Among the chief concerns of this volume are how social conditions get defined as social problems and the ways different social actors and organizations view and try to solve them. Media, by any measure, are central to these processes. When we speak about media, what exactly are we talking about? While there are numerous definitions of media, in this volume it is used as a catch-all term that refers to any and all forms of information or entertainment available to a large number of people. Thus, it includes television programming, newspapers, magazines, books, documentaries, popular movies, radio, community newsletters, and, more recently, things like Internet Web sites, electronic mail, and the increasingly popular Web log or “blog.” (It is important to note the incredible range of diversity embedded within each of these categories; consider the ever-expanding array of television programming, the substantial number of general and specialized magazines, the wide array of local, regional, and national newspapers, and a seemingly infinite collection of Internet-based materials.)
Some analysts have tried to counter this broad conceptualization of media by dividing it into somewhat smaller classifications, such as press (i.e., those media products that deal primarily with “hard” news) and entertainment media. But these categories are still exceedingly broad. Further, such a division may no longer remain as viable as it once might have been given the increasing presence of media products that transcend traditional categories by incorporating elements from both news and entertainment formats (this hybrid genre is often referred to as “infotainment”).
For our purposes, then, a general definition of media will suffice. Thus, media is used here to refer to the entire range of news and entertainment “products” that audience members can consume and through which they can learn about some aspect of the world around them. In fact, a broad categorization such as this may be essential to developing a thorough understanding of the role contemporary media play in the construction of social problems because it gives reason to consider how the entire range of media productions (rather than just the dominant media forms—such as network and cable television news, newspapers from large cities, and national magazines—that most people associate with the term media) shape the ways that individuals think about, construct, and respond to social problems.
Understanding the Media-Social Problems Relationship
Media are crucial to social problems; they help shape what conditions get positioned as potential social problems, what potential problems become actual social problems, how those problems are discussed (i.e., the dominant frames through which they are presented and considered), and how constructed problems are responded to. Certainly, other forces and social actors (e.g., scientists, academics, experts, activists, and politicians) play an important role in constructing certain conditions as social problems and propelling them into the public consciousness, but without the complicity of mass media, even the most impressively packaged and persuasive claims will find it hard to be heard amid all the competing social problems claims, general news and entertainment content, and the various diversions of daily life.
Why are media so central to how we think about and act upon social problems? While a variety of factors and forces contribute to media’s centrality in the construction of social problems, two in particular cement the media-social problems relationship: (1) the pivotal role of media in everyday social life and (2) the processes through which social problems get constructed.
Media and Social Life
The important role of media in how people think about and respond to social problems is first and foremost a reflection of the pivotal role of media in all of social life. We rely on news and entertainment media to learn about the world in which we live. Media serve as a source of information and provide us with many of the texts and images that we use to construct culture, shape our social reality, and navigate our daily lives. The things we see on our televisions or read in our newspapers help direct us toward certain issues or events and shape how we think and talk about those things. This capacity for shaping what issues and conditions public officials, policymakers, and the general public think and talk about, as well as setting parameters on how they might talk about them, represents a key element of the media-social problems relationship.
Constructing Social Problems
A second factor that reinforces media’s essential role in social problems construction is the very processes by which conditions and issues come to be defined, or “constructed,” as social problems. Social problems do not just appear out of nowhere; they are a product of the active efforts of a number of individuals and organizations. Some scholars have suggested that social problems get created through a complex combination of social actions and processes, which can be thought of as social problems work. Thus, when someone tries to persuade others that a particular issue or condition is of concern and in need of remedy, he or she is doing social problems work. Social problems work takes place in classrooms (e.g., a professor stands before her sociology class and outlines a condition such as homelessness or teen drug use as a major concern and something we must attend to), in churches (e.g., a sermon on the declining adherence to religious principles and the purported threats this poses to the long-term viability of society), in community halls (e.g., a forum on the perils of a shrinking water supply and what must be done about it), in the halls of Congress (e.g., a debate about domestic terrorism), and in a variety of other social realms.
Doing Social Problems Work: Claims Makers and Audiences
Much of the social problems work discussed here is done by two broad groups: claims makers (i.e., those who make “claims” that a particular issue or condition represents a social problem that needs to be fixed) and audiences (i.e., the people who evaluate those claims). Claims makers are those who try to persuade others that there is a problem out there that needs attention and resources, which means that there are two basic goals embedded in their social problems work: (1) disseminate their claims to the largest possible audience (in some cases, a smaller audience will do, as long as its membership is comprised of those with tremendous power, status, or wealth, such as politicians, celebrities, or high-ranking media officials); and (2) persuade the members of that audience that there is a troublesome condition at hand that is in need of remedy. Claims makers use rhetoric, statistics, compelling images, and any other verbal, visual, or behavioral claims to try to get audiences to devote their attention to the purported social problem and to take action in its name.
The social problems work of audiences involves evaluating these claims and determining whether the problem is worthy of attention and resources. Thus, the tasks for audience members include gauging whether the condition is as problematic as the claims maker would have us believe, how immediate the purported harms are, and whether these harms are likely to transpire as the claims maker suggests. If the audience is not persuaded that the condition is sufficiently troublesome and worthy of their immediate attention and resources, then that particular claim is likely to be replaced by other claims deemed more important, believable, newsworthy, immediate, and so on. This renders the audience as a crucial element in the successful creation of a social problem; after all, something cannot become a social problem unless an audience deems the claims important and believable.
Specifying the Media-Social Problems Relationship
If it is true that claims makers and audiences are the two main groups involved in social problems work, what, then, is the role of media in the claims-making process? Recall that we have said that a desired goal for claims makers is to get their claims to a large audience. The best way to do this is to get the message into the media and allow the media to disseminate it to their audiences (this is why we find so many claims makers jockeying for time during the morning network news programs or on the various cable news channels). In our increasingly mediated society, media represent the most effective way to reach a large audience in relatively short order.
Much of the social problems work undertaken by media organizations and their personnel involves packaging and reporting the claims made by others (as opposed to constructing their own claims from scratch), such as a news report that features harrowing accounts, sound bites from public officials, statistics, and gripping images (each of which represents a social problems “claim”). Positioning the media as being oriented more toward selectively repackaging the social problems work of others should not be taken as an indication that media have a passive role in the construction of social problems. Media are not merely a conduit for the claims of others; they do not simply disseminate claims as claims makers proffer them. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Even when media are not the originators of a particular claim, they play an integral part in the form that the claim takes. Claims are constantly shaped and reshaped to bring them into alignment with the needs of media and their audiences.
This transformative capacity furthers the important role of media in how we think about and respond to social problems, because it means that media (as far as their audiences are concerned) get to determine what gets said about social problems, how it gets said (e.g., whether material is delivered as straight news, as an editorial, as a mixture of reportage and eyewitness accounts, as a docudrama, and so on), who says it (media tend to favor official sources, those with experience in the issues at hand, celebrities or others who are well known), and when it gets said (i.e., where it will be slotted in media cycles, how often it will be presented, and for what duration).
The modern media marketplace is extremely competitive, and media personnel must strive to identify and create “products” that can be produced quickly and efficiently while also being able to attract and sustain the interest and attention of a range of audiences. Thus, the decisions of media personnel determine what makes it into the mediated products that the audiences consume. What people see on their televisions or computer monitors, read in newspapers and magazines, or hear on radios and “Podcasts” represent the tangible manifestations of a series of decisions made by media personnel—editors, producers, reporters, anchors, guest bookers, executives, advertisers—as to who or what will be attended to, how much various topics will be covered, and how selected material will be framed.
Of course, these decisions about which potential social problems are transformed into mediated products (and which are not) and when, how, and by whom claims will be presented do not get made in a vacuum. The decision making of media organizations and their personnel is shaped by a number of external constraints, ranging from the structure of the media industry (i.e., media conglomeration, a profit orientation, reliance upon advertisers, and so on) to the daily demands of crafting news or entertainment products (i.e., budget limitations, deadlines, finite broadcast or print space, and so on). From a social problems perspective, a key constraint is the limited amount of time and space that media have to devote to social issues. Quite simply, media have only so much attention available for allocation to the seemingly infinite array of things that might be considered worthy of broadcast time or print space. This renders space within media presentation cycles a finite and hence valued commodity in the media marketplace. Media cannot cover it all, so media personnel have to sift through the seemingly infinite array of information, issues, individuals, and events and determine what will be attended to. What this means for our understanding of social problems is that only a miniscule proportion of the events and issues unfolding at a given time get identified as potential social problems, and only a small fraction of these get featured in the mediated products that individuals watch, read, or hear in their daily lives.
The structural, cultural, and practical constraints media personnel face lead them to favor certain types of material over others, which in turn affects the coverage of various social problems. Media personnel must actively select and reconstruct the claims they will deliver so that the claims will fit within the constraints of the structure of their work and remain consistent with the expectations of their audiences. As a result, media personnel tend to place a premium on materials that possess certain elements (i.e., items that seem important, novel, timely, and interesting; they also favor materials that feature interesting characters, can be accompanied by compelling photos or video, packaged in a noncomplex manner, and planned in advance). In short, media play both direct and indirect roles in how claims get constructed and disseminated. The direct role occurs when media personnel construct a claim (i.e., primary claims making) or refashion the claims of others (i.e., secondary claims making) and disseminate them to their audiences. The indirect role of media may be reflected in the efforts of claims makers, who, having become aware of the kinds of claims that are likely to be represented in the media, begin to shape their claims in ways that they presume will appeal to the interests of a given media organization or its audiences. Successful claims makers are those who account for the “realities” and constraints faced by media officials and who are willing and able to adjust their claims-making efforts accordingly.
The media-social problems relationship is clearly a strong one. Much of the social problems work of claims makers requires the complicity of media if it is to be effective, while at the same time media draw upon the social problems work of others to craft news and entertainment products that meet their own unique needs as well as those of their audiences. Media are a vital force in how we construct and react to social problems; how media attend to the efforts of various claims makers helps shape what gets said, how it gets said, who says it, and when it gets said, all of which are crucial determinants of whether a potential social problem becomes an actual social problem, as well as how political officials, policymakers, and the public elect to respond to constructed problems.
While the media-social problems relationship remains as strong as ever, sociologists and other analysts should take note of recent changes in the overall media landscape that could affect this relationship (not necessarily in its strength, but in its nature). In recent years, several of the mainstream media forms that have traditionally served as core outlets for the claims-making efforts of social problems activists—for example, the major television networks’ evening news broadcasts and a number of once-prominent newspapers and national magazines—have seen somewhat precipitous declines in the size of their overall audiences (and in the loyalties of some of those who remain), as many of their former audience members have found more convenient sources (e.g., Internet news sites or 24-hour all-news channels on cable and satellite television) that allow them to get the latest news content whenever they want. At the same time, innovative media forms have emerged (e.g., Internet chat rooms, blogs, Podcasting) that offer new avenues through which claims makers are able to disseminate their claims to a mass audience and provide audience members with new ways to interact with those claims. Thus, it is a time for both excitement and wariness: excitement because these shifts could spur sociologists and other analysts to undertake important empirical assessments of the strength and nature of the media-social problems relationship; and wariness because these shifts and innovations present new complexities for media consumers to navigate as they continue to turn to media to make sense of the world around them.
- Best, Joel. 2001. Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Gusfield, Joseph. 1984. The Culture of Public Problems: Drinking-Driving and the Symbolic Order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Hilgartner, Stephen and Charles Bosk. 1988. “The Rise and Fall of Social Problems: A Public Arenas Model.” American Journal of Sociology 94:53-78.
- Loseke, Donileen R. 2003. Thinking About Social Problems: An Introduction to Constructionist Perspectives. 2nd ed. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
- Surette, Ray. 2007. Media, Crime, and Criminal Justice: Images, Realities, and Policies. 3rd ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
- Tuchman, Gaye. 1980. Making News: A Study in the Construction of Reality. New York: Free Press.
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