Pollock, John. (Ed.). Media and Social Inequality: Innovations in Community Structure Research.
This book makes some claims that should draw scholarly attention: It is a study of "the impact of society on media" rather than the usual concern of media's impact on society; it also makes use of Big Data from a variety of sources that are not common in current communication research; finally, it suggests that the research on community structure not only influences what journalism says about social problems but that research from this volume can help journalism promote "social change." The book consists of articles published in a special issue of Mass Communication and Society in 2011 with the addition of several new chapters. The book, thus, intrigues by the boldness of its claims.
John Pollock, the editor of this book as well as of the special issue of the journal articles, clarifies the theme early:
Community structure research can illuminate links between social inequality and media coverage. In effect, community structure research is not simply an academic exercise solely of interest to a particular group of scholars. It is also a perspective that throws a spotlight on multiple dimensions of social structure and demographics that are associated with variations in coverage of critical public issues" [like Occupy Wall Street which Pollock highlights]. (p.1)
The author acknowledges early the foundational work of journalism scholars Tichenor, Donohue, and Olin at Minnesota in the 1970s, but he argues that their tradition is being revived in this period through the attention of a number of scholars who see communities as important social forces to spur journalism to be a provider of social change rather than of social control. Pollock goes on to a review of recent scholarship on media coverage of poverty and inequality, indicating the balance of critical studies that identify that coverage as social control or neglect rather than social change. He also reports on his own recent study of media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement both before and after the expulsion from Zuccotti Park. He finds a change after the expulsion of less coverage and less favorable coverage, but what he examines is the shift in national, regional, and local measures of social and community structure. Despite a great deal of data correlated with favorable and unfavorable coverage, the conclusions are not robust enough to define the influence of community structure in any definitive way. The author's own conclusion is clear: Journalists may not always conform to researchers' hypothesized behaviors but there is a proud tradition of journalism's promoting equality in the country.
The chapter by Seungahn Nah and Cory Armstrong traces the research tradition from the Minnesota journalism group through the intervening decades to indicate how the theory has been refined and even changed. Following the tenets of the quantitative approach, the authors outline how the explication of structural pluralism has resulted in a relatively coherent concept but that the dimensions of the concept and especially its indicators have proliferated over the last decades. The latter indicators (or measures of structural pluralism) have been especially numerous, but the authors demonstrate that the most frequently used are "the workforce as a measure," "population size," "income," and "education" (p. 38), indicators common to most survey research. They conclude that although the concept has been largely agreed upon, "there has been lack of clear operational definitions, which has resulted in inconsistency of what [other] kinds of indicators are to be measured" (p. 38). Part of the difficulty of summarizing is that the number of variables and their relationship to how structural pluralism influences outcomes in the media and in the communities in terms of change or control is not clear. Later they state that "a major weakness in structural pluralism work is lack of continuity in measurement of the concept" (p. 47).
Masahiro Yamamoto in his chapter approaches the media in a community as fostering "the regulatory capacity of a community to achieve core social values by distributing a common set of messages that promote social structural and cultural dimensions" (p. 54), a definition that turns the typical notion of social control by the media on its head. After a review of research that seems to argue a functionalist approach to media as a positive force for social control and citing much of the original thinking that stems from Parsons, the author confronts the dichotomy between "good" social control from the media and the "bad." He argues:
In the present model, the media are not only constraining [the bad] but also the enabling [the good]. Although legitimizing and institutionalizing the normative culture, the media have the capacity to foster collective action for common purposes.... In these capacities, mass media promote changes in certain parts of the system while serving as agents of social control. (pp. 60-61)
This is certainly an original interpretation of the commonly accepted notion of the last four decades beginning with Dhal on power structures in communities and the original Minnesota group's notion of structural pluralism. It argues that a dichotomous approach to social control does not recognize how community media may enforce common norms and values but also promote changes in community practice.
Other chapters touch on a variety of issues doing cross-sectional studies including social trust vs. political participation; public affairs place blogs as influenced by residents of stressed communities who have better education and income; and coverage of the universal health care debate (2007-2009) and the strong influence of large Hispanic population/low health care access to favorable media coverage. Two final chapters call for somewhat more comment. First, in a national study by Leo Jeffres and colleagues on environmental coverage, some of the positive as well as negative elements of the structural pluralism approach emerge. The authors first argue that a policy approach to such studies keeps the focus on what research can contribute to community organizations that are working for change. Second, they construct their national survey in terms of research questions as opposed to hypotheses with the consequence that the study may lead to results that can foster research that is more productive for policy application. Finally, they incorporate a number of variables that broadens the scope of the study: size of communities within metropolitan areas to get closer to the ground; heterogeneity of these communities; level of political activity; membership in local organizations; neighborhood attachment and strength of neighborhood ties; political discussion network and climate; media use and social categories like gender, ethnicity, age, education, etc. The results are indicative of the wisdom of the research question approach because as the authors state the results "provide a less-than-impressive endorsement of the linear hypothesis and/or structural pluralism" (p. 163). The positive is that research is focusing at a national level with better tools, but the results of this and some other studies in this volume suggest that there are few strong variables that indicate a clear path forward.
The final chapter is one that attempts to bring together the two major theories of structural pluralism (society affecting media) and agenda setting (media affecting society) in an innovative approach of thinking of how these two theories might be tested within one study. The qualifier is that it is only a proposal, albeit one with careful consideration of research design and how researchers could best accomplish the data analysis.. Since it is co-authored by one of the founders of agenda setting, Max McCombs, it is worth careful consideration.
The book contains large reference sections at the end of each chapter plus a solid index.
--Emile G. McAnany
Santa Clara university
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|Publication:||Communication Research Trends|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2013|
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