The functions of mass media

December 30, 2008

When considering the form that democratic media could take, it is important to consider whether mass media – with its inherent potential for non-democratic effects – has any useful functions that are not anti-democratic. This question is akin to the question of whether government has any functions that are not oppressive. In an analogy to the anarchist position which claims that any governmental activity is necessarily oppressive, one could claim that the only functions of mass media are anti-democratic, i.e., those of allowing a privileged minority influence over the rest of the population. That position would claim that all mass media should be abolished (in the same way that the anarchists want to abolish government altogether) and people should rely exclusively on non-mass (or intimate) forms of media. In this view, the best that a democratic control structure over mass media could produce would be neutralizing those anti-democratic functions, leaving the entire organization useless.

I believe that, however, that just like government, and just like many other organizations, mass media does have potential useful functions – functions that could not be substituted by intimate media. Some factories, for example, organize labor and material resources toward producing output that could be of use to people, and that would be hard to produce if no organization were involved (e.g., complex medical equipment). While factories are usually organized in an hierarchical, anti-democratic fashion in present society, this does not imply that they could not be organized differently, maintaining their useful function while disposing of the objectionable structures and functions.

One important function of mass media is concentrating input resources. Pursuing and communicating some types of ideas requires resources – time and materials, those need to be allocated before those ideas can be communicated effectively. Examples for such types of ideas are any activity that requires significant investment of time, but specifically forms of content that require the creation and maintenance of expertise and especially those requiring the creation and maintenance of interlocking domains of expertise, such as investigative reporting and production of certain types of documentaries and certain types of fiction.

In this sense a mass media outlet does function very much like a factory – it organizes people so they act and interact in ways that allow them to do things they could not do alone, and it secures the resources needed to support those people and obtain the materials they use.

The other function of mass media is to guarantee (or credibly promise) attention to the ideas transmitted through it. Again, this is analogous to the fact that a crucial function of a factory (or of the enterprise of which it is part) is to find the people who are interested in what it produces. It would be difficult to run a factory if there was no demand for its product, even if the input resources were guaranteed, and similarly the production of communications is much curtailed when there is little chance of them gaining an audience, even if the resources for the production are available. In both cases morale and motivation would deteriorate and there would be no clear sense of purpose to the activity and no reason to pursue quality and improvements.

As a result, even when communications that require only a small amount of input resources are concerned (such as opinion pieces or reporting about local public events) it can be expected that higher quality and better coverage would be achieved when wide audience is promised through the use of designated channels, rather than when relying on haphazard, individualized media such as blogs or self-produced pamphlets or flyers. So, while the first function (concentration of input resources) could theoretically become unnecessary when input resources are abundant enough, the second function (concentration of attention) would remain critical as long as the cognitive limits of people are not overcome.

I believe that the considerations laid out above show that mass media could be an important, useful tool in a democratic society. This then justifies putting forward proposals for democratic media as I have done briefly at the bottom of the post linked to above. The articulation of that proposal (or any other proposal) would have to be measured against the goal of retaining those functions of mass media that were discussed here, while eliminating the negative, hierarchical and censoring functions that are associated with mass media today.

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