Mainstream Models in Mass Communication Research

The Medium is the Message

Media Hot and Cold

By: Cameron A. Straughan

Student # 205337985

October 3, 2002

Mainstream Models in Mass Communication Research brought to mind many points and questions relating to my Plan of Study and documentary project. For example, I wonder if propagandistic documentaries produced during WW II were studied using the hypodermic model. It would be interesting if I could find such studies – particularly audience surveys of any type. I was going to create audience survey forms to determine the effectiveness of my own documentary in communicating to audiences and instigating some sort of change. However, my understanding is that it is difficult to assess the effectiveness of a communication after the fact. Instead, some researchers propose studying audience response during the communication (in vitro). Apparently, this allows a more honest, spontaneous determination, since people aren’t required to recall anything and the details aren’t as sketchy.

While reading the chapter, it occurred to me that if the hypodermic model assumes audiences are identical, passive, and isolated, might that not be somewhat true for a wartime society? Whereas it is currently difficult for us to support the theory, in wartime people do tend to gather under a common goal. Their values suddenly become much more uniform. And I believe they would become much more susceptible to government propaganda. 911 would be an excellent recent example of this mass shift in mentality. Suddenly, President Bush, formerly seen as a joke, was to be taken very seriously and was immune to criticism – “You’re either with us, or against us”. In fact, I wonder if anyone applied the hypodermic theory to 911?

I think it is also interesting to note that, under the hypodermic model, “resistance to media messages is seen as an adverse force that must be eliminated.” This applies to some documentaries produced during WW II that were viewed as critical of the war effort, thus they were censored or suppressed. This would include The Battle of San Pietro and Let there be Light by John Huston. The Battle of San Pietro was cut and its premiere was delayed by military brass, and Let there be Light was banned from wide release.

I also saw ties between functionalist theory and my Plan of Study. John Grierson, who championed documentaries as an effective way to bring about social change, was clearly operating under functionalist theoretical principles, even though he came to prominence about 20 years previous to the model! In addition, it’s interesting how direct cinema fits into the functionalist model.

Direct cinema, which proposes that documentaries should sit back and observe the subjects and not intervene, often produced works that went against the establishment. As a result, films like Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies were long suppressed. It is also interesting that all of Wiseman’s documentaries are about social institutions and the people who interact with them. The similarities between direct cinema and functionalism are so uncanny that I wonder just how aware of functionalism Wiseman was!

I found the Two-Step Flow theory interesting since it also related to my Plan of Study. According to the theory, a filter (i.e., an “opinion leader”) exists between the media and audiences. This is surprisingly similar to my goal of becoming an interface between scientific information and the audience, as depicted below:

Under this model, it’s interesting that Klapper believes that mass media can shape opinions about new issues. This fills me with some sense of hope, since – for many people – science is a new issue. Also, the idea that attitudes can’t be changed but they can be shaped early on (i.e., you can’t teach an old dog new tricks) agrees with my emphasis on teaching youth about environmental issues, before they become set in their ways.

The Theory of Gratifying Uses also relates to my Plan of Study and my documentary project. For example, I plan to place science in a cultural context. Thus, I will use mainstream media and pop culture techniques to do so. This includes placing electronic music in my wolf documentary, and using some rock video-like camera work. My hope is that the audience will be able to relate to my documentary, as opposed to a more clinical, scientific approach. However, in accordance with the theory, I will be utilizing some traditional documentary techniques, otherwise I risk alienating my audience. It’s interesting that this theory places great emphasis on content, because that is at odds with Marshal McLuhan’s theories, which I thought were full of mixed blessings.

On some points I agreed with McLuhan. I agreed that a written culture causes individualism and private ownership. As a writer myself, I admit that it’s the loneliest art form, leading to a strong sense of independence. I’d expand further on the idea and say that the Walkman (Discman) and the computer have further compartmentalized us, alienating us from shared experiences and community life.

I also liked how McLuhan emphasized the role of the artist in unraveling the onslaught of technology. This point reminded me of Marcuse’s view of the artist in One-dimensional Man. I wonder – were McLuhan’s ideas as revolutionary as Marcuse’s? That is, did they impact college students in the same way? I also liked McLuhan’s idea that technological media are natural resources that shape a society.

On some points I disagreed with McLuhan. I’m not willing to concede that TV is always so captivating; I rarely watch it, because I think that content does matter. I enjoy investigative reporting, yet I can enjoy it either on the radio or on TV. The effect is the same for me. I’ve heard some excellent radio documentaries that I thought would make a great TV documentary. However, it’s the content that grabs me. It’s the content that has the potential to carry over into TV. Lastly, if McLuhan is correct, then why isn’t radio obsolete? I think his “medium is the message” idea is better suited to the video disc, beta, VHS, DVD progression we have seen in recent times. While the content (film) was the same over time, society wanted a new medium. Now we are obsessed with the digital medium. Compact, high quality DVDs – loaded with features – are vogue.

I also didn’t like how McLuhan generalized history, formed very loose connections between unrelated information, and relied on such an unscientific approach. Where any of his theories tested in the field? How, for example, does he know the impacts of electric technology on society? Has he studied the Mennonites and Amish to see their reactions to it? If not, then where does he get his information from? Does he own a time machine?

Along these lines, I did not like how McLuhan manufactured a history of “hot” and “cold” events to support his theories. While I’ll acknowledge that the technique was humorous and clever, I found it manipulative and somewhat deceitful.

I also found it irksome that McLuhan’s assignment of “hot and cold” media seemed arbitrary at times. Why is a waltz “hot”? I’d say that since you are involved in a dance with multiple persons then you are, in fact, participating and it should be “cold”. Why is TV cold? If you are watching too much TV then you are not participating in the community, which requires use of a variety of your senses and faculties. So, shouldn’t TV – limited to sight and sound – be hot? Along these lines, I do not understand how TV can “tribalize”. Maybe the Twin Peaks phenomenon was an example of this. People actually got together and shared in the viewing experience. But this is an unusual case. Generally, I think TV keeps people indoors, alone, distracted, and alienated from interactions with other people – the opposite of “tribalized”!

While I had some problems with his theories, I think it is difficult to argue against McLuhan because he has assembled such an odd set of examples and qualifiers. His writing makes it look like that, in order to understand him, you require an advanced knowledge of english, history, anthropology, communications, economics, philosophy, music, and science – to name a few! But I wonder – how well versed in all of these fields is McLuhan? His theories cross over into many disciplines which I think he has limited knowledge of. On the other hand, I admire his holistic approach.

To his credit, grounding his theories in such a diverse set of qualifiers and evidence is witty, entertaining, and may ultimately convince readers that he is correct in his assumptions. However, it will also alienate many readers. I also think that his sudden digressions may be a very well planned attempt at eroding possible criticism. In essence, he’s made it difficult to criticize the content of his writing by changing the flow and appearance of it – for him, the medium really is the message! To his credit, he does inject a lot of humour into his text, which I enjoyed.

Another technique that McLuhan utilizes to support his ideas and ward off critics is his idea of media containing content that is in fact another media (i.e., content of writing is speech). Not only did this catch me off guard and confuse me, but I wondered where this idea would end. It seems like a circular argument – of course the medium is more important than content, because content is another medium … and so on, and so on.

In conclusion, I think that the title Understanding Media should be renamed Understanding Marshal McLuhan, since the chances that the reader will actually understand anything about media are low, while the chances of learning something about McLuhan’s inner thoughts and how his mind works are high. It must also be taken into consideration that McLuhan is an upper class, white intellectual with some elitist views. Thus, I figure that his potential audience would be similar – it’s not like a bowling league is going to read his stuff! With this in mind, maybe his work is not so difficult for his target audience to absorb. Who knows? If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from these readings it’s that audiences are unpredictable.


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