J500 Media and the Environment

“Controlled” Media’s Uncontrolled Response by vincemeserko

I was taking a test last week and was stumped by this question. It was something like – Which of the following are “controlled” media? It then listed multiple choice options (company-produced brochures, advertisements, news releases, etc). I’ve been taught in about 3-4 journalism classes that media messages can be broken into these two subcategories. Controlled media being things that a company or organization produce themselves (brochures, advertising) and uncontrolled media being media channels like television, radio and magazines. Maybe I’m just bitter about having a hard time with the question, but honestly, there is no such thing as controlled media. It’s a myth whose phrasing is inherently biased against media skeptics or the media literate (not saying I’m necessarily either but I’m trying at least). This phrase seems to imply some magic-bullet one-way communications theory. That’s an archaic way of looking at communications. Sure, the company or organization is designing (“controlling”) the content, but they have considerably less control over how the media is interpreted and understood. These companies and organizations simply cannot effectively manage an entire population’s response to their messages. Human response is often uncontrolled and the human population isn’t a monolith.

These “controlled” responses can, however, help shape perception and their placement ensures some folks are left out of the discussion. Imagine if this slightly ridiculous Chevron commercial ran in Niger for example, where Chevron has been active in suppressing local dissent and complicit in tolerating human rights abuses. As this Worldmapper map indicates, this part of the world has severely limited access to television which further illuminates not only the importance of media access, but the recognition that access alone doesn’t solve the problem. It’s crucial for us to realize, for example, that SEER technology, discussed in class two weeks ago, is basically a marketing tool to generate positive brand experiences by monitoring blog topics and finding the influencers to generate a “viral” media campaign. We’ve got to realize we can use this wonderful technology in ways that don’t necessarily have to be used to produce commercial transactions. Better yet, let’s design our own technology like the developers and contributors at MAKE Magazine. It’s really up to us, as media consumers to understand how different mediums favor certain perspectives over others and that there truly is no such thing as controlled communication. I think this realization can go a long way in helping us separate the “green” from the “greenwash.”

Does anyone agree? Disagree? Is there a difference between controlled and uncontrolled media?

Worldwide television access map (courtesy of worldmapper.org)

-Vince Meserko


4 Comments so far
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Equally, there is no such thing as “uncontrolled media” either. Or at least in the traditional sense covering print, radio and television.

The entire process by which “news” is filtered through a news organisation is a form of control, dictated by the organisation’s ethos, politics, culture and outlook as well as by the cultural background of its staff. On top of that, is direct editorial control.

A personal example of the latter came directly after 9/11. I wrote a leader column for a daily newspaper that was sympathetic of the victims and condemnatory of the attacks.

However, I also suggested that, to put the attacks in context, there were people in the world who felt they and their societies were the victims of US policies. I suggested that to lessen the likelihood of future attacks, the US Government could reconsider some of those policies.

Readers had little or no problem with that. But it was a different story internally. Within 24 hours we had senior management from much, much further up the chain on site, in person, ordering us not to print anything anti-American as our UK company was a subsidiary of a major US company and we were not to do anything to upset US shareholders who would soon be deciding whether to approve a new printing plant for our paper.

I was never allowed to write a leader about anything involving the US after that, while the paper’s editorial tone became very pro-US.

Is that evidence of uncontrolled media? Or of a very controlled media?

Comment by Stonehead

Stonehead – thanks for the response.

I completely agree with you. The idea of uncontrolled media is equally misleading. I was more referring to the response of the media’s intended audience as being uncontrolled more so than the content itself. I think your 9/11 dilemma is a great example. All original editorial content has to filter through an editorial board and all outside content vyes for the right to appear in the medium by persuading the gatekeepers that they are offering something of value. It comes down to who can persaude the decision makers. In my opinion, as the mediaspace becomes more and more fragmented through technology’s influence, the space has gotten more and more chaotic and the top-down gatekeeping approach of traditional media is not as prominent. People are producing their own content and their own commentary and the absence of traditional forms of gatekeeping gives this type of content the unique ability to influence change in a less constrained setting.


Comment by vincemeserko

By controlling the content, you’re controlling the audience’s reactions.

I’ll give a commercial example from another daily newspaper in another country.

A couple of journalists uncovered substantial evidence exposing wrong doing involving city council planners, members of the council’s planning committee and a real estate/development company. The story was canned and the journalists encouraged to move on due to “commercial realities”.

In other words, both the council and the company were major advertisers in the newspaper. The council had six to 10 pages of advertisements a week in the paper, the developer about six (including a very expensive full-colour double-page in the weekly real estate supplement). Both the council and the company had histories of threatening to pull and actually pulling advertisements if stories were perceived as being even vaguely negative.

This story would have been much more than vaguely negative.

The control the council and the company exercised over the newspaper meant they could dramatically influence the newspaper’s readership. As far as readers were concerned, in the absence of anything to the contrary, the council was getting on with running the city while the developer built and sold nice houses in nice locations.

The readership would have had dramatically different views if they’d known the houses were being permitted on contaminated land, on flood prone areas and on land designed for green space in return for kickbacks and favours to councillors and council staff.

The problem for non-traditional media is that it is perceived as being less reliable and trustworthy than traditional media. It’s certainly true that there are many unreliable new media outlets, but what many people don’t realise is that much of the traditional media is just as unreliable or, in some cases, even more so.

Incidentally, my personnel reviews or appraisals often described me as being “insufficiently commercial” or “lacking pragmatism”. Funny, that!

Comment by Stonehead

I agree, Stonehead. Perhaps the only uncontrolled media are blogs. Especially ones like this that have no revenue and are a platform open to all.
Vince, thinking back to the SEER report, TreeHugger.com was the leading influencer in the space. Now the website is beholden to a corporate owner and advertisers, but when the blog started out, it was not. It garnered attention and cred because it was perceived to be an influencer and trusted resource. I wonder what, if anything, has changed with it’s exponential growth and corporate backing.

Comment by j500

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