Does Mass Media Reflect or Shape Culture

Mass Media & Values

The author of this report has been asked to answer a rather broad but still important question. The question at hand is whether the mass media is simply a representation of the broader cultural values, attitudes and stereotypes of a society or whether the mass media is involved with shaping the same rather than just being a reflection or representation. The author of this response does not mean to be non-committal or waffling but the answer is actually a little of both. There are some instances where mass media is simply just groveling to the masses but there are some instances where narratives are being established and cultural trends are being written. What is true in a given situation usually depends on the situation but it is not entirely hard or difficult to tell which is happening in a given instance. While mass media output is usually an instance of reflection, there are different instances where the forces and powers that by are trying to strike and guide a new cultural trend, for whatever reason.


As noted in the introduction, mass media is usually just a representation and reflection of what “the people want” as consumers. This is in many ways a rather damning part of society. Indeed, we as a culture seem to be devolving and degenerating into a maelstrom of Duggars, Honey Boo-Boo’s and Jersey Shore reruns. Put another way, there seems to be a pattern that is putting American society on a path to eventually resemble something along the lines of what is depicted in movies like Wall-E and Idiocracy where the consumer resembles a mindless drone that is entertained by insipid and mindless things. To give an example of this progression, one can point to MTV. Many people lament that MTV used to be music videos but that there has been a progression from music videos to shows like Jersey Shore. Indeed, that did happen but it did not happen overnight. It started with shows like Road Rules, Real World and so forth. The same precise thing happened to counterpart VH1 and their programming. There was a noticeable paradigm shift away from more “culture” and valued programming to the mindless tripe (at least to many) that seems to now pervade all of cable television. The same thing has happened to channels like the History Channel, The Learning Channel (TLC) and others. The maturity, cultural importance and so forth of all of those channels has shifted noticeably over the years (Darren O).

The sad fact, however, is that these channels are making these changes in programming for a reason. If these channels were not getting ad revenue and ratings from these shows, they would not be doing it. It is not as if they are being peddlers of this mindless fodder and smut. They are presenting it because it gets people in front of the so-called idiot box. If it was not gaining viewership, these channels would not be doing it. There are other businesses that are driven by cultural desires and demands and they themselves influence and shift what is offered via mass media. One example would be the Ultimate Fighting Championships. Until her head was nearly kicked off by Holly Holm, Ronda Rousey was the preeminent and most prominent women’s fighter in that organization. She has appeared (or will appear) in movies including a “reboot” of Road House and the Fast and Furious franchise. The same thing is still currently happening with Irish fighter Connor McGregor. He will presumably lose himself at some point but UFC is riding the wave of his cockiness and boorishness in the interim. The UFC has not been around terribly long as a cultural phenomenon but many people currently cannot get enough of what they are putting out and there is definitely a marketing and mass media strategy that is a huge part of what they are doing (Peter).

Another example would be a more historically storied sport like football and the National Football League. Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys has made some questionable hires when it comes to the team that he has decided to field. Wide receiver Dez Bryant has had some obvious on — the field and off — the field issues. Offensive lineman Josh Brent was brought back to the team after serving jail time for a criminal even where he was driving drunk, crashed his car and that crash led to the death of a practice squad teammate. Another player by the name of Greg Hardy was at one point a convicted woman abuser until he demanded a jury trial instead (which is allowed by the jurisdiction he was in) and the woman involved decided to stop cooperating after a sizable financial settlement was come to. The point to the above is that Jerry Jones is presumably doing what he is doing to get the best players and thus the best result on the field because that would presumably make him more money in terms of jersey sales, ticket purchases and so forth. The results this particular season have been abysmal and perhaps Jones would do things differently given their two wins in eight or nine games. However, his intent in advance of the season was obviously to win games at any costs because the ensuing results of mass media exposure after winning would make him money. This is not really a reflection of media values as Jerry Jones is a creator of mass media content but he is still doing it based on what the people supposedly want. Given the mass media performance and exposure of the Dallas Cowboys during the Jimmie Johnson years, he is probably not wrong (Osgood).

As suggested in the introduction, the “little of both” answer is true and the other side of the proverbial coin will now be discussed. The common and perhaps usual manifestation of situations where the media is trying to shape their own narrative is when it comes to news programming. Indeed, an ideological dichotomy has formed in mass media and cable news is one of the main epicenters of this manifesting. The Presidential elections dating back to roughly the late 1990’s have not always been close from an electoral standpoint but they have most certainly been close in terms of the overall popular vote. The best example of this was in the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Albert Gore. In an election that had to be settled by the Supreme Court, this was a situation where Bush won the Electoral College tally but actually lost the popular vote. Of course, the former determines the winner of Presidential election and not the latter. The outcome of that election and how it played out in the media was a literal free-for-all and the cable news programs were a huge part of what drove to and covered that fracas all at the same time (Payson-Denney). The cable news phenomenon began with Ted Turner and CNN News but has since expanded to include Fox News, MSNBC and other channels. Further, there is obvious ideological bent with many to most cable news channels. Fox News is seen by many as a manifestation of right-wing ideas and news. Indeed, they do portend to be a standard news channel a lot of the time but their nightly programming is absolutely dominated by the right-leaning or extreme-right viewpoints of Megyn Kelly, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. MSNBC is much the same thing from the left side of the political spectrum with their nightly programming, at one time or another, including names like Al Sharpton, Ed Schultz, Rachel Maddow and Steve Olbermann. While some may decry media bias in general, it has to be pointed out that those two networks (as well as others) are capitalizing on the “entertainment” aspect of news and they are doing what they have to do to get the masses to tune in. As an obvious example, Fox is going to tend to attract those that are already right-wing in nature while MSNBC will attract leftist viewers (Richardson).

Even so, these news stations are not doing anything news as this pattern was really started long before cable news came to pass. Indeed, Walter Cronkite had an underlying political viewpoint to what he was saying but he really did have the media bully pulpit when he said it. Even an expansion to three major network news channels (ABC, NBC and CBS) did not change that as they continued this patter well into the 2000’s. The big problem with that approach is that blind political ideology can lead to the media “becoming” the story even when that is not the intent. Indeed, the career of media stalwart Dan Rather was basically ended in such a fashion when they pushed forward with a story that was critical of the military service of George W. Bush even though Rather (and his producer Mary Mapes) were told straight up that their “evidence” was not provably genuine. They pushed ahead anyway and they both lost their jobs in the brouhaha that ensued after that (Plunkett). A much more recent example was manifested during the current refugee shift from Syria and other war- and ISIS-torn parts of the Middle East into Eastern and the rest of Europe. A “journalist” was caught on tape tripping a refugee as they were running through a field and was called out for it. Her insipid response was to suggest that nothing wrong was done and that she would file lawsuits in regards to what was being said about her (Al-Jazeera).

To state the obvious, the shift of television news has both been driven by and drives the public, depending on the situation at hand. To what degree either or both is happening is in the eye of the beholder a lot of the time. This perception has led to the creation of a new media wave where new internet-based and even television-based media companies are coming out of the woodwork to cover news in their own way. The days of network news and people like Cronkite are over and it shall never return. The traditional media has bemoaned this trend but a lot of the demand for alternative news outlets has been caused by the smut-peddling and bias that has been on full display for years and is now more clearly coming into focus. Even so, events like 9/11 and the Columbia disaster glues people to the network and cable news channels and it is important for those events to be covered. At the same time, the apparent or even obvious narratives that are being forwarded (or created) by news outlets large and small leads to a muddying of the waters, to say the least.

Even with the ostensible benefits of this expansion of the paradigm, there are some very bad things that are happening. There is an ostensible coarsening of the culture and some of the people that have been brought to prominence by the media have become pariahs over the long-term. Whether it be Hulk Hogan and his racist diatribe that came to light, the Duggar revelations about abuse and molestation and the disgusting choice of men that Honey Boo-Boo’s mother apparently has, the people that are prominent in pop culture as a result of mass media are often less than desirable. One could also bring up the exploits of Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton, both of which became famous (initially) due to sex tapes and both (Kim in particular) are both still living off of the waves that were created due to that (Hetter).

However, some good has come from the media putting forth narratives. For so long, gay marriage was condemned and pilloried by many people and politicians. During that same time period, the media has been fairly consistent in honestly covering these patterns and perhaps how things should change. Even Barack Obama was on record as supporting marriage as being between one man and one woman at one time back in 2008 but both his view and that of the Supreme Court have obviously shifted since then as gay marriage is now legally ensconced as being legal and proper (Miller). One could absolutely question how the coverage of rebel Kim Davis was covered, she of Kentucky who refused to issue marriages as part of her duties as an elected clerk because she refused to do so if it meant giving licenses to gay couples. For example, many people referred to her as a “right-winger” but also glossed over the fact that she was a Democrat. To state the obvious, her views are not consistent with the national Democrat party but that is more than a minor detail to some people (Ross).

That all being said, the aplomb and vigor in which social issues are covered is not always done in a proper and ethical fashion. For example, the media has been more than willing to cover the “hands up, don’t shoot” protests that came about as a result of the death of Michal Brown in Ferguson, Missouri even though the grand jury and forensic testimony fairly clearly show that no such thing happened. Further, the only live witness besides the cop said he was shot from behind and the forensics alone prove that to be wrong because he was absolutely shot from the front and generally support the officer’s account (Cassell). Much the same thing happened with Trayvon Martin. Many of the media narratives gloss over the fact that Trayvon was apparently bent over at the waist and beating on George Zimmerman when he was shot (Pearson). Zimmerman, both during that incident and since then, has certainly not been blameless but the media has been pretty bad at doing their job in an honest way. A clear-cut example is the fact that Zimmerman was referred to as a “white man” even though he is indisputably part Hispanic. The shooter at the recent Oregon college mass shooting was half black and that is often skipped by media outlets as well, perhaps because it goes against the narrative that most mass shooters are white (Greenfield). Even if that is technically true, either the race of a shooter or other criminal matters or it does not. Unless the crime is racially motivated, race should not really matter either way. In the case of the Oregon shooting, religion seems to have been the biggest motivator of the shooter and not race. Another recent blow-up that has been a media circus has been the recent blow-ups at the University of Missouri and Yale University. The media, once again, has become part of the show and the narratives that are being advanced by some media personnel are careless, stereotypical and misguided, to put it lightly. Racism is certainly a scourge and needs to be annihilated but there are many decent people out there that do not need to be “educated” about avoiding bigotry and racism. However, that is not what the protestors at those colleges are saying and the media narratives over the years have made things worse, in the view of the author of this report (Wolff).


In the end, mass media serves a needed and necessary purpose. At the same time, to suggest that fact-checking, honestly and ethics are a lost art when it comes to what is put on television in terms of entertainment and the news is a vast understatement. Cop shootings are bad enough but the fact that ninety-three percent of blacks are killed by other blacks is important as well but only one of those facts is trumpeted and blared in the mass media a lot of the time (Lee). True and effective social change is about letting all the facts come out and letting the chips fall where they may. Further, giving people what they want in terms of entertainment is not always the right thing. Even if people clamor for adultery-encouraging shows like Temptation Island, this does not mean that such shows should be created or trumpeted (ABC News). A Puritanical media would not be a good thing but the selling and implicit (or explicit) encouragement of debauchery is terrible as well.


ABC News. ‘Fox’s Temptation Island Draws Fire’. ABC News. N.p., 2015. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

Al-Jazeera. ‘Hungary Journalist To Sue Syrian Refugee She Tripped’. N.p., 2015. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

Cassell, Paul. ‘The Physical Evidence In The Michael Brown Case Supported The Officer [Updated With DNA Evidence]’. Washington Post. N.p., 2014. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

Darren O. ‘What’s In A Name: Do MTV, History, And TLC Have Branding Issues?’. N.p., 2013. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

Greenfield, Daniel. ‘Media Narrative: Half-Black Oregon Killer Is A “White Supremacist.” Front Page Mag. N.p., 2015. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

Hetter, Katia. ‘Fat-Shaming And Other Controversial Ways To Seek Fame – CNN.Com’. CNN. N.p., 2014. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

Lee, Michelle. ‘Giuliani’s Claim That 93% Of Black Murder Victims Are Killed By Other Blacks’. Washington Post. N.p., 2014. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

Miller, Zeke. ‘Axelrod: Obama Misled Nation When He Opposed Gay Marriage In 2008’. N.p., 2015. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

Osgood, Will. ‘Do Cowboys Have A Penchant For Acquiring Criminals?’. FanSided. N.p., 2015. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

Payson-Denney, Wade. ‘Who Really Won Bush-Gore Election? – Cnnpolitics.Com’. CNN. N.p., 2015. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

Pearson, Michael. ‘5 Things To Know About The George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin Saga – CNN.Com’. CNN. N.p., 2013. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

Peter, Josh. ‘Ronda Rousey’s Ex-Manager: ‘I Created A Monster,’ Is ‘Bittersweet’ Over Loss’. USA TODAY. N.p., 2015. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

Plunkett, Suzanne. ‘CBS News Admits Bush Documents Can’t Be Verified’. N.p., 2004. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

Richardson, Reed. ‘Can Al Jazeera America Save Cable News?’. The Nation. N.p., 2014. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

Ross, Janell. ‘Kim Davis Is A Democrat. Why Does That Matter?’. Washington Post. N.p., 2015. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

Wolff, Michael. ‘Wolff: The Media’s Campus Narrative’. USA TODAY. N.p., 2015. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

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