Understanding Media: Core Concepts
As noted earlier, one central factor in the emergence of media studies was the appreciation that the establishment of capitalism, industrialism, and formal state institutions under modernity brought an enormous capacity and drive to overcome the limitations of face-to-face communication by sending messages, simultaneously if possible, to a vast cohort of dispersed recipients who would probably never meet or resemble each other. These units of communication are conceived as texts but are seen as being far more diverse than the traditional idea of a written work to be read in linear fashion (that is, line by line, left to right, and front page to last, as prescribed in Western, though not in all, protocols of literary training). A text here might be anything—a passage of song, for example, or a moving visual image—that needs to be “read” (i.e., interpreted) in order to ascertain its meaning or meanings (Gillespie & Toynbee, 2006). Recognizing the plurality of meanings is central to media studies because it indicates that the world is not just “out there” waiting to be discovered but is actively constructed within human societies; thus the media and the texts they produce are inherently social (Holmes, 2005). In the case of watching, say, a soccer match on television, viewers experience an audiovisual text with various components to which they relate differently depending on which team they support. What might be regarded as a routine sports report in a newspaper can be analyzed for more than its literal meaning; one might consider, for example, how the reader is positioned by the journalist in terms of gender (e.g., the conventional implication that the reader is male) or the ways in which sport is related to wider issues of politics and society (e.g., the oft-seen curious mixture of demanding that politics and sport should be kept apart while actually linking them through assumptions about sport’s positive functional role in promoting social solidarity) (Boyle & Haynes, 2009). Thus, mediated sport texts are seen as consisting of mini “sign systems” that need to be decoded in order to understand their meanings and significance.
Because mediated sport texts are produced in such profusion, it is also necessary not to treat them as unique, never-to-be-repeated communicative objects but to search for patterns that show them as being organized into highly predictable types known as genres. For example, a radio or television broadcast of a live sport event usually involves a build-up in which commentators and analysts anticipate what will occur, followed by description and discussion of the event while it occurs, and then a postmortem exploring what happened and why, what was good and bad, and what the result’s implications are. Both broadcasters and audiences are familiar with these routines, which could be described as a pact between the media producer and the audience based on mutual expectations of what will be produced and consumed (Brookes, 2002; Rowe, 2004b). Indeed, sport program genres are usually so formulaic as to take on a quality of being eternal and natural. But what if the rules are broken and elements of surreal comedy are introduced or the usual forms of sporting language and tone are circumvented? One key function of media studies, then, is not only to identify the conventional ways in which the media render the world to audiences but also to denaturalize the conventional texts and genres that almost become part of the cultural “furniture.”
Questioning the innocence of everyday popular media culture in sport (e.g., match reports, live commentary, still photographs, action sequences, and player profiles) demands an interrogation of, to invoke the influential concept brought to the field by Barthes in 1957, its mythologies. In media studies, as in other areas of critical academic inquiry, myths (the building blocks of full-blown mythologies) can mean common (though not universally held) untruths and misapprehensions (Watson, 1998)—for example, that watching a particular television program involving violence will cause all children instantly to imitate what they have seen, or that only women watch and enjoy daytime soap operas. But media myths are more than just the products of prejudice and ignorance—they are integral to turning confusing and contradictory aspects of the world into a largely unquestioned common sense (Hall, 1997). Thus, a night’s viewing of prime-time television might represent white people as the authoritative commentators in news and current affairs and as the heroes and heroines of drama programs, whereas nonwhite people might be presented as the problems being commented on and the villains that the white protagonists have to kill or capture. On the basis of such media representations (H. Gray, 2004), more extensive readings of the world—mythologies—might be favored, such as that the world relies on inherently law-abiding white people to control nonwhite people who have an inherent potential to be criminally destructive, apart from those who are willing to act in a support role for their white superiors in dealing with their nonwhite peers.
In the light of such highly charged accounts of the world that posit some people and types as ranking above or below others, mythologies communicated through the media (though not entirely created by them) are manifested as ideologies—that is, they have tangible political and social consequences that encourage (without entirely determining) acceptance of values, attitudes, and actions that tend to support (consciously or unconsciously) the interests of those who are already in power and who already have the media at their disposal. In an example from the world’s biggest sport media moment, the entrance of the athletes into the arena at the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympic Games is communicated to the world by the principal Olympic broadcaster (which, for several decades, has been the U.S. media corporation NBC). This “feed” (a revealing term in itself) structures the television experience for the rest of the world, while enabling television commentary on the event to be customized by countries that can insert their own commentary or, if they lack the requisite resources, carry commentary provided by another country (Moragas Spà, Rivenburgh, & Larson, 1995). The media representation of the event, therefore, tends to reflect the structure of power in the world at large through the world of sport (Tomlinson & Young, 2006)—for example, national teams that are smaller and less internationally prominent are likely to receive little attention. For obvious reasons, countries and their broadcasters privilege their own national interests, and dominant nations are prone to represent others, especially “minor” world and sport powers, as incidental, less important, and exotic—or barely to mention them at all. Such familiar media routines, drawing on a seemingly ordinary world order, carry over into the world of politics through mythologies and ideologies that are at their most effective when they are accepted unconsciously and in areas of culture that claim to be nonpolitical. Thus, media studies is above all concerned with the politics of representation in any context, from nightly news programs to situation comedies, from televised soccer matches to children’s cartoons. There exists a range of explicit or implied sociocultural theories (i.e., systematic, generalizable propositions about the world, and in particular the relationship between cause and effect) that requires closer attention.