Media and the Message: Media Bias and Media Literacy

  1. 5.2 Investigate the issue of media bias and the need for media literacy.

Media are channels of communication that carry information. But do media simply transmit information or do they alter the message? The Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan (1911–1980) claimed that media not only transmit information but also shape the message. More broadly, McLuhan (1964) claimed that any medium—or technology of any kind—inevitably shapes how human beings understand their world. One reason that this is so, as we have already explained, is that the type of media a society uses sets the scale of communication, allowing people to experience a small, local community or to participate in a much larger world, perhaps interacting with millions or even billions of others.

But more is involved. The development of mass media and, subsequently, social media also has changed the nature of human relationships. To see why, you have only to think of how often, using computers and social media sites, we interact with people we never even see—a stark change from centuries ago. Work, too, is less personal for people who spend most of the day looking at a keyboard and a computer screen. Beyond work, new media have altered the character of leisure; researchers tell us that the average person in the United States spends about five hours a day watching television; the total is double that when we add in playing video games, listening to radio, or some other music source while driving or working out (Koblin, 2016). Finally, new media change the way we run our households. To see how, just think about how many of us now use computers to control heat and light, pay bills, do our banking, go shopping, and schedule an auto repair.

McLuhan points out that some of the changes new technology brings to our lives may not be obvious. Using the sociological perspective, we can discover the latent functions, or unintended consequences, of any new technology. The “messages” we find on television, for example, extend well beyond the entertainment value of the programming we watch, also expanding our world by showing us the lives of people who differ from us, whether they live across town or half way around the world. In what ways do you think television has changed family dynamics? What effect has it had on our nation’s level of physical activity?

Finally, media “package” any particular message in specific ways. Consider that television “processes” the news into thirty-minute program slots (typically twenty-two minutes on stations that include commercial advertising). How do you imagine this time constraint—by which complex stories are compressed into one-minute segments—affects our understanding of what actually happens in the world? As another example, how does the 140 character limit shape the communication that takes place on Twitter? These questions help us see why McLuhan concluded that “the medium is the message” (McLuhan, 1964; Federman, 2004).