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Annu. Rev. Sociol. 1992. 18373-93 Copyright O 1992 by Annual Reviews Inc. All righls reserved
MEDIA IMAGES AND THE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF REALITY
William A. Gamson, David Croteau, William Hoynes, and Theodore Sasson Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts 02167
KEY WORDS: discourse, framing, images, television, hegemony
"Big Brother is you, watching." Mark Crispin Miller (1988)
Ideally, a media system suitable for a democracy ought to provide its readers with some coherent sense of the broader social forces that affect the conditions of their everyday lives. It is difficult to find anyone who would claim that media discourse in the United States even remotely approaches this ideal. The overwhelming conclusion is that the media generally operate in ways that promote apathy, cynicism, and quiescence, rather than active citizenship and participation. Furthermore, all the trends seem to be in the wrong directiontoward more and more messages, from fewer and bigger producers, saying less and less. That's the bad news. The good news is that the messages provide a many-voiced, open text that can and often is read oppositionally, at least in part. Television imagery is a site of struggle where the powers that be are often forced to compete and defend what they would prefer to have taken for granted. The underdetermined nature of media discourse allows plenty of room for challengers such as social movements to offer competing constructions of reality and to find support for them from readers whose daily lives may lead them to construct meaning in ways that go beyond media imagery.
GAMSON ET AL
By now the story is familiar. We walk around with media-generated images of the world, using them to construct meaning about political and social issues. The lens through which we receive these images is not neutral but evinces the power and point of view of the political and economic elites who operate and focus it. And the special genius of this system is to make the whole process seem so normal and natural that the very art of social construction is invisible. This chapter is about this story. For the most part. we accept its general argument, using it to raise questions and draw out implications for which there are--or might be--empirical evidence. Sometimes we think important qualifications and reservations are in order. The story we tell has more tension and contest in the process. It is less determined than the original and leaves more room for challengers and ordinary citizens to enter as active agents in constructing meaning (cf Ryan 1991). We emphasize the production of images...