While researching a variety of topics at conveniently-intersecting purposes, I came across this wonderful article from Elliot Gaines (author of 2011: Media Literacy and Semiotics), in which he explains how we need media criticism in order to avoid having our opinions settled for us by means contrary to reason in fact, even if many deem them preeminently reasonable in appearance—namely, that media gains its authority in dubious fashion.
The technologies of the media make it possible to represent symbolic systems while overcoming the natural restrictions of time and space and making communication appear immediate and intimate when received.
The notion of immediacy refers to a sense of being present at an event even though the media only represent it after the fact and from far away from its original location. Thus the power of mass media is not just in their capacities to deliver ideas and information, but also in their ability to exploit the verisimilitude of representations that are received with a sense of intimacy and immediacy. In addition, the third-person effect hypothesis suggests that people generally believe that media affects others while they themselves are immune to being manipulated or persuaded unknowingly (Rojas, Shah, and Faber 1996: 193). Audiences need to recognize that media affect every user because attention is drawn to intended meanings and inferences of consequences. Media are ubiquitous and enter personal space with a sense of immediacy that gives contemporary mass communications and opinion leaders great power and access to people. Without critical thinking and media literacy, it is easy to assume a great deal about the media and the world of objects, ideas, and situations they represent.
The goal of media is to attract attention in order to successfully profit and sustain themselves. Secondarily, media deliver information about issues and events, entertainment products that suggest social norms, attract attention to products, and influence the ethos of society. IT’s the audience, engaged in social discourse, which learns the codes and negotiates the veracity of representations intended to communicate a particular point-of-view.
The problems of media and “settling opinion”
The representational qualities of media phenomena are reasonable because they are logically developed from older, familiar signs that are continuous with established ideas. Media project a tacit authority to provide knowledge and expertise, but the credibility of media draws from its repetitive and persistent presence that simulates the continuity of signs necessary to logical reasoning. However, this is an illusion of veracity generated by the media that cannot substitute for verification. Part of the illusion is self-referential; media referring to (indexing) other media products or spokespersons only demonstrates social discourse but does not provide evidence of any particular argument. In order to understand authentic verification, it is necessary to look at the methods of proposing opinions about the meanings of things.Gaines 2008: “Media Criticism and Settling Opinion” in Semiotics 2008: p.245–46 (245–251).
I highlight one key point in this last-quoted paragraph: namely, that media projects authority through repetition and persistent presence, through which it simulates the progression by which we advance logically from initial observations to inferred conclusions. Put in other words, we form habits of presupposition by allowing media’s immediacy to overwhelm our own capacity for thinking and dissecting the objects presented to us “immediately and intimately”.
The increase of personalized media experiences through digital networks has exacerbated this influence, precisely through the increased intimacy achieved by that personalization. As Gaines writes, we believe ourselves unaffected while others suffer. But, in truth, this only masks more deeply our own deceit. Is this turn of the digital inevitable? Or can we do better? Are we hapless victims of tyrannical media authority—or do we have means to free ourselves?