The major aim of the media is to communicate to the audience. Communication may be described as the process of sending information from one person to the other or from the sender to the recipients. To have both the sender and the recipient of the information communicating, it will be important that the sender of the message takes precaution so that the message he or she is sending is not misinterpreted (Allison para. 2). The media, as a sender of a message, should have a clear picture of its audience and there should be a connection to prevent misinterpretation of the sent message by the audience.
The main approaches to media audience studies in the 20th and 21st centuries
Audience refers to how the public reacts to the information (Allison para.2) relayed to them by the media, or it may simply refer to the recipients of the information sent by the media. The media needs to have a set of information about the audience to whom it is passing the information. One of these is the anticipations of the audience – these are the previous ideas that the audience has about the information being passed (Allison para.3). The second is the distinct ideas that the audience has in regards to the information the media is passing; this may be the prior knowledge that the audience has about the information in the media. The media should also be able to have their target group, directly identifying with the information being transmitted. The information transmitted should be able to reach the targeted recipients while the recipients should be able to feel that that information was intended for them (Allison para.2). The media should also be engaged in a continuous search of information concerning the possible audience reaction to the information that they are planning to pass across (Durham and Kellner 183). Even after the information has been passed, research is still carried out to determine the possible reaction of the recipients to the information they have received (Allison para. 3).
Examples of the media audience approaches and their outcomes
In an attempt to understand the interface between the audience and the message sent by the media, several theories have been put in place to explain this relationship. The first theory explains how a large number of people are likely to act in response to mass media (Allison para. 4). This theory asserts that people receive the information from the media as it has been transmitted to them; they neither attempt to give it a deeper thought nor dispute its credibility. This theory has been especially used by politicians to sway voters to their way of reasoning or by leaders to attract the masses to support their opinion in a debate. The theory asserts that the media is always in control of the audience and that the audience’s perception is altered by the information transmitted on the media. This way of thinking has been used by parents or activists to criticize the media activities by insisting that some media content should not be exposed to specific audiences as this is likely to negatively alter the behaviors of such people. An example of this is the argument by parents and church leaders that the media content should be reviewed before it is released to the public since some of it exposes young children to immoral activities.
Another theory of audience studies is based on a double-step course and explains that the information not flows directly from the media to the audience but is normally affected by the social issues affecting the lives of the recipients (McQuail 237). People’s perceptions are normally affected by a lot of social issues. An audience that has interacted with a given social issue is likely to respond differently to that issue if it is handled in the media as compared to the society that has never felt the impact of that issue. This theory, therefore, explains that the final standpoint that will be taken by an individual on given information transmitted through the media will greatly be influenced by earlier interactions that those people have had with the issue. An application of this theory is the case of politics. People are never really swayed towards a given candidate as a result of the candidates’ policy but to what the political analysts say about that given candidate. Several people are never enlightened enough to understand the policies of various political parties and their implications. They, therefore, end up being submerged in the opinions of political analysts. The information is therefore said to move in a stepwise manner from the politicians to the analysts and then to the audience. This theory demystifies the authority of the media on the audience. According to this theory, the social factors have more impact on the reaction of the audience to a piece of information than the media.
Another theory to explain the interaction between the media and the audience is the theory of gratification (Giles 15) of a person’s needs and explains that the way an audience reacts to media information is dependent upon what it plans to use the information for. The proponents of this theory affirm that the audience may use the information acquired from the media to get away from the realities of everyday life (Giles 15), for instance, the movies normally give the persons viewing them a temporary escape from their ordinary lives. The audiences can also use the information in the media for improving their behaviors and personalities; they can also use the information in the media for emotional and psychological interaction with those people that are in their lives (Giles, 2003, 15). At times, people use the information from the media to improve their lives for instance the weather reports and financial reports can be used for budgeting. This theory, therefore, explains that the manner of interaction between the audience and the media will be dependent upon the audience’s plans to use the information (Giles 15). This, therefore, means that an individual is likely to pay less attention to given media information if he/she feels that the information will not be of any benefit to him/her.
The last theory is the reaction theory. This theory affirms that the interaction between the media and its audience is dependent upon how the information shall be received (McQuail 237). It goes further to explain that, to have the media achieving its objectives, it should ensure that its interpretations of the information passed are in line with the audience’s interpretation. This may mean putting in place some agreed-upon principles for the interpretations of given regulations so as not to create differences in understanding. The manner of interpretation of a given piece of information is always dependent upon several factors about the recipient, which includes; religion, gender, health, level of education, and political affiliation. These characteristics of the audience are likely to lead to misinterpretations of the information; they make people subjective in their judgment of the content.
Contributions of recent studies towards understanding the audience
An example of the theory that regarded human beings as a mass in which they received the information as transmitted to them is teenage boys who, after watching a rock band perform on the television, decides to transform their appearance to exactly appear similar to what they had watched. Some of the kids go as far as copying everything that they watch on the television, the result of which has been a lot of criticisms on the media especially from the parents who feel that their children are being influenced negatively.
An example of the step-by-step flow is the news anchors who at times transform the information they have acquired from another source to be like their own and make people believe that it is the gospel truth. The result of this at times is that the audience is made to believe an individual’s opinion as to the ultimate truth. This information, on several occasions, is prejudiced and biased. The problem with the step and step theory are that, at times, the person delivering the information to the final recipient may be less informed about the issue; he or she may be inclined towards one side in his or her argument or he or she may be ignorant about the exact facts about the issue in question. This, therefore, means that the information that he or she will be passing to the audience may be faulty.
An example is the gratification theory which explains that the interaction will depend upon what the audience plans to use the information for. For instance, a teenage girl may be attracted to the horoscope column in a newspaper since she uses the information to interpret the likely outcome of her day. An adult may regard such a column as useless since the information contained therein is of no importance to him or her.
The response theory explains that there is a great difference in the way a piece of information may be interpreted by two different people. If for instance there would be media reports regarding a suicide bombing by Al-Qaeda members, the media intention could be to bring to the attention of the public the level of insecurity in the region. A Muslim on the other hand may interpret this as an achievement and not as a threat. The role of the media should be therefore to ensure that there is a convectional way that the information it passes is to be interpreted.
The current media studies are giving a lot of focus on the study of the audience. Most of the researchers are of the view that the audiences’ interpretation of the information varies. The studies also refute the theory of the superiority of the media over the audience (Miller and Philo para.1) The current media studies based on the above facts are therefore based on how the information is interpreted by the audience and not the influence of the media on the audience (Miller and Philo para.1).
This approach of active audience explains that that people have their interpretations of issues. This approach explains further that individuals are capable of having fixed ideas and ways of communication that are quite different from the known tendencies (Miller, Philo para. 2). A piece of information can be interpreted in a varied number of ways and this is determined by the characteristics of the audience as looked at earlier on. It is also a common thing to find a group of people having a fixed way of thinking that is quite different from what people around them are familiar with (Miller and Philo para. 3). Some are even able to develop a language that is only understandable to them in the group. It may therefore not be right to regard audiences as mass since individuals react to information differently and uniquely.
This approach has been criticized for its assertion that a piece of information can be interpreted in several ways. This means that such interpretations may not have been tested and may therefore be erroneous. Modern media studies suggest that audiences can have the same perception of a message but may differ in their reaction to it (Miller and Philo para. 4). Some researchers explain that people may have different understandings of the information; however, the difference is in how they will interact with the information. They explain that the difference comes in especially if the two individuals speak different languages (Miller and Philo para.6). Another possible explanation for the differences in interpretation could be as a result of religious or cultural differences between the individuals. This, therefore, means that the two individuals will have different interpretations of the information.
The active audience theory has failed in investigating whether the Interpretation of the information by the audience is truly what they believed in or it was just an attempt to be in line with what the media promotes (Miller and Philo para.7). Recent studies have suggested that the audiences are always aware of the real interpretation of the information but at times chose to give it a different meaning because that’s what the media support. These studies suggest that the individual’s interpretation of the information is likely to be based on what he/she is familiar with as the reality and any action that he/she takes with regards to the given information is likely to agree with what he/she believes in real life and not on the temporary meaning they give to a media text
Another perspective of modern media studies is to focus on the coverage of the popular issues which are based on the interest of many individuals (Brooker and Jermyn 51). This involves covering issues about the underprivileged or ordinary people. This definition of what is preferred by society is always determined by communities and not the media companies. This theory is referred to as the popular culture and is referred to be the way of life of the people and this way of life is developed as a result of the people’s reaction to the supremacy of a given invention created by the media (Brooker and Jermyn 52). These trendy ways include issues concerning the subjugated members of the societies, as well as antagonistic, outrageous, and unpleasant components. The mass media uses this popular culture approach to reach the ordinary audience and as a result, making them powerful (Brooker and Jermyn 52).
Another approach used in audience media studies is the emphasis that many of the audiences look for gratification from the information that they gain from the media. The audiences will interpret the information they gain from the media in such a way that it will enable them to escape from the realities of their everyday lives (Miller and Philo para.7). This approach has been linked to the individuals who watch romantic movies and then fantasize about the things they have watched. This approach, therefore, affirms that at times the information gained from the media allows individuals to experience what they can not practice in an actual situation.
Another approach that is used in media studies is the construction of identities by audiences (Miller and Philo para. 9). Researchers in this field argue that the meanings are never specific and keep on changing. This approach though fails to explain how people construct a definition of personality especially when confronted by difficult circumstances such as in the definition of homosexuality. It also fails to explain how the creation of identities is based on the chronological and intellectual background of the audience.
It’s worth noting that identity goes hand in hand with the audiences’ familiarity with a given piece of information. The kind of interpretation made by an audience will depend on the audiences’ experience with the kind of information in the media. The media studies fail to explain how individuals accept information or refute it. They also fail to show how this information is likely to change the audiences’ ways of thinking (Miller and Philo para.10). One researcher into this approach explains that the experiences are normally acquired through chronological development and that a language is never needed in the acquisition of experience. Experience helps authenticate what we already know and acquire what we do not know. A conflict may arise if there is a difference between the known meaning and what is presented in the real world. This approach of media studies has the disadvantage of not being able to explain how the meanings are formed and how they are likely to transform.
This refers to the media recognition of the audience as being capable of attaching a varied number of meanings to a piece of information. This new approach is in contradiction to the approach that handled the audience as a mass that consumes the information it has received from the media. It is important to consider several characteristics of the audiences which may influence how they interpret the information and if possible, put in place a set of conventions to be used in the encoding of the media messages. The current media studies have made a great step in making it easier to understand the audience though a lot of research still needs to be done especially in understanding how the audience forms identities. Indeed, an important aspect of modern media studies is the active audience.
Allison David. “Audience.” Mediaknowall. 2006. Web.
Brooker, William and Jermyn, Deborah. The audience studies reader. London, Routledge. 2003.
Durham, Meenakshi and Kellner, Douglas. Media and cultural studies: key works. New York, Wiley-Blackwell. 2006.
Giles, David. Media psychology. London, Routledge. 2003.
McQuail, Denis. Mass communication theory: an introduction. London, Sage. 1987.
Miller, David and Philo, Greg. “The active audience and wrong turns in media studies.” The active audience and wrong turns in media studies. 2001. Web.