Social Power of the News Media

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Power and the News Media
Teun A. van Dijk
University of Amsterdam
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INTRODUCTION In the study of mass communication, there has been a continuous debate about the more or less powerful effects of the media on the public.1 Instead of reviewing these positions and their empirical claims, this chapter examines in more general terms some properties of the social power of the news media. This power is not restricted to the influence of the media on their audiences, but also involves the role of the media within the broader framework of the social, cultural, political, or economic power structures of society. In order to focus this discussion better, I limit it to the news media, and in particular to the press, thus ignoring the undoubtedly pivotal role of television and other media genres in mass communication.2

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Political Communication in Action

The theoretical framework for this inquiry is articulated within the multidisciplinary field of discourse analysis, a domain of study in the humanities and social sciences that systematically examines the structures and functions of text and talk in their social, political, and cultural contexts.3 Applied to the study of mass communication, this approach claims that in order to understand the role of the news media and their messages, one needs to pay detailed attention to the structures and strategies of such discourses and to the ways these relate to institutional arrangements, on the one hand, and to the audience, on the other hand.4 For instance, topics or quotation patterns in news reports may reflect modes of access of various news actors or sources to the news media, whereas the content and form of a headline in the press may subtly influence the interpretation and hence the persuasive effects of news reports among the readers. Conversely, if we want to examine what exactly goes on if it is assumed that the media manipulate their readers or viewers, we need to know under what precise conditions, including structural properties of news reports, this might be the case. POWER A brief conceptual analysis is needed in order to specify what notions of power are involved in such an approach to the role of the news media. I limit this analysis to properties of social or institutional power and ignore the more idiosyncratic dimensions of personal influence, for example, those of individual journalists. Thus, social power here will be summarily defined as a social relation between groups or institutions, involving the control by a (more) powerful group or institution (and its members) of the actions and the minds of (the members) a less powerful group.5 Such power generally presupposes privileged access to socially valued resources, such as force, wealth, income, knowledge, or status. Media power is generally symbolic and persuasive, in the sense that the media primarily have the potential to control to some extent the minds of readers or viewers, but not directly their actions.6 Except in cases of physical, coercive force, the control of action, which is usually the ultimate aim of the exercise of power, is generally indirect, whereas the control of intentions, plans, knowledge, beliefs, or opinions that is, mental representations that monitor overt activities is presupposed. Also, given the presence of other sources of information, and because the media usually lack access to the sanctions that other such as legal or bureaucratic-institutions may apply in cases of noncompliance, mind control by the media can never be complete. On the contrary, psychological and sociological evidence suggests that despite the pervasive

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Political Communication in Action

symbolic power of the media, the audience will generally retain a minimum of autonomy and independence, and engage more or less actively, instead of purely passively, in the use of the means of mass communication.7 In other words, whatever the symbolic power of the news media, at least some...
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