Mass Media Studies Research Paper

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The term ‘the mass media’ refers to institutions that via technologies of largely one-way communication, reach audiences that consist of large numbers of people. The book can be seen as the first mass medium and consequently it could be argued that mass media emerged with the development of printing as a medium at the end of the fifteenth century. However, the concept of the mass media is normally associated with the development of modern, industrial society in the West, beginning in the early nineteenth century. In this period, newspapers joined the book as an important mass medium; later in the century, the telegraph became an important point-to-point media technology that had important consequences for the mass media via its conjunction with the press. In the twentieth century, film, radio, phonograms, and then television and video were added. The growth of the media has of course always been conditioned by prevailing historical circumstances (Winston 1998) and how they are to be best used remains at the core of ongoing media policy issues. The spread of the mass media has proceeded in an accelerating manner and today they constituent a central feature of modern society. From the micro-level of individuals in everyday life to the macro-level of societal institutions and processes, including the global setting, modernity is inexorably intertwined with the development of the mass media (Thompson 1995).

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1. The Field

While research about the mass media can be traced to the early decades of the twentieth century, mass media studies first arose as an academic field during the 1950s, establishing itself institutionally in the following decade, first in the US and then elsewhere. Emerging from several disciplines in the social sciences and humanities, the field launched its own academic departments, journals, associations, and conferences. In the US today, most colleges and universities have departments offering courses and programs about the mass media, a pattern that is increasingly manifested in other countries as well. The field today is broad and eclectic, reflecting both the influences of its earlier intellectual origins, as well as the newer developments in the media’s evolution and changing socio-cultural significance.

Mass media studies manifest a heterogeneous collection of theories, methods, and general intellectual profiles (see McQuail 1994 for a useful overview; Boyd-Barrett and Newbold (1995) provide an extensive collection of key texts in the field). Academic departments go under a variety of names, emphasizing different angles on the field, e.g., in the US, many departments have their origins in the older schools of journalism, others developed out of speech communication and rhetoric, others from sociology or literature, and so forth. Programs in journalism studies and training are often coordinated with more general mass media studies, while film history and film studies more generally often tend to maintain a separate institutional identity. Particularly in the UK, the field of mass media at universities is often linked with cultural studies.

1.1 Nomenclature

The labeling of the field varies to some extent. In some academic departments, the dominant thematic is ‘communication,’ and mass media studies, treated as ‘mass communication’ may be juxtaposed to such areas as interpersonal communication, organizational communication, and intercultural communication. In the last decade or so, particularly in the light of newer developments in digital media technology that make possible more interactive modes of communication, there is a tendency to drop the adjective ‘mass’ and simply refer to media studies. This inclination is also prompted by changes in social theory: the term ‘mass media’ is seen as echoing older theories of ‘mass society,’ a perspective that today appears out of step with the complexities of contemporary social realities.

1.2 Two Basic Orientations

As a field of teaching and research, mass media studies tends to encompass two basic orientations. On the one hand is academic research and a critical liberal arts perspective on the media and their relationship to society and culture, often aimed at answering scientific questions about their institutional operations, their output, and their audiences. On the other hand one finds an emphasis on applied knowledge. This can be geared to the many operational questions facing media industries, to various organizational actors that make use of the media for their own purposes (corporations, political parties, interest groups, etc.), and to occupational practices within the media. Such occupational practices include production skills within the different media, as well as professional training, in particular for journalism. Other occupational orientations include public relations, advertising, and media management. The lines between the academic and the applied orientations are by no means fixed; the interplay between the two can be both productive as well as problematic. Outside the academy there is considerable media research done from commercial horizons, for example market research, audience measurement, and studies on the effects of advertising. Also, political actors have increasingly been making use of media consultants for strategic purposes.

1.3 Organizing Logics

While mass media studies is a rather sprawling field, there are several organizing logics that give it some structure and coherence. These logics are not mutually exclusive, nor do they have equivalent status. However, they can serve as partial maps of the research terrain. The first such logic derives simply from specifying a particular medium. Many people in the field will identify themselves for example as researchers of television, radio, or the press. Others will specialize still further and focus, for example, on television history or the television industry. Many research studies, however, may encompass more than one medium, for example in a case of the analysis of news coverage.

A second logic is to emphasize the different elements of the communication process: a basic model of communication will often use the elements ‘sender,’ ‘message,’ and ‘receiver.’ Translated into the context of the mass media, this yields, respectively, studies of media institutions, media output, and media audiences. Research on media institutions examines the conditions, both internal and external, that shape the way they function. This can encompass for instance questions about regulation, political influence, and organizational routines. The study of media output includes the form, content, and modes of representation. Often specific genres, particularly television genres such as soap operas and talk shows, become the object of sustained research attention. Studies of media audiences can include analyses of the impact of specific output, the uses which people make of it, and the interpretations they derive from it.

Third, specific topics or themes provide ongoing structure to the field. These themes can be broad, such as media effects, or (more specifically) media effects on children. Many themes link media studies with particular topics on the wider social research agenda, such as gender and ethnicity; health communication, media and social movements, and media and sports, are also examples of such specialization. Some themes derive instead from particular theoretical and or methodological developments, for example, agenda setting, media events, or media uses and gratification, and can be applied to a variety of empirical areas.

A fourth organizing logic derives from the stillremaining links between mass media and the ‘parent’ disciplines; such links serve to focus research (and connect researchers) from particular disciplinary perspectives. For example, political communication is a subfield that interfaces with political science, often incorporating public opinion studies; the psychology of communication examines cognitive processes in relation to mass media. Often, however, within the overall field of mass media studies, intellectual lineage is not made explicit, given that the field has developed a distinct identity over the course of several decades. Finally, weaving through the above logics are sets of intellectual traditions that very loosely structure the field into schools of thought (see below). It should be emphasized that ‘school’ is used loosely here; it points to tendencies within the field, not unified factions with clear demarcations. These schools basically reflect differing theoretical and methodological orientations; they point to general intellectual dispositions. The relationships among them have evolved over time, and the development of the field can be understood to a considerable extent by looking at the emergence, interface, and transitions of these schools of thought. While the exact labeling may be differ in historical accounts of the field, the following constitute the main schools of thought within mass media research: the mainstream perspective, the critical tradition, the culturalist approach, and the policy horizon.

2. The Mainstream Perspective

The systematic study of the mass media arose in the early decades of the twentieth century, and the mainstream perspective today can be understood as the intellectual descendants of the pre-World War II pioneers. While the mainstream perspective encompasses a wide array of research orientations and is continually developing new approaches, it is united in its basic adherence to traditional social scientific methodologies and approaches to theory. Its intellectual underpinnings are found chiefly within sociology, psychology, and social psychology, and it constitutes the still-dominant tradition of empirical research in mass communication.

2.1 Origins

Its origins can be found in nineteenth century sociological conceptions about the crowd and the mass; early research efforts and attempts to develop theory were geared toward among other things the theme of propaganda, with the experiences of World War I as a point of reference. In the 1920s, the Chicago School of sociology, with its German-trained prominent member Robert E. Park, developed a strongly qualitative, ethnographic micro-sociology of mass media uses and impact, within a generally progressive and reformist social vision. Walter Lippman’s (1922) theories about public opinion were an important element in conceptually linking the mass media with the processes of democracy.

The political scientist Harold Lasswell, in the 1930s under President Roosevelt’s New Deal, saw new opportunities for studying public opinion and propaganda. His formula of ‘who says what to whom through what channel and with what effects’ served as a framework for media studies for many years. In psychology, Kurt Lewin’s psychology of personality and of group dynamics foreshadowed analyses of the social processes of media influence. After the war, Carl Hovland and his associates (1953) further developed behaviorist perspectives on persuasion.

Interest in the media grew in step with their expanding role. The imperatives of the wars, the importance of the media in political processes, concern about the media’s impact on psychology, emotions, and behavior, as well as increasing commercial concerns of the media themselves stimulated research. After World War II, functionalist sociological theory had become the dominant paradigm for fledgling media research, backed up by developments in methodological techniques. Quantitative content analysis, aimed at mapping the manifest dimensions of media messages, became the norm for studying output. Studies of audiences’ media preferences, and, most importantly, effects of the media on audiences, began to blossom. Surveys became an established approach; later the strategy was developed to repeat surveys with the same respondents to yield panel studies over time (see Rosengren and Windahl 1989).

A key person in the USA at this time was the Austrian-born Paul Lazarsfeld, who was active in ushering in a new phase of mass-media research. Lazarsfeld began working for the commercial media in the 1930s, and he viewed the media research tradition he helped to develop as ‘administrative’ research. This was geared to serve the strategic purposes of media institutions. Gradually, a more society-wide perspective emerged, that helped shape a media-research orientation that was in harmony with the consensus assumptions about society. Together with Elihu Katz (Katz and Lazarsfeld 1955), Lazarsfeld helped introduce the notion of how the impact of the media is filtered through social interaction with others, giving rise to the concept of the two-step flow of communication. Wilbur Schramm (1970), in the 1950s and 1960s, did much to synthesize the diverse elements and promote the identity of mass media research as a distinct field of inquiry.

2.2 The Golden Age: Effects Research and Content Analysis

From about 1950 to the early 1970s, the mainstream perspective emerged, solidified, and remained essentially unchallenged. This was its golden age; since then the heterogeneity of the field has increased. During the 1950s, concern with the effects of the media continued to grow in the USA, especially in the light of television’s reach into just about every home. The questions around media effects were not merely scientific: there was popular concern about violence and the media and about portrayals of sexuality, and, later on, about pornography. The media industries landed in a seemingly paradoxical position of trying on the one hand to soothe popular opinion by asserting that such negative effects were minimal, while on the other hand assuring the advertising industry of the effectiveness of media messages. There was also a malaise about ‘media manipulation’ in the realm of politics, as the question of just how much the media shape attitudes and opinions took on increasing concern. A landmark book in this context was Joseph Klapper’s (1960) The Effects of Mass Communication, which argued for a ‘minimal effects’ position.

Within the media effects research tradition, the nature of the ‘effects’ investigated can vary considerably: on beliefs, attitudes, knowledge, or behavior; intentional or unintentional; long-term or short-term; and so forth. In the USA, the Surgeon General’s massive, multivolume report (1972) was perceived to be inconclusive by many, but what it did emphasize was the importance of so-called intervening variables. That is to say, the effects of the mass media must be understood as being qualified by such factors as age, gender, education, social circumstances, audience contexts, and so forth. Generally the drift in media effects research has been away from the earlier psychologism toward increasing socio-cultural complexity. Concern with the effects of mass media continues today, even if the task of identifying and isolating specific media output and linking it to particular effects becomes all the more difficult with the increasing mediatization of society.

The mainstream perspective has been no less interested in the nature of media output. Journalistic output is one of the major areas in which content analysis has been applied, where bias in reporting has been studied by measuring, for example, the visibility of opposing candidates during election campaigns, and coding degrees of positive and negative valence. More encompassing studies have been done where researchers have attempted to elucidate important dimensions of journalistic coverage or even in fictional portrayals that are normal or routine, yet may remain invisible precisely because of their everyday, takenfor-granted character. Measurements have been developed, for example, for tallying acts of violence in television programs. The ambitious Cultural Indicators project of George Gerbner and his colleagues (1973) sought to illuminate the symbolic world of TV fiction in the USA, mapping not only violence, but the more general norms and values manifested in the programs.

Within the tradition of so-called agenda-setting research (see Dearing and Rogers 1996 for an overview), news and current affairs in the mass media are studied and then compared to audiences’ understandings of, for instance, what are the major issues of the day. The comparison allows researchers to draw conclusions about the extent to which the media set the political agenda; generally the findings are that the media do have this initiative, but it has been found that audiences, or rather the public, do not always simply mirror the concerns of media coverage.

2.3 Tensions in the Field

The mainstream perspective continues to develop, partly in response to new phenomena in the media, e.g., we witness today considerable attention to the transnational character of the media and a growing research concern with political advertising (Bennett 1996). However, innovation in theory also generates renewal. Thus, in the 1970s the uses and gratifications tradition (Blumler and Katz 1974) arose and posed a set of complementary—if not fully competitive—questions to the effects tradition. Basically, instead of asking what the media do to people, the newer orientation asked what people do with the media and what satisfactions do they thus derive. This shift points to an ongoing key tension within the field, namely the question of the relative power of the media and the degree of autonomy of the audience. The view of minimal effects, in keeping with the intellectual origins of functionalism, liberal democracy, and the needs of commercial media had strong support but did not go unchallenged. Indeed, critics began claiming that the theories and methods embedded in the mainstream perspective structured a status-quo perspective toward media and society (Gitlin 1978). In 1983 and again in 1993, the leading US journal in the field, The Journal of Communication, had themed issues on the tensions within the field (Gerbner 1983, Levy and Gurevitch 1993).

It should also be noted that the prevailing conception of the process of communication at work within the mainstream perspective, operating for the most part implicitly, was that of the transfer of messages or, more generally, of information. This view has its origins in, among other things, Shannon and Weaver’s (1949) cybernetic view of communication. Gradually this basic model was augmented by contributions from cognitive psychology, giving rise to more elaborate notions of human information processing. Yet, other voices, with an anchoring in the humanities and cultural theory, were challenging such views, arguing for the centrality of meaning for the process of communication. Both the critical tradition and then the culturalist approach began to coalesce and to offer competing paradigms of mass media research.

3. The Critical Tradition

During the late 1960s, critical traditions from various strands of neo-Marxism were beginning to make themselves felt within the social sciences, and by the early 1970s they were manifesting themselves in mass media studies. There are several intertwining intellectual strands here: political economy, the critique of ideology and public sphere theory.

3.1 Political Economy

Though the political economy of mass media need not a priori be based in the Marxian tradition, within media studies the term does most often connote this lineage rather than, say, neoclassical political economy or conventional economics. The emphasis in Marxian political economy of the media is often on the links between economics and the social, political, and cultural dimensions of modern life; pluralist or consensus models of society are generally rejected as inaccurate. A recurring thematic is the tension between on the one hand, the capitalist logic of media development and operations, and on the other, concerns for the public interest and democracy. The political economy of the media does not anticipate the elimination of commercial imperatives or market forces, but rather seeks to promote an understanding of where and how regulatory initiatives can establish optimal balances between private interest and the public good. The work of the Canadian scholar Dallas Smythe (1977) was an important element in the development of this tradition; among contemporary researchers Nicholas Garnham (1990) has further expended the perspective, which has in turn been systematized in Mosco (1996). Within this perspective, the emphasis is most often on the institutional arrangements of the media: ownership, control and regulation, and their consequences. The political economy of media structures at the global level has increasingly come under research scrutiny (e.g., Herman and McChesney 1996).

A variant of the political economy tradition has focused on media imperialism, in particular how the combination of US corporate and political interests over the years have made use of the media abroad and the consequences that this has had for people in other countries, particularly the developing nations. The work of Herbert Schiller (1976) has been central here. Media flows from the West to ‘the Rest’ were plotted (Nordenstreng and Varis 1974), including fiction, other entertainment, journalism, and also the role of international advertising (Mattelart et al. 1984). Unesco became a political forum and research promoter for a New International World Information Order (1980). Such research was framed by historical circumstance: the bipolar East–West situation of the Cold War shaped US media strategies abroad in ways that had impact on the North–South global divide. Since the collapse of communism, the North–South socio–economic gap has continued to grow, and though the transnationalization of the mass media is now often framed analytically within paradigms of globalization, critical attention is still addressed to global media disparities.

3.2 The Critique of Ideology

Another strand of critical endeavor attends in more detailed ways to media representations, analyzing them from the standpoint of their ideological dimensions. The intellectual roots for the critique of ideology derive not only from Marx, but also from the structural neo-Marxism of Althusser, as well as the more culturally oriented versions of the Frankfurt School’s Critical Theory and of Gramsci. Methodologies and epistemologies were at times in conflict, not only between the mainstream perspective and the critical tradition, but also within the critical tradition. Versions both of cultural Marxism and of structural Marxism—the latter making use of Freudian theory adapted via Lacan—became incorporated into the development of cultural studies (see below). A landmark effort in the critique of ideology in media studies was the work of the Glasgow Media Group (1976), which made explicit use of traditional social science methodologies of content analysis to make its points about the class bias of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s journalism.

Ideology as such is a slippery concept, and the earlier assumptions about false consciousness could not hold up to critical scrutiny and increasingly sophisticated epistemology. Gradually, the critique of ideology began to make use of the hermeneutic tradition, treating ideology as an aspect of the interpretation of meaning in the reproduction of relations of social domination. The critique of ideology began to blend with cultural theory, signaling a growing entwinement of the critical and culturalist schools. Efforts to analyze cultural hegemony, in both its domestic and transnational manifestations, strove to relate media representations and the political economy of the media to specific social circumstances. Also, the growing presence of feminism within the critical tradition began to render the exclusive concern with social class as the foundation of ideology untenable: ideology could manifest gendered social relation, not least in the media. Gradually, feminist perspectives began to take hold in media research (van Zoonen 1994). Also, race and ethnicity also became foundations for the critique of ideology in the mass media (Gandy 1998).

3.3 Public Sphere Theory

Discussions of democracy and the media are increasingly framed within the concept of the public sphere, a concept associated with Jurgen Habermas (1989, see also Calhoun 1992). In schematic terms, a public sphere is understood as a constellation of institutional spaces that permit the circulation of information and ideas. These spaces, in which the mass media figure prominently, also serve to foster the development and expression of political views among citizens as well as to facilitate communicative links between citizens and the power holders of society. Beginning in the 1970s, media researchers in Europe and later, the USA, began using the concept to pursue critical analyses of mass media, examining the factors that impede the public sphere. The concept has many parallels with the liberal notion of the ‘marketplace of ideas’ and similar metaphors, and today it has entered into more mainstream usage, where the problems of journalism are discussed and researched; its Frankfurt School origins often remain in the background.

4. The Culturalist Approach

Within mass media research, contributions from the humanities and from qualitative, interpretive social science had long remained in the shadow of the dominant social scientific methods. Studies based in literature, history, rhetoric, or anthropology were very much the exception. Marshall McLuhan’s (1964) work, with a historical view of media technology, was an exception, but it had more impact outside the university than within academic media research.

4.1 Cultural Studies

In the 1960s British Cultural Studies was in its formative years, and in the following decade, under the leadership of Stuart Hall (Hall et al. 1980) had begun to impact on media research (Turner 1996). The eclectic synthesis of intellectual ingredients in cultural studies—including neo-Marxism, structuralism, feminism, psychoanalysis, semiotics, and ethnography— was applied not only to the media but a range of topics having to do with contemporary culture and society. In particular, popular culture has been an ever-present topic of research and debate. Cultural studies has among other things shifted the focus of issues around popular culture (and versus high culture) from earlier largely aesthetic concerns to questions about social relations and power; taste becomes socially contextualized. There has also been a ‘rehabilitation’ of popular culture, where ‘the popular’ is seen as no longer so clearly demarcated from high culture or, alternatively, is defined in a manner to give it political relevance (Fiske 1989). Other research takes the ways in which the media, via advertising and general lifestyle imagery, are central to contemporary consumer culture, not least on the global level (Featherstone 1995).

Cultural studies has grown into a heterogeneous, multidisciplinary field in its own right, with contributions from currents such as postmodernism and postcolonialism, among others. Today studies of the media are only a small part of its vast concerns. Cultural studies can be seen as part of a larger ‘cultural turn’ within the human sciences in recent decades, but today it is clearly the dominant culturalist tendency, even if there is a lack of consensus about both its core and its boundaries. As cultural studies has expanded and become a global academic phenomenon mingling with many other academic traditions, the critical character of its earlier years, where issues of social and semiotic power were thematized, has not always remained evident. For example, the emphasis on the multiplicity of interpretations of popular culture—at times augmented by postmodern perspectives—has tended to undercut arguments about ideology.

4.2 The Centrality of Meaning

In culturalist mass media studies two themes from the humanities and qualitatively oriented social sciences have come to assume central positions: sense-making and social constructionism. Research has come to deal with questions of how media representations convey meaning, how media audiences make sense of these representations, and how media-derived meanings further circulate in society. Hall’s (1980) model of how meaning is encoded by the media and decoded by audiences became an important organizing concept for much of such work. Studies of reception—how audiences interpret what they encounter in the media—became an important subspecialty within mass media research; the work of Dave Morley (1992) and Ien Ang (1985) are significant contributions in this tradition. Generally, as the media landscape becomes more multidimensional and theorizing about the audience becomes more ambitious, the frontlines of audience research manifest both a convergence of different research approaches and a growing complexity (e.g., Hay et al. 1996)

If semiotics and hermeneutics were the major textanalytic tradition within cultural studies, today they have become augmented and partly replaced by innovations from various other currents such as linguistics and cognitive psychology. These newer efforts have coalesced to generate several versions of what is now termed discourse analysis (van Dijk 1997) that is increasingly used in the elucidation of meaning in media texts.

4.3 Active Subjects

In culturalist approaches to the mass media, the emphasis on the production of meaning and social constructionism tends to privilege versions of the active subject. This perspective is manifest not least in a strand of research that has underscored the audience’s sense-making, though debates have emerged (again) as to the degree of semiotic power that should be accorded the audience relative to the media (Curran 1990). Research in some quarters has linked audiences’ interpretation of the media as forms of cultural resistance, and tried to delineate interpretations that run counter to hegemonic trends; Radway’s (1984) study of women’s uses of romance novels for a variety of purposes is a compelling example. More generally, theories of subjectivity have been mobilized to study how individuals construct identities via their active appropriation of media; feminist contributions have been particularly visible here. From the standpoint of collectivities, mass media and cultural identity has become a growing domain of research, not least in transnational contexts (Morley and Robins 1995).

5. The Policy Horizon

It could be argued that the policy horizon is not a school of thought, but rather a thematic organizing logic encompassing diverse perspectives. However, the centrality of policy in the shaping of media development and the distinctiveness of its concerns speak for its status as a school.

5.1 Media Systems and Norms

Situated in the force fields between economics, politics, and technology, the way the media are owned, organized, and financed, and the way that they operate have much to do with the vicissitudes of the policy process. Policy is of course shaped by the specific interests and actors involved, such as the state, commercial media institutions, the advertising industry, media production organizations, citizens groups, and other representatives of the public interest. One line of policy research has addressed the historically anchored traditions in political culture and in philosophies of the public good that buttress prevailing normative frameworks in regard to the media. These frameworks are generally accepted but often given competing interpretations. Freedom of the press, for example, has had a particularly strong status in Western liberal democracies, though how it is to be best applied in a concrete case may be contested. Historically, and today globally, there are competing models for media systems, including authoritarian, communist, and social responsibility versions that build upon differing sets of norms.

5.2 Regulation and Deregulation

Another line of research has been more engaged at the frontlines of ongoing policy issues and battles, and often seeks explicitly to intervene in the policy process. The growing concentration and conglomerization of media ownership has been charted by liberal critics in the USA (Bagdikian 1997), and elsewhere; generally much of the political economy perspective has fed into policy research. Over the past two decades, the increasing commercialization of media industries, coupled with a political climate shaped by neoliberalism, has contributed to a massive deregulation of the media, giving market forces ever greater free play and repositioning audiences less as citizens or as a public and more as consumers. This has been especially true in the realm of broadcasting regulation, and in Western Europe public broadcasting has undergone a radical realignment as it has lost its monopoly position (Tracey 1998). For over two decades the Euromedia Research Group (1998) has studied these developments. Confronted by commercial channels borne first by cable and satellite systems, and then terrestrial stations, public broadcasters in Europe and elsewhere find that their raison d’etre has to be redefined as they look to the future. Public broadcasting emerged as a part of the project of the nation-state, and its current circumstances can be seen as part of the dilemmas facing the nation-state in the era of globalization. At the transnational level, the regulation of international communication becomes all the more important—and complex.

The global media landscape today is dominated by fewer than two dozen conglomerate giants who increasingly control the production of media output and the distribution process, as well as the technical infrastructure. Technical advancements promote a convergence between the technologies of broadcasting, telecommunications, and the computer. Institutionally, major companies in the computer and Internet field have begun to merge with the giants of the traditional mass media. This evokes profound policy issues of diversity, accountability, and democracy (McChesney 1999).

6. Looking Ahead

The media are obviously in transition, and research is in the process of adapting itself to the emerging realities. The increasing on-line presence of the traditional media, as well as other forms of functional integration technical convergence, suggest that the field of mass media research will in particular increasingly take on a digital focus. There will be growing attention to such areas as the information society, computers and society, human–computer interface, and electronic democracy. Digitalization has prompted a flurry of research from many disciplines, including social theory (Castells 2000) and thus it can be argued that the field of mass media research will increasingly blend with initiatives from other directions. This may involve some erosion of its status as a separate field, but the enhanced attention being paid to the media will no doubt increase our knowledge and understanding of them.


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