How, if at all, have the mass media reinforced social inequalities?
Why do sociologists have to deal with mass media? Mass media is a big part of modern societies. It seems to be omnipresent and therefore has an impact on societies. It influences and changes society, it favours and it discriminates certain groups of the society. The effect on the audience is not arbitrary but dependent on issues of strong interest for sociology namely, class, gender, social context, ethnicity but also other factors like age and sexuality. Since the 1960s media research expanded to examine the effects on the audience and its feedback.
In this essay we will examine how the mass media reinforces social inequalities. To do this we will take a brief look at what kind of social inequalities existed in the era before the appearance of the mass media. Then the way of how the mass media reinforces these existing social inequalities today, towards the way in which minorities will be treated. Moreover the focus of this essay will shift to how different groups of people can approach the mass media in terms of its access. Finally this text will give a brief outlook to the possible future development will be presented in its outlines.
In addition to that lopsidedness will be avoided by portraying not only the incriminatory theories that affirm the reinforcement of social inequalities through the media like the functionalist theory or the Marxist’s point of view but also some imposing views.
‘Media’ is the plural word of ‘medium’. “A medium is a means of communication such as print, radio or television. The mass media are defined as a large-scale organization which use one or more of these technologies to communicate with large numbers of people.” (Marshall 1996: 313). ‘Social inequalities’ are “unequal rewards or opportunities for different individuals within a group or groups within a society” (Marshall 1996: 313). We have to be very critical with that definition otherwise we can find an unjust treatment for every person and therefore everybody would be unequally treated.
Some social inequalities that were established in the society of the past were for example slavery, where coloured people had to work for white Westerners and had absolutely no rights, so they suffered discrimination and were badly treated; patriarchy, woman had no or very limited rights in society until the middle of the 19th century; disability, disabled people were considered as evil, for example the witch in Grimm's Fairy Tale of ‘Hansel and Gretel’, another assumption was that disabled people are unproductive and therefore useless for society.
There were of course more inequalities but I picked out these ones to show later on how they live on in our so-called ‘modern time’.
Let us say that mass media emerged around the middle of the 17th century when the first modern newspapers, like for example The London Gazette (1665) was published. Through this medium culture could spread and lead to a second enlightenment, an enlightenment for the benefit of the increasing number of people who could read. For the reason that not only news but also cultural aspects were covered in the press, a large proportion of the population gained knowledge of what would become the common culture of their county. Regional cultural differences still continued, but the Fourth Estate unified some of its features.
According to functionalists like Lazarsfeld, Merton and McQuail the media informs its clients about the world they live in, gives status to people, makes them and certain issues popular and transmits social norms. In short, media informs, educates and entertains its audience (Macionis & Plummer 1997: 586/587). However this functionalist theory is not applied any more because it shows just the function of the media and neglects to mention its effects on the people.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, the thirty-second President of the USA (1933-1945) who was hit with poliomyelitis and therefore had to use the wheelchair most of the time, was displayed by the media as ‘normal’. The media helped Roosevelt to hide his disability, to make the public and the world believe that he could fulfil his duties and would not be mistaken as a weak president but as a strong politician. (Brown 2001). The public got an imprecise picture of Roosevelt through the media that hid his social inequality. In this case the disability is seen as something bad that was to be hidden. If the media had provoked to put the president in an unfavourable light it would have reinforced the already existing negative public opinion about handicapped persons.
But media is also able to reinforce inequalities in different manners. In the 1930s/1940s the Nazis in Germany used propaganda in movies, in the news, in the radio, in children books and wherever it could be published to incite the population against the Jewish people. Amongst other factors this propaganda had contributed to the accomplishment of the ‘Crystal Night’ (9. /10. November 1938), the huge support of the German society for World War II and the killing of at least 6,000,000 Jews in the concentration camps. Media can influence people like the German population and underpin social inequalities like in the case of the Jews. What the spectators of the press see and believe depends, according to Philo (1999), on their psychology. The Jewish population most obviously did not see themselves as evil, but to their detriment the Germans did.
Other cases in which the media supported the biased view of the audience in consideration of disadvantaged social groups are for example the movies “Dr. No” (1962), “Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964), “From Russia With Love” (1963). In the first two mentioned movies a handicapped man, in the latter movie the Soviets are personified as being evil. Why is it that the disabled are perceived as being the villain? The audience might get assured in their impression that disabled people are evil, that they hate their life and that they actually want to destroy the world. In the times of the Cold War the Russians likewise did not get away very well in the James Bond Movies. This means not only minorities like the disabled but even nations get stereotyped; that is an exaggerated description applied to every person in some category (Macionis and Plummer 1997: 695).
Until the 1970s gangsters, criminals, outlaws and so forth, were often figured in films by people of black colour. Women were displayed as subordinate to men, as adorning the male hero, as stupid and as sex objects.
 Synonym for media, which claims to constitute the Fourth Estate that monitors the mistake of the three other estates, namely the legislative, the executive and the judicial system.