Media effects paradigm, which posits that the media have significant (often negative) influence on our attitudes and behaviors, is rooted in works of such scholars as Lasswell and Lazarsfeld; it produced many influential theories, e.g. cultivation, framing, priming and agenda-setting; and it has greatly shaped the modern debates about media violence. The concern about the problematic influence of the media led to the emergence of media literacy education, which is rooted in critical pedagogy as well the philosophy of progressive education, and has a long history of exposing power relationships in media texts and media industries.
Active audience paradigm, in contrast, suggests that people are actively interpreting media texts and using media tools and spaces in many different ways, so it is difficult to talk about a predictable (negative) media impact   . In its current form, this paradigm was significantly influenced by British cultural studies, especially by Hall’s encoding/decoding model; it produced, among others things, scholarship on participatory culture and fandom ; and it is generally more optimistic about people’s relationship with the media. Following the development of this paradigm, newer approaches to media literacy education highlight active role of people in using media tools and critically engaging with media texts .
At the same time, even according to (relatively) more optimistic positions, the media’s role in our lives is not entirely neutral. The media are seen as reflecting dominant ideologies that contribute to the status quo, and potentially reinforcing them. In Bird’s words: “We may be able to make creative, individual meanings from this torrent of messages and images, but we can still only work with what we’re given”. By the same token, even more optimistic media literacy educators are driven by their concern that people’s engagement with the media environment is never unproblematic. According to this position, although we may be empowered to use media texts and tools for our individual purposes, we should not forget about power imbalances in society that they reveal and potentially reinforce.
It is not uncommon for media scholars, regardless of what position they occupy on the “media effects vs. active audience” continuum, to take the meaning of the term “media” for granted. Derivative terms such as “media technology,” “media environment,” “media representations,” “media messages,” “media effects,” “media channels,” “media tools,” and so on are also usually used without a definition. The common understanding within media studies is that mediated communication involves somebody who creates and sends out a message using some sort of technology. After the message is produced, it is (potentially) received and processed by an individual or a group of individuals who might (or might not) be influenced by it. Mediated communication can be also seen as taking place in a special (usually virtual) space created through technology (e.g., video games or social networks).
On the one hand, it appears that to argue that “media” is people communicating with each other through technology is to reinvent the wheel. On the other hand, it is essential to highlight that this taken-for-granted understanding of the media exists in a contradiction with the language that is used to talk about the media both in academia and outside of it. This language portrays “media” as the Other in relation to people whose communication processes, in fact, make the existence of the media possible.
Foucault’s notion of discourse is useful for dissecting these contradictions and uncovering limitations they impose on our perception of mediated communication. According to Foucault, discourse is a politically charged manner of perceiving elements of reality, expressing one’s perception through language, and choosing a course of action based on one’s perception. Discourses manifest power relationships by constructing truths about the world we live in. The Foucauldian notion of discourse must, therefore, be understood in relation to this scholar’s conceptualization of power.
According to Foucault, power flows through the social system at any given time, as “power is everywhere” and “comes from everywhere” . Neither specific individuals, nor social groups can be described as wielding power by definition of who they are. If we take a snapshot of society, we will see some people having more power than others. However, when we look at society over time, power becomes fluid and difficult to attribute to specific individuals or social groups. McIntosh’ description of fluid privilege provides a further glimpse into this complexity:
[E]verybody has a combination of unearned advantage and unearned disadvantage in life. Whiteness is just one of the many variables that one can look at, starting with, for example, one’s place in the birth order, or your body type, or your athletic abilities, or your relationship to written and spoken words, or your parents’ places of origin, or your parents’ relationship to education and to English, or what is projected onto your religious or ethnic background. We’re all put ahead and behind by the circumstances of our birth. We all have a combination of both. And it changes minute by minute, depending on where we are, who we’re seeing, or what we’re required to do.
Foucault explains: “Power is not an institution, nor a structure, nor a possession. It is the name we give to a complex strategic situation in a particular society”. On certain occasions we all hold certain power, yet in the grand scheme of things we are powerless as nobody holds the power over the social system (“complex strategic situation”) itself. This does not negate power imbalances that are visible in the snapshot view of society, but suggests that in the grand scheme of things power relations are more complex than the snapshot view seems to imply.
This conceptualization of power explains the slow, meandering, and unpredictable path of social change: the social system is resistant to any challenge to its status quo, holding the ultimate power over all individuals that comprise it. Foucault sees discourses as expressions of power, but also as a potentiality of resistance: “Discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart”. While the social system holds power over individuals that constitute it, discourses that serve as a manifestation of this power can be also used to undermine it. The discourse of externalization that shapes our understanding of the media can be similarly used for challenging the status quo that mediated communication manifests and reinforces.
The majority of media scholars—whether they see audiences as passive, active, or somewhere in between—explore people’s relationship with the media. The development of media studies has been significantly influenced by the concern that this relationship might be somehow problematic—that the media can “hurt” us. Think, for instance, about the role of propaganda studies in the early stages of the field. Media studies literature describes how people use the media, interpret the media and/or are influenced by the media in one way or another. Although it is clear that media scholars understand the media as produced, sustained, and enacted by people—and therefore only possible through people—the language they use often turns the media into an entity, a force, or a class of objects that exist somehow outside of people, and can be used by them or act upon them.
Two main manifestations of this language are (1) active verbs, and (2) third person pronouns used when referring to the media (“they” in scholarly literature, and “it” outside of the academia). The second manifestation is evident in any written or oral discussion about the media. In this article I have tried to avoid it on several occasions, but did not manage to eliminate it altogether. As any discourse, it is hard to escape. To see examples of both manifestations, let us look at the quote below:
They [media] tell us what’s in and what’s out, what’s hot and what’s not, and they convey what it means to be pretty or ugly, rich or poor, successful of failure, female or male, powerful or powerless, or good or bad. Media define not only our culture but, indeed, most aspects of our lives. The media are a main source of knowledge about our world and, in fact, teach us about the various groups that constitute our society. (Emphasis added.)
Active verbs are also present when specific instances of the media (e.g., social networks, ads, books, films, Internet, etc.) are discussed. For example, during the campaign for the Family Entertainment Protection Act in 2005 Hillary Clinton (in)famously argued: “If you put it just really simply, these violent video games are stealing the innocence of our children” (Emphasis added). This language is used not only by those who are concerned about the media, but also by authors who occupy a more optimistic position, as in the following report on participatory culture by Jenkins et al.: “Educators must work together to ensure that every American young person… can articulate their understanding of how media shapes perceptions” (Emphasis added). This last quote illustrates that even when people are seen not as passive consumers, but as active produsers, the discourse of externalization remains present.
The use of active verbs and third person pronouns, thus, effectively externalizes the media, making it appear to exist outside of people. It must be noted that this discourse is not an exception. Externalization is, in fact, a common linguistic device. Take, for instance, the phrase “love makes people do crazy things.” By portraying love as an object external to people, this wording downplays people’s agency in choosing certain actions. The result of this wording is a displacement of self-reflection by externalized blame: “I did not choose to act like this, my feelings made me do it.” The discourse about the media, therefore, exemplifies how externalization can be used to obscure one’s personal responsibility. The discourse about the media, however, has a more far-reaching influence in the modern world and should, therefore, be a subject of special attention.
Weinberg discussed problems that may arise when people forget that language is but a human-made map that we use to find our way through the universe:
When our maps do not fit the territory, when we act as if our inferences are factual knowledge, we prepare ourselves for a world that isn’t there. If this happens often enough, the inevitable result is frustration and an ever-increasing tendency to warp the territory to fit our maps. We see what we want to see, and the more we see it, the more likely we are to reinforce this distorted perception, in the familiar circular and spiral feedback pattern.
Although we recognize that the media exist through people communicating with each other, our language reveals that we tend to detach ourselves from our own communicative choices and instead project our blame, fears, and hopes onto what we call “media,” seen as the Other in relation to ourselves.
Using Foucault’s interpretation of power as it relates to discourse, I argue that the discourse about the media is political not because it buttresses the power of certain social groups over others, but because it reinforces the power of the social system over its constituting elements, people. The language used to talk and write about the media defines our reality because we have come to see the media as a (potential) scapegoat that can be referred to explain or deal with social problems, from violence, to sexism, to consumerism and capitalism (and more). Even the active audience paradigm betrays certain distrust of the media, which can (as it is argued) at least under some circumstances, shape our perceptions and guide our actions in a problematic way .
The discourse about the media, thus, reinforces the status quo by allowing us to substitute a deeper understanding of our role in the social system with externalized blame; this blame is directed towards what we call “media” and perceived as the Other in relation to ourselves. What does this language obscure?
To answer this question I draw on the framework of symbolic interactionism, which posits that people create the social reality they inhabit through constant acts of interaction with each other and with themselves. According to symbolic interactionism, we are active creators of meanings that help us make sense of the world around us. However, our meaning-making practices take place in the space limited by frameworks of understanding provided by society that we are a part of, frameworks that we often choose not to challenge. These frameworks of understanding are otherwise known as ideologies – underlying assumptions that shape our ways of being, thinking, and acting in the world.
Symbolic interactionism, thus, explains how communication acts create and maintain the fabric of society through meaning-making, interpretation, and negotiation. Externalizing processes and products of our communication obscures that human communication consolidates yet also constantly challenges the social system by enabling the flow of dominant and subversive ideologies. The direction of social change depends on cumulative actions of individuals, who allow the social system to exist through networks of communication and its outcomes.
This argument leads us to a series of questions: How legitimate is it to claim that all people participate in maintaining problematic ideologies through communication? How can we contribute to the social system if we condemn its flaws? Wouldn’t it be more precise to say that only those individuals/social groups who benefit from the system the most are complicit in its existence, while others (underprivileged, marginalized, oppressed) are caught in its networks against their will? The last question is especially relevant for our discussion, because when we direct our blame towards the media, this often means critiquing certain individuals and groups (usually, professional media producers) who allegedly have the power to shape the course of mediated communication. I use the theories of hegemony and social justification to tackle these questions, and explain why it is misleading to divide people into villains and victims of (mediated) communication, or of the social system as a whole...
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 Rand, Barbie’s Queer Accessories.
 Hall, “Encoding/Decoding.”
 Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (New York, Routledge, 1992).
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 S. Elizabeth Bird, The Audience in Everyday Life: Living in a Media World (New York, Routledge, 2003), p.3.
 Hobbs, Digital and Media Literacy: Connecting Course and Classroom.
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 Foucault, The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge, p. 93.
 Ibid, pp. 100-101.
 J. Michael Sproule, “Propaganda Studies in American Social Science: The Rise and Fall of the Critical Paradigm,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 73 (1987): 60-78.
 Sharon Bramlett-Solomon & Meta G. Carstarphen, Race, Gender, Class and Media: Studying Mass Communication and Multiculturalism, 2nd ed. (Dubuque, Kendall Hunt, 2012), p. 3.
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accessed April 03, 2017, https://www.macfound.org/media/article_pdfs/JENKINS_WHITE_PAPER.PDF, pp. 3-4.
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 Jenkins, Clinton, Purushotma, Robison, & Weigel, “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st century,” accessed April 03, 2017, https://www.macfound.org/media/article_pdfs/JENKINS_WHITE_PAPER.PDF
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 David A. Snow, “Extending and Broadening Blumer’s Conceptualization of Symbolic Interactionism,” Symbolic Interaction 24, no. 3 (2001): 367-377.