue that there is no direct connection between social position and the way people decode
texts, because people do not fit into social groups. They argue that all decodings are ‘negotiated’.
(Price, p.121)

Barthes suggest that all texts are in the following categories:

1. polysemic or open to many interpretations

2. open or having many different meanings depending upon the background
of the audience member, although through the process of anchorage (as in
anchored meanings) a preferred meaning may be offered

3. closed or only having one preferred or dominant reading
(O’Sullivan, Dutton & Rayner, p.82)

Audiences are created for a specific text (or media product). Institutions will use social class, age etc. to
construct their audience but will also use lifestyle research or psychographic profiling to achieve segmen-
tation or a further sub-division of their audience. Audiences are then defined as Achievers or Strivers accord-

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ing to their psychological profile. The McCann Erikson ‘Woman Study’ of 1985 fits this profiling.

Hartley suggest that institutions must talk to an audience, to enter into a relationship with them, for the
audience must continue to buy their products. Institutions will have to change their segmenting of the audi-
ence as fashion changes so the ‘new man’ may have some basis in social reality but appears more often in the
media than in real life.

Maslow In Motivation and Personality, Maslow set out his theory of a hierarchy of
human needs, where people have fundamental needs and only when these are
satisfied can they move on to the next level in his pyramid structure:

1. Physiological needs: the basic necessities of human life to subsist - water,
air, food etc.

2. Safety needs: the desire for safety from danger and deprivation

3. Social needs: these are linked to the desire people have for love, accept-
ance into social groups friendship etc. to preserve a sense of social identity

4. Esteem needs: the need for self-esteem, connected to feelings of compe-
tence and achievement, together with self-respect

5. Self-actualisation needs: about the fulfilment of one’s full potential and
are linked with the expression of creativity.
This may be too narrow a theory but could be matched with aspects of social class and environment.
(Price, p.127)

Leiss, Kline and Jhally There are 4 basic formats for advertising:

1. Product-information: simple display of information

2. Product-image: where the product takes on qualities which on first ap-
pearance it might not appear to have

3. Personalised format: produces a personal relationship between the prod-
uct and the human personality, where the product takes on human qualities

4. The lifestyle format: where the setting is important because it tells us how
to interpret the human element and the product. It is a combination of 2 and
(Price, p.131)
Ways of studying advertisements:

1. Semiology looks at the meaning created by all the internal elements in the
advert and the external factors like its context and place in the social distri-

2. Content analysis looks at a wider range of material and simply presents an
overview perhaps suggesting the way women are presented in washing pow-
der adverts or even the absence of ethnic groups in adverts dealing with
urban life. Categories must already be constructed and therein lies the prob-
(Price, p.145)

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Price suggests that if one uses content, form and context one can approach advertisement study.
(Price, p.148)

News Values
These are “the ideas or assumptions which form the ideological background to the work of the journalist and
the news editor … which drive individual journalists to collect certain types of material.”
(Price, p.196)

McShane set out 5 central tenets which journalist tend to follow:

1. conflict

2. danger to the community

3. the unusual

4. scandal

5. individualism

Dutton gives 12 of the ‘most significant’ news values from the work of Galtung and Ruge (1973):

1. Frequency — short-term events like murders are preferred over long-term
developments like a famine

2. Threshold — basically the size of an event indicates his importance

3. Unambiguity — events do not have to be simple but they must be acces-
sible to the public (the moral crusade of Mrs. Lawrence has been simplified
by the media, for example)

4. Meaningfulness — divided into two categories after Galtung and Ruge’s
‘Familiarity’: a) cultural proximity in which the event agrees with the out-
look of a specific culture; b) relevance where events will be reported and
discussed if they seem to have an impact on the ‘home’ culture, especially a

5. Consonance — or ‘correspondence’ where the familiar is more likely to
be thought than the unfamiliar

6. Unexpectedness — or ‘surprise’ where it is the rarity of an event which
leads to its circulation in the public domain; Dutton notes that the ‘new-
ness’ of the event is usually processed through a familiar context. It has to
work with 4 and 5.

7. Continuity — once a story achieves importance will be continued to be
covered for some time

8. Composition — this is to provide a sense of balance, gloomy news with
good news, foreign with domestic.

9. Reference to elite nations — events are more likely to be reported if they

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occur in the developed world; the threshold system would apply for devel-
oping countries’ events to be reported

10. Reference to elite persons — the famous and the powerful are more
newsworthy than ordinary people

11. Personalisation — events are seen as actions of people as individuals;
an institution may be personalised by reference to a prominent person within
that organisation

12. Negativity — bad news is good for the press and TV news; the thresh-
old is much lower for bad news than for good news

(Price, p.197)

O’Sullivan, Dutton & Rayner list 4 criteria for a text to be accepted as realistic:

1. surface realism of getting the details right

2. inner or emotional realism of the characters and their motivation

3. the overall message has to be realistic or truthful or at least not to challenge
taken-for-granted notions, so in fictional terms the plot must be plausible;
in a SF film the plot might be realistic but not so when placed in a period

4. the technical and symbolic codes of realism must be acceptable (these change
over time and what was acceptable in 1920s silent films would not be real-
istic now).

(O’Sullivan, Dutton & Rayner, p.105)

Price splits realism into form and content, so that form is the “arrangement of parts, the structure of a text”
(Price, p.266) and content is “the collected elements which are contained within the form”( Price p.266). So
for a text to be realist in form, let us take a film as an example, then the representations might be arranged in
a way that resembles our experience of real life; time might be represented sequentially. Fiske suggests that
“realism is often understood as a narrative arrangement” ( Price p.266). For a text to be realist in content then
it is the subject matter which is realist rather than in the order it is presented.

Williams He identified 3 main characteristics in drama:

1. it has a contemporary setting

2. it represents human activity and human beings

3. it shows the lives and activities of ordinary individuals

( Price p.266)

Corner suggests that audiences bring different expectations to different forms, so that an audience will expect
different levels of realism in the news on TV than they would for a TV drama. One might ask (says Price) that
an audience might ask of the TV news bulletin, “Is this truthful?” but of a drama on TV, “Is this plausible?”
( Price p.266)

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Film Form

Eisenstein Since Eisenstein was a Marxist in Soviet Russia, much of his film-making comes
from that political and ideological position. Montage was central to his theory.
( Price p.271)

The simplest form of montage is “the development of narrative through shots which are related to one
another” (Price, p.271) but Eisenstein used deliberately contrasting shots which collided to produce a third
meaning. This derived from the experiments by Kuleshov of the placing together shots of an expressionless
man’s face and alternately a bowl of soup and then a coffin and so on which the audience interpreted as a
different mood on the man’s face. By 1938 he had moved towards a more ‘modern’ meaning and he was able
to define montage as:

“two pieces of film of any kind, placed together … [which] inevitably combine
into a new concept, a new quality, arising out of that juxtaposition”

(quoted in Price, p.271)
Tudor defined the five types of montage which Eisenstein used:

1. metric — this is the straight-forward method based on the length of the
film-strip. Each sequence is proportionate to the next sequence

2. rhythmic — this involves considering the pattern of movement within a
shot, which may set up a rhythm within it

3. tonal — is based on emotional effects brought about by the light qualities
and visual patterns in a shot

4. overtonal — is an elusive concept, based on the totality of all the elements
of a shot. It is made up of elements of all three of the above

5. intellectual — is where a direct point is made by the film-maker through
the use of contrasting shots, so that one sequence is shown in a certain light
by another. The audience is manipulated into ‘reading’ the sequences in a
particular way.

TV Form
Williams lists 9 forms of TV programme:

1. News

2. Argument and discussion

3. Education

4. Drama

5. Films

6. Variety

7. Sport

8. Advertising

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