Rhetoric and Media Studies Essay

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As a discipline, media studies focuses on the history, production, and effects of mediated communication, such as television, film, and video games. Rhetorical studies is concerned with the ways in which humans influence and persuade one another. Together, rhetoric and media studies explores how mediated communication influences and persuades people, often in subtle, unconscious ways. Given the pervasiveness of media in people’s lives today, such matters are central to understanding the ways in which media play a vital role in shaping people’s lives.

The Role Of Media

Although rhetoric’s purview was traditionally understood as speech and writing, the field has expanded its attention to include both visual and aural aspects of persuasion. For some, this shift has meant employing key concepts in traditional rhetorical studies onto new types of texts. For others, the inclusion of the visual and aural has required new ways of doing  rhetorical criticism.

This latter view is supported by those, like the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, who argue that technology changes the very nature of communicative messages. In his landmark essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1968), Benjamin argues that traditional forms of art are unique because of the sense of awe that the individual feels when he or she directly engages them, something he refers to as its aura. The use of mechanical reproduction, Benjamin suggests, destroys the aura as the mass audience takes the place of the individual. The recording of Mozart heard on the radio by millions of listeners is altogether different from the Vienna Philharmonic’s live performance. Rhetorical studies have struggled to deal with these feelings created by media.

Approaches To Mediated Rhetoric

Kenneth Burke understood rhetoric to be the study of symbols and their many functions, and many rhetorical critics have found it useful to adapt his critical concepts to modern media. One such adaptation has been based on Burke’s belief that the languages people use allow them to do and think certain things and, conversely, to hide alternatives, what he called “terministic screens.” Through these screens, identifications with others are both created and stifled. David Blakesly argues that “film rhetoric – the visual and verbal signs and strategies that shape film experience – directs our attention in countless ways, but always with the aim of fostering identification and all that that complex phenomenon implies” (2003, 3). In addition, Burke’s rhetorical pentad (act, agent, agency, scene, and purpose) as a way of critically engaging mediated texts, particularly those that are narrative in nature, has also proved invaluable to the study of media.

 Although primarily empirically based, Cappella and Jamieson’s study (1997) has shown how underlying metaphors used by news media create what the title of their book makes clear, a “spiral of cynicism” for the American electorate. Using the classical notion of mimesis, Parry-Giles and Parry-Giles have turned to the popular television drama The West Wing to suggest that it teaches the American public about the presidency and the nation (“a reality of the presidency that is persuasive and credible”, 2006, 4). Mimesis, as first explored by Plato and Aristotle, is rooted in the notion that through imitation or representation rhetorical work is being done.

 In addition to these more traditional forms of rhetorical criticism of media, scholars have also begun to explore newer territory assuming that technologically mediated communication’s reliance on the image requires new rhetorical approaches. The first of these approaches is rooted in ideological criticism, which explores and uncovers the media’s reinforcement of hegemonic forces in society writ large. Feminist scholar Bonnie Dow (1996) has, for instance, turned a rhetorical eye on the images of female identity created by media. Dow uncovers a number of symbolic representations of women in popular media that offer mixed portrayals of feminist ideals.

 Another, newer approach that applies rhetorical methods to media emphasizes the fact that visual media do affect audiences at an emotional level. Rhetorical critic Roderick Hart made just this argument when he turned to television. Taking a broad view of television – its role as a medium and its content – Hart argues that television reaches audiences at the level of consciousness. To make sense of this aesthetic response, he uses a phenomenological approach. Focusing on the level of emotional consciousness, phenomenology acknowledges that media reach the individual at an unconscious level. In the end, such a rhetorical inquiry leads Hart to argue that “television makes us feel good about feeling bad about politics” (Hart 1999, 10).

Relatedly, one recent dominant approach to understanding media rhetorically has been to dig deeply into a text to understand how its symbolic images impact audiences at the unconscious level. Such psychoanalytic criticism opens up possible understandings of how media influence the way people live with and through technologically reproduced communication. Incorporating the work of Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, and others, rhetorical theorist Joshua Gunn has begun advancing new ways of using a psychoanalytic approach to mediated communication. In one such instance, Gunn (2004) argues that a psychoanalytic understanding of fantasy offers a way to mediate the disjointed relationship between fragmented texts and de-centered subjects. Gunn’s assertion is, put simply, that the media offers dominant portrayals of fantasy that causes one to desire and, ultimately, to repress such a desire. Psychoanalytic criticism, while not an uncontested rhetorical approach, continues to offer new ways of engaging media studies.

Rhetorical and media scholar Barry Brummett (2004) has recently suggested that homologous patterns of discourse exist across communicative texts that work to structure lives through formal patterns. Brummett explores how films can present audiences with stories and images that are homologous to lived experience, additional mediated texts, and other, larger narratives. A rhetorical criticism built from an understanding of homologies offers the possibility of bringing media more directly into connection with other human communication.

Future Directions

While the Internet incorporates many modes of communication (discussed above) with more traditional print-based media, how rhetorical scholarship might engage it theoretically or critically remains to be seen. This is not to suggest that it cannot. But to begin to understand how communities of individuals on Facebook ‘live’ together or how virtual communities (e.g., Second Life) influence the way individuals see themselves and the physical world around them will require even newer ways of understanding the use of symbols through mediated channels toward further identifications.


  1. Benjamin, W. (1968). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. In Illuminations [1936], ed. H. Arendt, trans. H. Zohn. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, pp. 217–252.
  2. Blakesly, D. (2003). The terministic screen: Rhetorical perspectives on film. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
  3. Brummett, B. (2004). Rhetorical homologies: Form, culture, experience. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.
  4. Burke, K. (1966). Language as symbolic action: Essays on life, literature, and method. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  5. Burke, K. (1969). A grammar of motives. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  6. Cappella, J. N. & Jamieson, K. H. (1997). Spiral of cynicism: The press and the public good. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  7. Dow, B. J. (1996). Prime-time feminism: Television, media culture, and the women’s movement since 1970. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  8. Gunn, J. G. (2004). Refitting fantasy: Psychoanalysis, subjectivity, and talking to the dead. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 90, 1–23.
  9. Hart, R. P. (1999). Seducing America: How television charms the modern voter. Beverley Hills, CA: Sage.
  10. Parry-Giles, T. & Parry-Giles, S. J. (2006). The primetime presidency: The West Wing and U.S. nationalism. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

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