Mass media can be described as forms of communication that allow a message to be sent through a medium to a large audience. But what does it exactly mean to shape public opinion; does it mean changing people’s opinions on events or just to persuade people about an issue on a matter they know nothing about? Gerry Stoker believes ‘our understanding of the key issues that face our societies are substantially influenced by the concerns, focus or even the obsessions of the media’. In this paper, I will tackle the question primarily from a Marxist prospective, evaluating the predominant view that the media performs an important, positive role in society.
Classical Marxism believes that the media perpetuates the ideology of the dominant classes, helping to create a false consciousness. The dominant classes own the means of production and also own the media. Consequently, they can manipulate the working classes into believing the dominant ideology, even though it does not reflect their true interests. Additionally, it can be said that the media is used as a tool to distract the masses. By concentrating on foreign affairs, such as wars, and entertainment, the masses are distracting from realising their material circumstances. This is best typified by Noam Chomsky when he wrote, ‘if people are no longer just glued to the tube, you may have all these funny thought arising in their heads, like sickly inhibitions against the use of military force’. Classical Marxist theory agrees that mass media is a powerful tool, thereby a major shaper of public opinion. But as it is a tool dominated by the bourgeois to further oppress the masses, it is not desirable in its current form.
Communism in practice furthered Marx’s view on the media by trying to utilise the media to educate, engage and arouse the masses. Lenin recognised the power of the press and before the Russian revolution, saw the newspaper as ‘virtually a substitute for the party as an organisation’. As Communism progressed in the USSR, the state gained entire control of the media and applied censorship. Eventually, censorship was taken too far and the news became biased and dominated again for the purposes of controlling the masses.
The Marxist critique of mass media contrasts starkly against the pluralist model. In the pluralist model, media is seen as offering a wide selection of views, with different groups competing for the dominant viewpoint. In this model, bias does exist but it is effectively neutralised due to access to the media and the variety of opinions available that contradict each other. The media responds to audience demand; audiences are free to choose what they want to watch, read and listen to. Pluralism views mass media not as being a major shaper of public opinion but this does not diminish the importance it attributes to it. Mass media are important agents in a free and democratic society, being independent of the government by the large. This allows it to perform the vital function of providing checks and balances to the government. The media has been called the ‘fourth branch of government’. Pippa Norris said that the media offers a ‘watchdog to check abuses of civil and political liberties’. It can also ‘provide a civic forum in which to hear serious and extended political viewpoints from all voices in society’, giving it a vital role in the understanding of modern politics.
Critics of the pluralist model point to the fact that everyone does not have equal access to media. The more powerful and wealthy groups and individuals have greater access to audiences so will dominate certain forms of media almost entirely. There is a high cost of broadcasting on television, making access to it limited. In the USA, even the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) has more than 70% of its prime-time shows funded...