Ideology and the Media

An earlier view of the ideological role of the media, rooted in a pluralist view of society, perceives it as a 'passive transmitter' or a mirror which reflects social reality, through which contending social and political positions can air their views and contest for public support (Gurevitch et al., 1982: 64). Thus, the role of the media becomes that of reflecting reality truthfully and objectively, free from bias. Media as a 'mirror of reality' assumes that there is a 'consensus' about social issues amongst the members of society that it objectively reports to.

However the notion that such a 'consensus' can be achieved independently of the media is questioned. Instead, it is argued that 'consensus' is the result of "a complex process of social construction and legitimation" (Hall, 1982: 63). By this view, the media is seen as one that reproduces and represents a definition of reality that legitimates the existing structure of things. With this, a shift is made towards the critical paradigm in media studies, which is rooted in the Marxist tradition of ideology (Hall, 1982).

Following the traditional Marxist view where "the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas" (Marx and Engels, 1970: 64), the media is said to provide 'distorted' or 'false' accounts of an objective reality...because they are moulded by ruling political and economic groups" (Gurevitch et al., 1982: 22). Thus, classical Marxism perceived the media as a tool which the ruling class utilised to pursue their own ideological interests.

However, this ideological role of the media is too extreme. Firstly, media discourse does not necessarily convey 'distorted' or false images of social reality. Secondly, the notion of ideology as perpetuated by the media in the traditional Marxist view seems to suggest that it is imposed upon us by the ruling class, i.e., as a repressive state apparatus in a top-down approach towards ideological power. In contrast, Althusser provided a less deterministic notion of ideology as "a representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence" (Althusser, 1971: 153). That is, while ideologies do not correspond to reality (imaginary or illusionary), they do make allusion to reality (a representation). The central issue to Althusser is that ideology works through the hailing or interpellation of individuals as subjects through the common sense assumptions ('obviousness') of everyday life. According to him, the ideological power of the media "lies not in an imposed false consciousness...but in the unconscious categories through which conditions are represented and experienced" (Gurevitch et al., 1982: 24). Thus, this productive model of power suggests that ideological power operates at the micro level of society, i.e., individuals willingly subject themselves to dominant ideologies precisely because these ideologies are constructed as everyday, 'common sense' knowledge.

The term 'common sense' has also been used by Gramsci (1971) in connection to the concept of ideology as an "implicit philosophy" in the practical activities of social life (as) backgrounded and taken for granted" (Fairclough, 1989: 84). This constitutes, according to Hall (1982: 73), "a reservoir of themes and premises" or an already existing knowledge on which news reporters could draw to talk about news events, happenings and newsmakers in a society where such 'common sense' knowledge is already encoded in its discourse.

Hence, I disagree with the view that the media is a 'passive transmitter' which mirrors faithfully and truthfully social 'facts' and 'reality'. While I agree that the media actively constructs and defines a kind of social reality through its discourse, I disagree with the more extreme Marxist view of ideology and its relationship with the media - that the media and its discourse are used by the ruling class to impose a distorted reality on the rest of society.

-My view is less extreme in that I believe that ideologies of societies operate through 'unconscious consent', and the media is a powerful instrument that effects this consent. As Fairclough said, "In modern society, social control is increasingly practised...through consent...For instance, the constant doses of 'news' which most people receive each day are a significant factor in social control" (1989: 36).

Hence, what I mean by 'unconscious consent' takes into account the works of Althusser, Gramsci and Fairclough. That is, dominant ideologies are represented in the discourse of the media, and manifested as 'naturalised' and 'common sense' knowledge. They are mostly unquestioned and backgrounded assumptions, and hence most individuals will not be consciously aware. This is what Fairclough (1989: 81) called "ideological common sense", i.e., that which sustains unequal relations of power. However this does not necessarily mean that such 'unconsciousness' cannot be made 'conscious' or that such backgrounded knowledge cannot be problematised and foregrounded. When problematised, the consensus that was previously achieved is thus contested. This shows that ideology is a "site of struggle" (Hall, 1982: 70) where there always exists "some degree of ideological diversity, and indeed conflict and struggle, so that ideological uniformity is never completely achieved" (Fairclough, 1989: 88). Also, 'ideological struggle pre-eminently takes place in the obvious sense that it takes place in discourse' (Fairclough, 1989: 88).

Essential Reading:

  • Althusser, Louis. 1971. Ideology and ideological state apparatuses. 'Lenin and Philosophy.' London: New Left Books.
  • Fairclough, Norman. 1989. 'Language and Power'. London: Longman.
  • Fairclough, Norman. 1992. 'Critical Language Awareness'. London: Longman.
  • Fairclough, Norman. 1995. 'Media Discourse'. London: Edward Arnold.
  • Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. 'Selections from the Prison Notebooks'. New York: International.
  • Gurevitch, Michael, Tony Bennett, James Curran and Janet Woollacott (eds). 1982. 'Culture, Society and the Media'. London: Routledge. 
  • Hall, Stuart. 1981. The determination of news photographs. 'The Manufacture of News: Social Problems, Deviance, and the Mass Media', ed by Cohen, Stanley and Jock Young. London: Routledge, 56-89.
  • Hall, Stuart. 1982. The rediscovery of 'ideology': return of the repressed in media studies. 'Culture, Society and the Media, ed by Gurevitch, Michael, Tony Bennett, James Curran and Janet Woollacott. London: Routledge, 56-89.


More by :  Attreyee Roy Chowdhury

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