The Media as a Social Problem

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Dan Thomas

The Media as a Social Problem

The mass media plays a large role in modern society. Indeed, many have argued that people spend more time in "mass-mediated" interaction than in actual human interaction. The mass media, then, would seemingly be an excellent position to initiate social change, positively affect social problems, and help combat social ills that are considered normal patterns of behavior. Yet, the mass media has largely failed in addressing and helping to solve social problems. As seen through its presentation of the three major variables of race, class, and gender, the mass media has actually served to contribute to the social problems it covers, reinforcing them, and creating an inter-related cycle in which these problems continue.

TV has become perhaps the primary vehicle that society receives its information and presents its values and expectations. One of the most important roles television plays is its presentation of news and information. What a station chooses to present as newsworthy can play a strong role in how people view their society and the world around them. Often, television news sources have followed a philosophy of "if it bleeds, it leads", focusing on violence in urban environments. This violence occurs more frequently in black neighborhoods, resulting in what amounts to essentially as a steady, nightly stream of reports on violence in the inner-city by and among African-Americans. In this way, the television media plays a strong role in formulating racial problems as seen by the interactionist approach. With the constant display of these images two problems quickly emerge. First, the minority groups become subject to stereotypes as the images presented become fixed mental images and are exaggerated and applied to the group as a whole. Whites, according to this model, "learn" that minority groups are "less intelligent, more violent, or generally less human". Additionally, the minority groups themselves can develop reactions that are turned inward and create a sense of hopelessness, despair, and self-doubt that can lead into even more sociological problems in the form of alcoholism, drug abuse, aggression, and crime. Thus, the images presented by television news help contribute to this vicious, self-reinforcing, cycle as the news they present help to continue and promote the problems and the stereotypes.

Closely linked to race becomes issues of class. As those in minority areas are portrayed and viewed negatively a flight of capital and economic activity develops in conjunction with the stereotypes. Those with capital, typically white, avoid neighborhoods seen as violent or dangerous, and money is not spent or invested in these communities. Once this happens, "the catastrophe of the inner-city increasingly becomes one of economic isolation more than simply of race". Jobs quickly disappear, and welfare reforms are doomed to failure without hope of potential employment. Once the welfare system fails the "United States will further divide into two societies: one multiracial and reasonably prosperous; the other, disadvantaged and often dark skinned, living in semi-permanent poverty". As the inner-city minority neighborhoods become increasingly poor vis-à-vis society as a whole, it becomes increasingly likely that the members of the television news media will not come from this area of society and continue to promote the fixed images they have developed of these neighborhoods, perhaps ignoring other methods to present the problems of the inner-city. Thus, the two concepts of race and class are closely related and act to reinforce one another.

While failing to contribute to a solution to the problems of race and class, the television news media has been much more successful in promoting gender equality. News features often show and expose problems important to women such as domestic violence, gender discrimination, and sexual harassment....
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