Last Updated 27 Mar 2021

Beyond Mass Media

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Mass media are inherently incompatible with a participatory society because of their mass character, not just because of government control or corporate influence. Mass media should be abandoned and replaced by participatory media organised as networks, such as telephone and computer networks.

Complaints about the mass media are commonplace. To begin, there is the low quality of many of the programmes and articles. There is the regular portrayal of violence, given an attention out of proportion with its frequency in everyday life.

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  • More generally, most of the mass media give much more attention to bad news--crime, deaths, disasters, wars, etc. --than to positive sides of the human condition.
  • The mass media frequently create unrealistic fears about criminals, foreign peoples and the like.
  • "News" often is more like entertainment than information or education.
  • News reports, especially on television, are typically given without much overt context. The latest events are described, but not what led up to them or caused them. The result is that consumers of the media learn a lot of facts but frequently don't understand how they fit together.
  • "Context" is the result of the assumptions behind the facts, and this context is all the more powerful because it is neither stated nor commented upon.

This argument suggests that reform of the media, although useful, should not be the goal. Instead, the aim should be to replace mass media by communication systems which are much more participatory. Replace undemocratic media structure: reemplazar las estructuras de comunicacion democraticos.

The usual approaches

Private mass media are often justified as being a vital part of the "marketplace of ideas. " But, as a way of promoting truth, this so-called market is largely a myth, serving mainly the interests of elites.

Arguments Afainst The Mass Media

Emergencies.

  • The mass media, especially radio and television, can come in handy in emergencies: messages can be broadcast, reaching a large fraction of the population. But the mass media are not really necessary for emergency purposes. Fire alarms, for example, do not rely on conventional media. Furthermore, network media, including telephone and computer networks, can be set up to allow emergency communications.
  • Actually, the mass media are a great vulnerability in certain emergencies: military coups. Because they allow a few people to communicate to a large population with little possibility of dialogue, television and radio stations are commonly the first targets in military takeovers. Censorship of newspapers is a next step. This connection between coups and mass media also highlights the role of mass media in authoritarian regimes.
  • Military strength is no defence against a military coup, and indeed may be the cause of one. To resist a coup, network communications are far superior to mass media (Schweik Action, 1992).
  • So, from the point of view of preparing for emergencies, mass media are bad investments.

Media talent.

The mass media allow many people to enjoy and learn from the efforts of some very talented people: actors, musicians, athletes, journalists and commentators. True. But just as many people can enjoy and learn from these talented people without the mass media, for example through audio and video recordings.

Furthermore, the mass media suppress access to all but a few performers and contributors. Those who are left out have a much better chance of reaching a sympathetic audience via network media. Richard Schickel (1985) points out that the celebrity is a twentieth-century phenomenon, created especially by movies and television.

He describes a culture of celebrity, in which people strive to be well known, even if this is only because they have appeared on the screen. The culture of celebrity, he argues, is undermining many traditional practices. For example, politicians are sold on the media in terms of image rather than policies.

Large resources.

The mass media command enormous resources, both financial and symbolic. This makes it possible for them to pursue large or expensive projects: large-budget films, special investigative teams, in-depth coverage of key events.

Actually, large-scale projects are also possible with network systems. They simply require cooperation and collaboration. For example, some public domain software (free computer programmes) is quite sophisticated and has been produced with the help of many people. In centralised systems, far-reaching decisions can be made by just a few people. In decentralised systems, greater participation is required.

These four possible arguments for retaining mass media, in some reformed and improved form, actually turn out to be arguments against mass media.

Abstract Against:

The mass media are not necessary for emergencies and are actually a key vulnerability to those who would take over a society.

The mass media are not necessary to enjoy and benefit from the talent of others, and they foster an unhealthy emphasis on image.

Finally, although the mass media can undertake large projects, such projects can also develop through network media, but in a way involving participation rather than central direction.

Conclusion

Mass media are inherently corrupting. A small number of owners and editors exercise great power over what is communicated to large numbers of people. Mass media should be replaced by participatory media organised as networks, such as telephone and computer networks.

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