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For decades, research and public concern have focused on how media representations compare to the real world. Many theorists note that ‘reality’ is merely something that humans construct through social and cultural processes. Nevertheless, many scholars have compared the world represented in media to ‘facts’ about life and society. The task is to determine the most useful and reliable indicators of how the media world deviates from observable parameters, or to compare mediated and unmediated versions of the ‘same’ event or phenomenon. Studies in this vein often show sharp disjunctures between ‘reality’ and media coverage.
Theoretical Background Of The Concept
Although many scholars concerned with the correspondence of media to reality focus on news, distinctions among news, scripted programs, and ‘reality TV’ are not relevant here; media themselves constitute a way of knowing (Chesebro 1984). Media representations are ‘real’ as dreams, legends, and rumors are real – they exist as phenomenological narratives. A statement about an event is not ‘the’ event, but it is nonetheless an event. Moreover, the ‘unreality’ of media can shape our sense of reality. Mexicans are fond of saying “Life is like a telenovela” (Pearson 2005, 406).
Comparisons of media and reality reveal whether media stories reflect the facts, providing a basis for further studies of different media, or other societies, or over time. The goal is to illuminate any discrepancies in order to better understand media institutions and investigate how media images inform social beliefs. Much of what we ‘know’ is based not on first-hand experience, but on media representations of life and society. Researchers in the cultivation tradition note that most people have limited experience of courtrooms, police stations, or hospitals, yet we have vivid images of them and those who work in them. Media offer us representations of things about which we have no direct knowledge, contributing to many of our intersubjective beliefs.
Analyses Of Media Content
Content analysis reveals how media construct reality across immensely diverse topics. The number of areas in which the real and media worlds can be compared is virtually boundless. Studies comparing reality and media reality have examined such issues as the portrayal of older people in commercials; alcohol and tobacco use in soap operas; news coverage of infectious diseases; women scientists in popular magazines; sex and contraception in prime-time programs; art and artists on television news; television’s environmental messages; and images of journalists on television. Researchers have studied images of girls and women, ethnic minorities, weight loss surgery, bipolar disorder, terrorism, hate crimes, workplace sex, sports, suicide, poverty, and more. In the 1930s and 1940s, content analyses were conducted on burgeoning forms of popular culture (movies, radio, magazines); later, the technique was applied to television. Smythe (1954) and Head (1954) established parameters for examining television’s representations of gender, age, class, race, occupations, and violence that other studies have emulated.
Both found that the demography of the television world diverged from the real world. Television portrayed twice as many males as females, and males tended to be older. Adults were vastly over-represented, and most characters were white Americans. Violence occurred at a rate of 6.2 acts per hour (Smythe 1954), and was far more frequent on children’s programs. Upper- and upper-middle-class occupations were greatly over-represented. Dozens of subsequent studies have confirmed and replicated these early findings, especially with regard to gender, class, and violence. The most sustained investigation of media reality has been the Cultural Indicators Project, started by George Gerbner in 1967, which systematically analyzes annual week-long samples of US television. The project has accumulated data on thousands of programs and tens of thousands of characters over more than 45 years.
Although the percentage of women in the TV world has increased, males continue to outnumber females. Women tend to be defined by family/ marital status and to age faster than men. Older people are far fewer on television than in reality. Poor and working-class people remain nearly invisible on television, while middle-class characters and professionals are over-represented, as are white males. Villains and ‘bad guys’ are disproportionately shown as lower class, or as people of color, or as mentally ill.
Media reality remains violent. Between 60 and 70 percent of network programs contain violence, with 4 to 6 acts of violence per hour. The National Television Violence Study in the US examined 10,000 hours of programming in the 1990s, finding many parallel patterns. Beyond its frequency, media violence bears little resemblance to reality; most mediated violent incidents depict no pain, and almost 90 percent show no blood or gore. These patterns are highly consistent over decades. Stories of crime and violence dominate US news coverage as well as fictional programs, and coverage does not match real-world crime. Murder suspects represent 0.13 percent of those arrested, but 25 percent of suspects in the news. Editorial decisions and judgments of news value, not actual crime rates, determine coverage. Television news over-represents white (and under-represents African-American) victims. Perpetrators are apprehended and convicted far more often on television. Women are more likely than men to be victims of homicide (the reverse is true in reality). Researchers have observed many other discrepancies between the reality of crime statistics and television’s depictions.
Accounting For Media Reality
These patterns stem from commercial and cultural factors. Early content analysts pointed to the commercial context of programming to explain the media reality they found. Commercial media thrive on imitating the successful and reproduce formulas to gratify audience expectations; straying too far from the mold would be jarring. Fear of losing the audience drives programming decisions. Patterns of media reality have deep cultural and historical roots that predate modern media; media are not the source of these images, but television in particular has mass-produced and mass-distributed them to an unprecedented degree. All cultures use stories to express and reproduce reality and ideology, but no earlier society has produced and consumed as many as ours. These stories reflect persistent ideological and commercial values, including glorification of youth culture, consumption, intersections of race, class and gender, and the struggle of good vs. evil.
- Berger, P. L. & Luckmann, T. (1966). The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
- Center for Communication and Social Policy (1998). National television violence study, Vol. III. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Chesebro, J. W. (1984). The media reality: Epistemological functions of media in cultural systems. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 1, 111–130.
- Gerbner, G. (1994). Women and minorities on TV: A study in casting and fate. Media Development, 41(2), 38–44.
- Head, S. W. (1954). Content analysis of television drama programs. Quarterly of Film, Radio, and Television, 9(2), 175–194.
- Pearson, R. C. (2005). Fact or fiction? Narrative and reality in the Mexican telenovela. Television and New Media, 6(4), 400–406.
- Smythe, D. W. (1954). Reality as presented by television. Public Opinion Quarterly, 18, 143–156.