Tensions and contradictions abound in claims about media content and its relationship to popular taste and public morality. Media, especially mainstream media, reinforce prevailing norms of taste and morality by catering to them, but they also legitimize new and different standards of good and bad by circulating provocative and unorthodox material. Media coverage of scandals focuses on what is self-evidently or demonstrably wrong and thus conserves the status quo, except when the scandal involves the media themselves, in which case the theme of the coverage can conveniently shift from what is right to do, properly the domain of ethics, to the right to do it, properly the domain of law. In many parts of the world, particularly at times when audiences condemn what they crave, the producers of media content struggle to navigate a course between serving the public interest, typically a high-minded standard crafted by media practitioners or promulgated by the state, and serving the public’s interest, a baser standard established by market forces.
One of the classic accounts of the effects of media content on taste and morality comes from an essay, first published in 1948, by two Columbia University sociologists, Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton. “Mass communication, popular taste, and organized social action” set an agenda for decades of research by articulating, mostly in response to concerns about the “ubiquity and potential power of mass media” (Lazarsfeld & Merton 1948/2004, 230), three broadly distinguishable “social functions” of the media, two of which bear directly on questions of morality and taste. The “status conferral” function of mass media refers to the “enhanced status that accrues to those who merely receive attention in the media” (Lazarsfeld & Merton 1948/2004, 233). An explicit judgment in favor of someone or something – an editorial endorsement, for example – counts as status conferral, but media also confer status “on public issues, persons, organizations and social movements” (Lazarsfeld & Merton 1948/2004, 233) regardless or in the absence of any judgment about them, which amounts to a process that can be fairly described as a “charismatic transfer of positive social value” (Simonson & Weimann 2003, 28).
The “enforcement of social norms” refers to the power of media to “reaffirm social norms by exposing deviations from these norms to public view” (Lazarsfeld & Merton 1948/2004, 235), a process that functions to close the gap between “private attitudes” and “public morality.” Media enforce social norms, then, not simply by informing the public about breaches of morality, for often the public is keenly aware of these violations; rather, media bring publicity to these violations, which invites the public to confront their private tolerance of what they know to be wrong. “Publicity,” Lazarsfeld and Merton explain, “exerts pressure for a single rather than a dual morality by preventing continued evasion of the issue. It calls forth public reaffirmation and (however sporadic) application of the social norm” (Lazarsfeld & Merton 1948/2004, 234).
Decades ago, Lazarsfeld and Merton worried that the “certified knowledge” about these social roles and their effects on society was “impressively slight” (Lazarsfeld & Merton 1948/2004, 231), but a considerable body of research now documents, clarifies and refines the basic proposition that, as Roger Silverstone (2007, 7) put it, media, new and old alike, “are an increasingly significant site for the construction of a moral order.” Media aid in the construction of a moral order as they confer status on some groups and not others, a vitally important issue in multicultural societies where minority groups struggle for visibility and political parity. While media enforce social norms as they expose violations of them (Gans 1979), media also interrogate these norms by deciding which to ignore and which to accentuate, which in part accounts for – to take but one prominent example – a shift in the American press “toward a more rigorous standard of personal conduct among politicians” (Bird 1997, 118).
Still, the role and responsibility of media in the crafting of a moral order remains a difficult and unpleasant topic for many media practitioners, especially journalists, who cling to a view of themselves as “professional communicators,” whose sense of independence and autonomy turns them into adversaries of accountability. To even raise a question about the content of expression threatens their freedom of expression. Remarkably, but not surprisingly, when in 2005 the Economist ran a cover story on the controversy surrounding a Danish newspaper’s decision to publish several cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, which prompted massive and at times deadly protests throughout the Middle East and elsewhere, the editors downplayed questions of morality and taste and instead framed the issue as “the battle for free speech.”
- Bird, S. E. (1997). What a story! In J. Lull & S. Hinerman (eds.), Media scandals: Morality and desire in the popular culture marketplace. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 99 –121.
- Economist (2005). Cartoon wars: The battle for free speech, pp. 23 –25 (February 11–17).
- Gans, H. (1979). Deciding what’s news: A study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek and Time. New York: Random House.
- Lazarsfeld, P. F., & Merton, R. K. (2004). Mass communication, popular taste, and organized social action. In J. D. Peters & P. Simonson (eds.), Mass communication and American social thought: Key texts 1919 –1968. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, pp. 230 –241. (Original work published 1948).
- Silverstone, R. (2007). Media and morality: On the rise of the mediapolis. Cambridge: Polity.
- Simonson, P., & Weimann, G. (2003). Critical research at Columbia: Lazarsfeld’s and Merton’s “Mass communication, popular taste, and organized social action.” In E. Katz, J. D. Peters, T. Liebes, & A. Orloff (eds.), Canonic texts in media research: Are there any? Should there be? How about these? Cambridge: Polity, pp. 12 –38.