Death in Prime Time

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American Academy of Political and Social Science

Death in Prime Time: Notes on the Symbolic Functions of Dying in the Mass Media Author(s): George Gerbner Reviewed work(s): Source: Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 447, The Social Meaning of Death (Jan., 1980), pp. 64-70 Published by: Sage Publications, Inc. in association with the American Academy of Political and Social Science Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1042304 . Accessed: 02/01/2012 20:34 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.

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ANNALS,AAPSS, 447, January 1980

Death in Prime Time: Notes on the Symbolic Functions of Dying in the Mass Media By GEORGEGERBNER

ABSTRACT: The cultural (and media) significance of dying rests in the symbolic context in which representations of dying are embedded. An examination of that context of mostly violent suggests that portrayals of death and dying representations functions of social typing and control and tend, serve symbolic of on the whole, to conceal the reality and inevitability the event.

George Gerbner is Professor of Communications and Dean of The Annenberg School of Communications, University of Pennsylvania. He is a principal investigator, along with Larry Gross and Nancy Signorielli, also of The Annenberg School, in the Cultural Indicators research project studying television drama and viewer conceptions of social reality. He has been principal investigator on international and U.S. projectsfunded by the National Science Foundation, U.S. Office of Education, UNESCO, the International Sociological Association, the National Institute of Mental Health, The Surgeon General's Scientific advisory Committee on Television and Social Behavior, the American Medical Association, the HEW's Administration on Aging, and other agencies. He is editor of the Journal of Communication, and a volume on Mass Media Policies in Changing Cultures. 64

DEATH

IN PRIME TIME

65

D

YINGin the massmedia-both

news and entertainment (a distinction increasingly hard to make) -has a symbolic function different from death in real life but investing life itself-with it-and particular meanings. We can begin to consider what these might be by reflecting on the nature of representation. A symbol system is an artifact par excellence. It is totally invented to serve human purposes. It can serve these purposes only if those interpreting it know the code and can fit it into a symbolic context of their own. They must share the rules of the invention and the interpretative strategies by which it should be understood. Symbolic narrative, a story, has two basic elements of invention: fictive and selective. Selective invention is factual narrative such as news. Presumably true events (facts) are selected from an endless stream of events. A narrative is invented to convey some meaning about the selected facts as interpreted in a previously learned framework of knowledge. Fictive invention is fiction and drama; the "facts" are invented as well as the narrative. (Selection is of course involved in both.) The function of fictive invention is to illuminate (literally to embody and dramatize) the invisible structure and dynamics of the significant connections of human life. It is to show how things work. Invention...
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