Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths
Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths

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8 Media audiences and users post 9/11

This section you’ll be considering several perspectives on how audiences use and are influenced by different media in understanding issues and events post 9/11. In the process, our interactions with a variety of types of communication and media forms will be considered, including TV news, political speeches, government ‘leaks’ and official publications, satellite television, the internet and downloads to mobile phones. Different ways of researching media audiences will also be introduced, including surveys, critical readings, focus group studies, and ethnographic interviews.

Two particular changes in the media landscape since the 1980s have had a major impact on media audiences – each in a different way inviting (perhaps even forcing us) into more active roles, shifting our relationship with the media from that of viewer to that of user. The first change is the growth and diversification of the media. This is perhaps most obvious in the broadcast media with the explosion of the number of channels available to viewers, as a result of media deregulation and the development of satellite, digital and cable technologies. Some UK viewers currently still rely on analogue broadcast services, where choice remains limited to five television channels; but for increasing numbers a choice of viewing can be made between 100 channels or more.

But, perhaps more significantly, diversification is also a reality in media production, including limited but significant penetration of Western markets by non-Western media products such as Bollywood movies or, of particular relevance to post-9/11 discussions, non-Western news sources such as al-Jazeera television. (Al-Jazeera was launched in Arabic in 1996 and in English in 2006.) Thus we are presented with an increasing range of choice not just of channels, but of perspectives.

The second change in the media landscape is the growth of the internet, which greatly increases access to a wide range of information sources (and hence potentially to diverse perspectives). It also presents possibilities for interaction at a distance. As Cottle comments ‘New media technologies ... add new communicative ingredients into the media ecology mix ... unsettling established flows of 'top-down' communication and facilitating new political forms of organization and expression’ (Cottle 2006: p52-3).

You’ll look more at Cottle’s work this section, and how he considers the impacts of both news media diversification and the internet on media audiences/users. He also introduces the idea of the media as a public sphere – a 'space' or 'spaces' for discussion of issues of shared concern.

Discussions of media use raise questions about media effects. Ways of understanding how the media influence people have changed over the years. Historically, there has been a long-running debate between what Livingstone (2005) identifies as ‘liberal’ and ‘critical’ positions. The ‘liberal’ position sees the media in a positive light as providing the information and range of opinion that people in a democracy need to help make up their minds. By contrast, the ‘critical’ position sees the media as shaping public opinion in the interests of those who produce, own or control the media.

The arguments you’ll consider this section will provide evidence to support both positions, and perhaps also point beyond them. Thus, in support of the critical position, Kull et al. (2003–4) present evidence that suggests watching some television-news sources relates to misperceptions of the facts concerning the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath, even when other factors such as political orientation and social background are taken into account. But al-Ghabban (2004) presents evidence that exposure even to biased media sources can stimulate critical debate and perhaps political action. This supports the central argument of the liberal position: the media provide information that aids democracy by enabling informed public debate. It also addresses a key contention of the critical position; news sources are likely to be biased and should be treated with scepticism. Al-Ghabban also makes the point that much more than media input shapes people’s views; a whole range of social, cultural and individual factors also come into play.

(Please note that, although you may find it interesting to do so, we do not expect you to read each of these sources in full.)

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