The community structure model explores links among community characteristics, media content, and effects of exposure to media content from a system perspective. Focusing on macro-constructs associated with media content and media effects, the community structure approach rejects the perspective that all studies of media and audiences can be reduced to the individual level of psychological phenomena. “Structure” refers to community – typically city-level – demographics or other aggregate measures of community identity, membership, participation, production, consumption, or access, ranging from income or education to health-care access (e.g., number of physicians per 100,000 population or percent municipal spending on health-care).
Community integration structure modeling mirrors the injunction of the University of Chicago’s Robert Park in the early twentieth century to study not only the impact of media on society (the prevailing model in media studies), but also the impact of society on media. Beginning with the famous studies of Philip Tichenor, George Donohue, and Clarice Olien (1973, 1980) and their several generations of graduate students, the community structure model has been transformed over several decades.
Expanding Geographic and Comparative Focus
Initial studies focused on cities or counties in Minnesota, with size and structure of the community as major predictors of news variation (Tichenor et al. 1980). This “structural pluralism” theory proposed that larger, more diverse, socially pluralistic communities would be associated with greater diversity in media, especially newspaper reporting on critical issues. Elsewhere, Keith Stamm focused on one or two cities, linking community structure and political attitudes (1985).
From the mid-1990s onward, the theoretical work organized by Demers and Viswanath (1999) and national and international databases such as Lexis-Nexis and NewsBank helped generate propositions for broader historical and geographic sample frames, illustrated in political communication work associating community social capital, media, and civic engagement; and in empirical, cross-city US national comparisons of structure and reporting (Pollock 2007). Indeed, cross-national analyses using entire nation-states as units of structure and leading national newspapers for news content have found significant links between gross domestic product, infant mortality rate or literacy rate, and reporting perspectives on United Nations’ and nongovernmental organizations’ fights against AIDS (Gratale et al. 2005; Eisenberg et al. 2006).
Media Can Reinforce Social Control or Accommodate/Affirm Social Change
Traditional community structure studies have linked structure to “social control”: media reinforcing existing social, political, and economic configurations. In this tradition, media are highly responsive to powerful groups, functioning as “guard dogs” (Donohue et al. 1995) to generally serve elite over mass interests (Tichenor et al. 1980; Demers & Viswanath 1999, 4). An alternative view is that media can also be agents of social change, articulated strongly since the mid-1990s: “Mass mediated messages typically reinforce dominant norms and institutions, but relative to other social institutions – including the church, school, state and family – media have a greater capacity to criticize . . . established institutions and traditions (Demers & Viswanath 1999, 3).
Recent studies have confirmed specific links between community structure and reporting on social change. Using a media vector measure combining article prominence and direction, cross-sectional national studies of US cities find significant, positive associations between poverty or unemployment levels and reporting opposing capital punishment or supporting a patients’ bill of rights (a “vulnerability” hypothesis); or between higher levels of privilege (education, income, professionals) in a city and support for women’s rights (in Anita Hill’s congressional testimony in the Clarence Thomas hearings) or stem cell research (a “buffer” hypothesis); or between higher levels of privilege and opposition to tobacco advertising to children (a “violated buffer” hypothesis); or between specific stakeholders, e.g., proportions of families with children of specific ages, or voting Democratic or Republican, and reporting on such issues as gun control or trying juveniles as adults (all “stakeholder” hypotheses; Pollock 2007). Other studies trace connections between percent Hispanic and variations in reporting on immigration reform, or percent Catholic and varied journalism regarding ethnic profiling, gay marriage, and gay adoption.
Multiplicity of Structural Indicators
While early scholarship focused substantially on city size as an indicator of structural differentiation or structural pluralism, more recent work measures the size of interest groups (Hertog & McLeod 1995) and diversity, in particular ethnic diversity, estimating how much media either support (Gandy 1999; Hindman 1999; Hindman et al. 1999; Viswanath & Arora 2000) or (since 9/11) oppose ethnic or religious groups (Pollock et al. 2005). In addition, online US Census databases and more widely available marketing and demographic data illuminate innovative, comparative US city structural measures of inequality, power, and stakeholder interests: privilege (college educated, family income of $100,000+, professional occupational status); health-care access; vulnerability (unemployed or below the poverty level); and stakeholders (percent Catholic, evangelical, or mainline protestant; voting Democratic or Republican in presidential elections; different age/ generation groups, families with children of various ages; percent African-American or Hispanic, or Arabic or Farsi speaking (Pollock & Yulis 2004; Pollock 2007).
Modern Research Challenges
The community structure model is poised to move beyond initial curiosity to a robust theoretical framework addressing mainly four challenges. First, longitudinal and time series analyses (e.g., HIV/AIDS coverage over time in Pollock 2007, ch. 8) can validate the explanatory and predictive power of cross-sectional structural theory. Second, flexible definitions of community reach beyond traditional political/ geographic boundaries, using modern GIS data resources to compare smaller and larger geopolitical units and to embrace “networking communities” or cross-community network measures, a focus of work on tobacco control in Colorado (Buller et al. 2001, 357–372) and a variety of cyberspace communities defined by multiple relationships, measured by hyperlinks or memberships in chatrooms, mapping multiple “interpretive communities” (Berkowitz & TerKeurst 1999).
Third, public opinion as a proxy for behavior combines different levels of analysis, whether structure and public opinion (Paek et al. 2005) or structure and leadership composition (Armstrong 2006). Fourth, combining community structure with other powerful theories such as diffusion or social marketing theory can yield new propositions on the alignment of media with political and social change, helping target communities most receptive to messages promoting healthier behaviors.
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- Demers, D., & Viswanath, K. (eds.) (1999). Mass media, social control, and social change: A macrosocial perspective. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press.
- Donohue, G. A., Tichenor, P. J., & Olien, C. (1995). A guard dog perspective on the role of media. Journal of Communication, 45, 115 –132.
- Eisenberg, D., Kester, A., Caputo, L., Sierra, J., & Pollock, J. C. (2006). Cross-national coverage of NGO’s efforts to fight AIDS: A community structure approach. Paper presented at the annual conference of the National Communication Association, San Antonio.
- Gandy, O. (1999). Community pluralism and the “tipping point.” In D. Demers & K. Viswanath (eds.), Mass media, social control, and social change: A macrosocial perspective. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, pp. 159 –181.
- Gratale, S., Hagert, J., Dey, L., et al. (2005). International coverage of United Nations’ efforts to combat AIDS: A structural approach. Paper presented at the annual conference of the International Communication Association, New York City.
- Hertog, J. K., & McLeod, D. M. (1995). Anarchists wreak havoc in downtown Minneapolis: A multilevel study of media coverage of radical protest. Journalism and Mass Communication Monographs, no. 151.
- Hindman, D. B. (1999). Social control, social change and local mass media. In D. Demers & K. Viswanath (eds.), Mass media, social control, and social change: A macrosocial perspective. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, pp. 99 –116.
- Hindman, D. B., Littlefield, R., Preston, A., & Neumann, D. (1999). Structural pluralism, ethnic pluralism, and community newspapers. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 76(2), 250 –263.
- Paek, H.-J., Yoon, S.-H., & Shah, D. V. (2005). Local news, social integration and community participation: Hierarchical linear modeling of contextual and cross-level effects. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 83(3), 587– 606.
- Pollock, J. C. (2007). Tilted mirrors: Media alignment with political and social change: A community structure approach. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
- Pollock, J., & Yulis, S. (2004). Nationwide newspaper coverage of physician-assisted suicide: A community structure approach. Journal of Health Communication, 9(4), 281–307.
- Pollock, J. C., Piccillo, C., Leopardi, D., Gratale, S., & Cabot, K. (2005). Nationwide newspaper coverage of Islam post-9/11: A community structure approach. Communication Research Reports, 22(1), 15 –24.
- Stamm, K. (1985). Newspaper use and community ties. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
- Tichenor, P. J., Donohue, G., & Olien, C. (1973). Mass communication research: Evolution of a structural model. Journalism Quarterly, 50, 419 – 425.
- Tichenor, P. J., Donohue, G., & Olien, C. (1980). Community conflict and the press. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Viswanath, K., & Arora, P. (2000). Ethnic media in the United States: An essay on their role in integration, assimilation, and social control. Mass Communication and Society, 3(1), 39 –56.
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