Sunday, April 20, 2008

Cultural Studies of Stuart Hall

Are mass media powerful ideological tools?

Stuart Hall claims that mass media maintain the dominance of the powerful and the exploitation of the poor and powerless. Hence, the primary goal of Hall’s Cultural Studies is to empower people who have been disadvantaged in terms of being able to participate in and/or affect society. Hall defines ideology as “those images, concepts and premises which provide the frameworks through which we represent, interpret, understand and ‘make sense’ of some aspect of social science.” As such, Hall believes that mass media plays huge roles in constructing the very framework which people depend on to make sense of reality. But how does mass media do that? The Frankfurt School theorists speak of culture as being manufactured and sold to the masses by the corporate industry. Hence, in reality, it is the corporations that control the mass media, that create the frameworks through which we represent, interpret, understand and ‘make-sense’ of reality. This certainly does make mass media a powerful ideological tool.

Being communication students, we are taught fundamentally that words and signs contain no intrinsic meaning and instead, we learn meanings through constant discourse. As such, living day to day in this era, there is no way that we can avoid the mass media. Each minute, we are confronted with mass media messages, or rather ideologies, that we may be consciously or even subconsciously be taking in. For example, the media often depicts women as being slim and looking flawless and hence uncritical consumers of such an idea would no doubt feel that in reality, that is how all women are supposed to look like as well. This is very often the reason why many women suffer from bulimia or anorexia while attempting to look like the women in the media. However, even though I do mostly agree that mass media are powerful ideological tools, I also believe that with critical consumers of mass media, the power of its ideologies will fail. And, as more and more people get educated about the mass media effects, there will come a point in time where the mass media will lose its power in framing people’s minds.

In what ways and in what degree is the post 9/11 media coverage (re)producing the chill of constraint?

Many researches have been done to prove that media coverage often interplays with public reaction. For example, a study conducted by McComas, K., and Shanahan, J in 1999 suggests that using media to dramatize environmental problems will be the key to raising public awareness, knowledge and action among people. Their paper titled “Telling Stories about Global Climate Change: Measuring the Impact of Narratives on Issue Cycles,” was addressing the problems with global warming and how they could get people to do something about it by simply dramatizing all the negative effects of the environment on television.

As such, we can apply this very same idea to the coverage of post 9/11 in (re)producing the chill of constraint. Much of the post 9/11 coverage emphasized U.S as being the authority on the international stage and constantly vilified the enemy. Most of the coverage also involved shifting the blame away from U.S and portraying U.S as the victim rather than the transgressor. There was much coverage about the prowess of the U.S army and also much stories about patriotism. The media also portrayed anyone who protested against the war as being not patriotic to their country and hence their coverage was downplayed and degraded. Even though there were varieties of avenues to gather news about 9/11, all of the avenues seemed to be singing in chorus with the same kind of coverage/messages, as Hall put it, “the chill of constraint.” This ultimately left the unthinking consumers of the media messages feeling like that there was no other choice left than to war and to oppose the war would deem them as unpatriotic.

How might one 'decode' the post 9/11 media text in oppositional ways?

One might decode and oppose the post 9/11 media text by being stubborn in resisting the dominant ideology presented by the media and instead translating and consuming the media text in a way that is more agreeable to their own interests. According to Hall, there are three ways this can be done. Firstly, the consumers of media text can coincide the preferred reading with their own reading. Secondly, the consumers can digest the essence of the ideology in general but oppose its application in specific cases. Lastly, the consumers can be media literate and see through biasness presented in the messages and develop an organized effort to find the true meanings of the messages.


McComas, K., & Shanahan, J. (1999). Telling Stories about Global Climate Change: Measuring the Impact of Narratives on Issue Cycles. Communication Research, 26, 30-57.

Retrieved February 10, 2008, from SAGE Premier 2007

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