Media and Democracy

One key tenet of a liberal democracy, the dominant form of government today, is the separation of powers into the various independent branches of government, usually in the form of the legislature that makes the laws, a judiciary that interprets and applies the law and an executive that carries out the administration and operations of governing. Societies in the past were relatively small and citizens were able to engage face-to-face or via handwritten messages in their deliberation and decision-making process. As populations grew larger participation in a democracy required mediation, i.e. communication is now mediated. The earliest mass media was the newspaper, followed by the radio and television, and today, the Internet.

Because of its emerging function as a watchdog that monitors the running of the nation by exposing excesses and corruption, and holding those in power accountable, the media was regarded as the fourth estate, supplementing the three branches of government by providing checks and balances. The media also plays a more basic role as a provider of information necessary for rational debate. A healthy functioning democracy is predicated on the electorate making informed choices and this in turn rests on the quality of information that they receive. The media, as an institution, has for a long time enjoyed the position as a trusted primary source of news and information. Due to the enlarging population, it has become no longer possible for every citizen to participate directly in the democratic process. This led to the the representational form of democracy where representatives speak and act on behalf of individuals. The media, in this environment, took on the role of being a voice of the people to those in government.

This evolution of the media into a place where the public can participate in the democratic process prompted Dahlgrens (1995) to separate the mediated public sphere into four dimensions in order to understand it better. The media can be studied as an institution. Is the media independent or state owned? Do they serve the public’s interest or a narrow range of interests belonging to the owners of the media? Are government funded and government regulated media institutions used for public service or are they propaganda mouthpieces? When private corporations own the media are they furthering their own commercial interests or the public’s?

In the face of these developments, questions have also been raised about the media’s representation of the public. Because journalists, and by extension the media, are seen now as a representative of the public, questions are raised over whether there is a wide enough range of opinion to represent the public’s interests. As the media becomes increasingly commercial there are also questions about the quality of the news and information, which may be compromised when the media focus more on entertainment to retain their audiences’ attention. Entertainment is often seen as emotive and the antithesis of rational discussion. There are also concerns that the role of the citizens are now reduced to a passive observer whose only democratic function is to cast the final vote.

In the face of these developments, Dahlgren questions the general social structure that is now evolving and the role media play. What are the relationships between the public and the existing social structures? How do the newer, alternative media forms fit into the present environment? What is the relationship between them and the traditional media?

Finally, Dahlgren highlights the issues pertaining to the decline of face-to-face interaction. With the media taking over the space where people used to meet face-to-face, is the traditional social practice of people assembling together threatened? In the face of globalisation people are more dispersed. Can the media mitigate the loss of this human link? Is it essential that this human link be maintained?

Under this section democratic legitimation through the formation of publics and public opinion is discussed. This section will clarify “who is the public?” as well as an introduction of the fundamental model of Habermas’ public sphere.


The last two paragraphs already draw the attention on the media’s role in democracy. What role should the media ideally play in your opinion?
In contrast, what role is the media fulfilling now?


Dahlgren, P. (1995). Television and the Public Sphere. London: Sage.
Dahlgren, P. (2001). The transformation of democracy. In Axford, B. & Huggins, R. (eds.). New Media and Politics. London: Sage. pp. 64-88.


Researching Audiences

Audience studies have been around as long as there has been commercial mass media – producers needed to prove to potential advertisers that their message was received by a certain number (and later on, a certain type) of people.  As such, audience research has ties to ideas about consumer culture.  But as metrics and other ways of gathering information grew more sophisticated the demographics continued to be refined. For example, these are the demographics that TVNZ currently keeps track of for its advertisers.

We can also investigate audiences from perspectives, rather than as mere commodities. For the mass media, a number of different tools are deployed by different groups – such as counting viewers to identify prime advertising space for advertisers. Focus groups are employed to see how the target demographic is receiving a particular text, and adjustments are made accordingly. In-depth research into a population, such as the bronies, attempts to understand the interplay between reception, consumption and community.

These methods have been refined throughout the history of mass media, however, new media presents new challenges.  For example, modifications to existing methods, such as a media-use diary where audiences note their media consumption, has to cope with the challenges of a context where most people’s media use hours exceed the hours in the day. This is a consequence of multitasking – for example, listening to music while reading Facebook. The technology itself can be employed to provide information about usage (eg: adwords in google).  We can even employ systems, such as eyeball tracking, to identify audience viewing habits within a cluttered media landscape.

Despite these and other techniques, tracking changes in audience behaviour is a challenge. This is as much a consequence of changing concepts surrounding audiences as it is a result of changes in media itself. The idea of the audience must now take into account new concepts of the user and the prosumer, how these interrelate with existing notions of an active audience, and how these change the nature of how we understand texts, readings, and issues of consumption and (re)production.

Discussion Questions

Discuss the relative merits of various methods of audience research such as focus groups, in-depth research, media use diaries, surveying population samples and ‘hidden’ online technologies.

Consumerism and Subjectivity

Researchers in the field of consumer cultures are interested in studying consumer choice and behavior from a social and cultural point of view, as opposed to an economical and psychological one.

In order to achieve an appropriate understanding of the processes of consumption, it is essential to consider and analyze the activity of the subjects who practice them. Moreover, it is essential to contextualize the activity of the subjects who perform their choices and behaviors inside a net of power relations that control and organize the availability of goods in the marketplace. Therefore, it is important to consider consumer practices and subjectivities as an autonomous social sphere, although strictly related to the sphere of production and commercialization.

Consumer culture researchers do not consider culture as a homogenous system of collectively shared meanings, values and ways of life. In fact, culture is characterized by a multiplicity of ways of production and distribution of meanings and values operated by different cultural groups. In this regard, the term “consumer culture” also points to conceptualizing a commercially produced system of images, texts and objects that different groups appropriate in different ways. They use these to make collective sense of their spaces, experiences and lives, communicating meanings that are often inaccessible to outsiders. Consumers become producers of culture and, in so doing, they also seek to make their own identity as individuals and as members of social groups. Therefore, the marketplace becomes a source of resources which people approach and re-signify to the extent that they can access or not access it as consumers. This opens up new possibilities of communication, as well as relationships to the commodity culture, offered by the marketplace.

In fact, as consumers actively rework and transform symbolic meanings made available by the marketplace, they can also construct their own selves and communities in opposition to commodity culture, by performing practices of consumers’ resistance. The ways through which specific consumers appropriate commercial brands or products to deliver messages of resistance are various and highlights the creative potential that can be involved in consumer practices. In this case we can talk of consumer subcultures that are often engaged in various forms of ‘guerrilla’ resistance in order to state their own ideas and consolidate their group identity. There are innumerable examples of guerrilla consumer resistance:

New Zealand resistance to GM food products is an ongoing example of consumer action. Although this particular issue is international, local resistance, allied to over seas market resistance, has succeeded in keeping GM crops from New Zealand. See “NZ’S GM stance reflects consumer resistance, markets’ needs“.

Consumer resistance can also express itself through the creative practices of everyday life and eventually consolidate in a way of living that is grounded, among other things, in the aesthetics of resistance and vehicles of new meanings.

Discussion Questions

Search for any other local examples of consumer resistance in the media.

Consider the various points of view in the controversy and how the media portrays those stances. Balance the study across many media sources.

Discourse, Institutions, and Power

Discourses, institutions and the social power relations and intra-group tensions and agreements they represent are all very interesting in their own right.  But now might be a good time to link this back to communication studies.  Why should we care about discourses and institutions?  Firstly, discourses and the institutions that produce and propagate them reflect the flow of power and control in society – most of the discourses that we are exposed to reflect the dominant position in society, and conflict between discourses, such as with smoking in the second half of the 20th century, reveal underlying social tensions between those dominant discourses and new and emerging discourses.  So looking at discourse and institutions reveals for us who may speak, who might be silenced, and why certain groups, activities or relationships are framed in particular ways – so why might one group frame an individual to be a terrorist and another a freedom fighter could be revealed by understanding the institutional context of the speakers.

Secondly, institutions shape the communicative process.  The media, particularly the commercial media, operates within institutional restrictions such as policy, copyright, and broadcast practice.  Certain types of language and even types of signs are encouraged within particular institutional contexts, and other types are not.  So discourses shape our communication and the types of texts we send, and how we understand the texts and messages we receive – we never communicate in a vacuum, we always bring to bear on our communications our context, our social norms, and our prior experiences.

Finally, an understanding of the discourses and their institutions that are active in a society helps us to come to terms with how communication is operating on a macro-level – so not just looking at individual texts or individual moments of communication, but communication as a whole.  A good example is a classroom.  If we were to look at a classroom in this way, you would need to think about the wider institution of education, the relationships and expectations it has in regard to teachers and students, and dominant discourses about knowledge and learning.  Looking at the classroom this way helps to unpack the classroom-as-institution, and makes clearer the privileges and power it fosters.  For example, who can speak and who must listen in a classroom is tied to these institutional relationship and supported by discourses of education that are so deeply engrained in us that many of us do not question it until we see other types of educational institutions and the types of discourses they support.

Discussion Questions

What are some current discourses within the Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Regions?

Identify the signs and language employed in those debates and consider whether or not they are unique to the particular discourse or institution.

Then identify who is ‘speaking’, and who is not, and consider this information in terms of the discourse and institutional contexts.


 So what are institutions? We sometimes talk of things like banking institutions, or medical institutions, which sometimes evoke ideas of institutions as places, whereas institutions are really a mechanism of society. We create institutions as a way to govern and maintain society – they are structures that hold together social life. For example, we sometimes speak of the family as an institution. We are not referring to some discrete object when we talk about family – we are interested in the relationships that we have grouped together under the label of family. Different societies have different groupings under that label. For some, it might be the nuclear family. For other societies, it might be the extended family, or some other set of relations beyond notions of biology. What is important to remember is that each institution reflects and supports the values of the society in which it is situated.

Societies build and maintain institutions to create and perpetuate acceptable modes of behavior and interaction that help propagate and stabilize that society. In capitalist societies, banks are considered an institution in that they refer to a relationship of labour and capital. In the economic crashes of the early 21st century, banks were said to be destabilizing. This means that the relationships that form the institutions of banking were seen to be weakening, and as such, we saw a commensurate change in the notions of labour and capital, and their relationships and roles within society.

Social relations that are codified into institutions therefore have within them some measure of power.  And this is where we come back to discourses. Institutions produce discourses as part of the interaction of their social relations, and these discourses reflect and reinforce the dominant ideologies that support and maintain these institutions. It is only when these discourses are challenged that we see the institutions challenged, and sometimes this leads to an institutional change which reflects the changing values in a society.

That’s a lot of looping around, so let’s take a look at an example that has a number of different communicative elements. Let’s look at smoking.

Smoking as a social issue and a personal behaviour has now entered the public health discourses.  It is now related to and reflects a negative social position – smoking is seen to be socially undesirable, and these negative connotations are framed in terms of health and wellness.

 This is a relatively recent change. In the first half of the 20th century, smoking occupied a different institutional position, and was part of a different set of discourses related to relaxation and social desirableness. In the immediate post-war period, smoking was seen as a masculine pursuit, and women did not smoke publicly until smoking as a sign entered into discourses around female enfranchisement and the gendering of power. With the rise of public relations, discourses of smoking as a socially acceptable activity for both men and women were constructed by the early ad men, reflecting a developing institutional idea of feminine power. They even came up with the tagline ‘torches of freedom.’ (Bernays) Smoking was a public performance of power, prestige, and luxury and so the sign of smoking became associated with such discourses.

To propagate the business of smoking (a very profitable industry) as the first negative health impacts of smoking became apparent, the discourses surrounding smoking shifted again, and we started to see the rise of the early medical and health rhetorics to counteract the negative discourses of smoking-related illnesses. So in the advertising around cigarettes from 1960 to 1990, we can see a tension between two competing institutional discourses – smoking as being good for you (social discourse) and smoking as being bad for you (medical/health discourse).

“1949 TV commercial from Camel cigarettes.” Under Standard Youtube License

Slowly, over the decades, the smoking-as-unhealthy discourse gained dominance, and smoking shifted more fully to fit into discourses of health and social wellness as the institutional landscape around medicine, the human body and leisure were renegotiated to take into account these new relationships and the new signification of smoking cigarettes.

Now, smoking is something of a social taboo, reflecting the new dominant ideologies around smoking and the relationships that represents between smoking and health, and evoking medical discourses and symbols and language of not only ill-health, but also signifiers of shame and ostracism.

Australian anti-smoking ad (nd), under Standard Youtube License

We can see similar trajectories of discourses and institutions regarding race, class and gender throughout history.  Over time, as new ideologies gained social power, old institutions underwent a period of disruption, and new institutions, new sets of social relations, were built up in their place.


Describe what you understand as an institution in your own words.
Consider the institutionalised discourse about Maori culture during history. How has it changed over the years? 

Intercultural Communication

As mentioned in the Communication and Culture section intercultural communication generally describes communication efforts between different cultural groups or subgroups. Differences between those groups, even if they speak the same language, can create problems and make understanding each other much harder. As globalisation has brought the whole world closer together, business between different cultures happens on a daily basis. To make things run smoothly, intercultural communication skills are crucial.

Intercultural communication research mainly focuses on national comparisons and is hooked in the background of management and organizational theories. One pioneering model is the one Geert Hofstede derived in worldwide studies of different nations along certain characteristics.

Hofstede refers to culture as “the collective programming of the mind distinguishing the members of one group or category of people from others” (Hofstede, 2013). Comparing values, behaviours and organisation for different nations Hofstede developed five dimensions to classify cultural principles. Each dimension builds up between two poles who describe the idealised extremes of it.

Hofstedes original dimensions included power distance (PDI), individualism vs. collectivism (IDV), masculinity vs. femininity (MAS) and Uncertainty avoidance (UAI) (Hofstede, 2001).  A fifth definition, the one of long-term vs. short-term orientation or in other words pragmatic vs. normative, was added by Micheal Bonds research in 1991, followed by the definition of indulgence vs. restraint by Michael Minkov (Hofstede 2013). In each dimension the lowest possible score is 0 and the highest is 100.

The following questions give a better understanding of the six dimensions which have been researched to a broad extent in the last couple of years:

Power distance:

  • How flat are hierarchies?
  • How does a culture deal with inequalities?
  • Is societal influence concentrated in the hands of a few or distributed throughout the population?
  • How authoritarian is a country’s organisation?
  • Are communication efforts interactive?

New Zealand Score: 12
New Zealand’s low score indicates a culture with flat hierarchies and a very low power distance. Communication in organisations is interactive and rather informal.

Individualistic vs. Collectivist culture:

  • Does the interest of the group or the individual matter the most?
  • Are people only looking after themselves and their immediate family?
  • How well are individuals integrated and networked?

New Zealand Score: 86

With the rather high score of 86 New Zealand can be described as a rather individualistic culture with people looking after themselves and their immediate families first.

Masculinity vs. Femininity:

  • Which values are aimed for?
  • How strong is a society following material values and success in comparison to the quality of life, interpersonal relationships and the concern for the weak?

New Zealand Score: 59

A score of 59 signalises masculinity rather then femininity. People strive to be the best they can be in work or school-related settings with the focus on winning, being proud of their achievements and success in life.

Uncertainty avoidance vs. taking risks:

  • Do members of a society feel threatened by unknown situations?
  • Are there attempts to control the future or do people just let it happen?
  • How high is the willingness to try something new or different?

New Zealand Score: 39

With a score of 39 New Zealand can be described as a pragmatic society that deals with uncertainties in a relaxed and flexible fashion. Originality is valued. People are willing to accept new ideas, give innovative products a try and a not too averse to taking risks.

Long-term vs. short-term orientation (Pragmatic vs. normative):

  • How are individuals subordinating themselves for longer term purposes?
  • How are the tendencies towards short-term spending and long-term savings, perseverance and quick results?

New Zealand Score: 28

New Zealand is shown to be a normative country with a normative way of thinking. Motivation to save for the future is rather low, therefore the focus on quick results is high.

Indulgence vs. Constraint:

  • How freely are hedonist drives as gratifications towards enjoying life and having fun tolerated and allowed?
  • Is the gratification of needs restricted by strong social norms?

New Zealand Score: 75

A rather high score of 75 pictures New Zealand’s society indulgent. With it people tend to possess a positive attitude and a tendency towards optimism. Leisure time is regarded as important, also the ability to spend money as one likes and and to follow desires and needs to enjoy life and have fun.

As you can see in the questions above Hofstede’s model is all about comparison. National cultures and their distinct attitudes, behaviours and norms can be seen as specific through boundaries and differences in comparison to others. Although Hofstede’s model is widely accepted in organisational communication and management theory critics argue that most research is not integrated with findings from research that is not concentrating on purely economic and organisational values (Kirkman et al, 2006).

While values change with the developments of society globalization and convergence tendencies of new technologies and communication structures lead to a broader integrated international consumer culture and national values. General tendencies towards a culture of networked individualism are researched and referred to in literature (Castells 1996; Wellman 2002). Still Hofstede’s dimensions seem to be quite stable and remain over time. Changes in technology affect a lot of countries at the same time or with only a small delay and therefore make their relative position amongst the other nations rather stable as every nation shifts in the same direction.


What can you say about your nation’s culture?
How would you classify it in terms of Hofstede’s model?
How do you evaluate New Zealand’s scores? Do you agree?
Have a look online to compare your estimation with your country’s scores!
Compare with other countries you know.

Alternative links:

Hofstede youtube channel “Hofstede insight”:

Hofstede homepage:
and score results for New Zealand:


Castells, M. (1996). The rise of the network society. Malden: Blackwell.

Hofstede, G. H. (2001). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions and organizations across nations. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Hofstede, G. H. (2013). National Culture. Retrieved from:

Jandt, F. E. (2012). An introduction to intercultural communication: Identities in a global community. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Wellman, B. (2002). Little Boxes, Glocalization and Networked Individualism. In Tanabe, M.; van den Besselaar, P.; Ishida, T. (eds.). Digital Cities II. Computational and Sociological Approaches. Berlin: Springer. pp. 10-25.

Introduction, and How To Use This Text

Tēnā koutou and welcome to Media Studies 101, the open educational resource for media studies studies in New Zealand, Australia, and Pacifica.  We have constructed this text so it can be read in a number of ways.  You may wish to follow the structured order of ‘chapters’ like you would in a traditional printed textbook. Each section builds on and refers back to previous sections to build up your knowledge and skills.  Alternatively, you may want to go straight to the section you are interested in — links will help guide you back to definitions and key ideas if you need to refresh your knowledge or understand a new concept.

This text is open under a Creative Commons NZ BY license.  That means you are free to download a copy, chop it up, rework it, rewrite sections, modify and change this text, as long as you acknowledge us.  Please let us know if you are using this text, either as it is or remixed – we welcome your ideas for future versions.

We are providing this text free online because we believe that education, knowledge, and ideas should be free for all to share in, use, and develop.

Ngā mihi nui

the media texthack team

Identity and Fan Cultures

In other areas of this text, we have considered many different ways of thinking about communication – as exchange of symbols, as flows of information, as part of industries and relations of capital and power, and through the creation and consumption of texts.  But communication isn’t purely about transmission.  It is also about the ritual of communication, about the ongoing socio-cultural interactions that form a core part of the communicative process.  So this section looks at questions of identity performance between users in interactions, and starts to explore more deeply how we make and receive messages as social creatures.

To engage with these questions, there are a useful suite of theories and concepts that are known collectively as symbolic interactionism. Symbolic interactionism is concerned with the construction of identity within a social context – as such, it doesn’t address the psychological or developmental aspects of identity, but rather how an identity is presented and re-presented within a given social or communicative situation.  Symbolic interactionism fits in with ideas of identity as something we construct and reconstruct within different social contexts and base on our judgements of the nature and intention of the interaction.

There are a number of theories that fall under the banner of symbolic interactionism, but this section will focus on impressions management, the concept of the looking-glass-self, and dramaturgy and performance.  As you shall see, these theories and concepts historically share a great deal in common, and there is significant overlap between them.

One of the key assumptions of a symbolic interactionist approach to communication is to regard society as something that is constructed and reconstructed through signs generated and agreed upon by interacting individuals.  Or, as Mead noted, humans act towards things based on the meaning that those things have for them.  This meaning is generated by ‘playing the game’ (Mead) where, by engaging with symbols, they become meaningful and help shape the ‘me,’ the organized, social aspect of the self.  The self is constructed out of the I and the Me, or alternatively, the unstructured personality and the structured persona.  The I and the Me alternate as we engage with the symbolic landscape we participate in and help create, to help reform not only society but the self.

With that in mind, let’s look at some specific approaches within the symbolic interactionist tradition.

Discussion Questions

Before moving on to some specific theoretical perspectives, can you note some symbols, signs, mannerisms etc that identify you, or your subjects, as a communicative member of a  group, club, society or wider sub-culture?

Are these likely, or not, to be understood by anyone outside the group?

Mead, G.H. Mind, Self and Society From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. Vol. 1. University of Chicago Press 1934, rev 1967.

Theories of Identity Performance
impressions management
looking-glass self

Identity, Audiences, Receivers, Users: fandom

Consumer Cultures

The term consumer cultures refers to a theory according to which modern human  society is strongly subjected to consumerism and stresses the centrality of purchasing commodities and services (and along with them power) as a cultural practice that fosters social behaviors.

The history of consumer cultures can be traced back and linked to particular periods of discontinuity. The international historiography tends to identify three different periods in the history of consumerism in the last three centuries:

  • a first period starting in the 18th century England with the popularization of certain products such as exotic drinks and clothing;
  • a second phase in the second half of the 19th century with the appearance of the first department stores where practices of shopping were initiated;
  • a third phase starting in the 1950s with the achievement of a mass society, the construction of an Atlantic market and the beginning of the process of Americanization of culture.

Without rejecting the precision of the traditional periodization, the interest in the history and practice of consumption in the last decades by an increasing number of scholars has brought to light new interpretations of consumer cultures. These new perspectives consider the phenomenon in the context of continuity throughout a longer duration. According to these perspectives, it is possible to highlight an onset of consumer cultures in Europe from the period between the 17th and the18th centuries when a profound shift of the economic system occurred due to European colonial expansion.

The circulation of new products, such as sugar, tobacco and chocolate, not only brought a major change in the European mode of production but it also gave impulse to a process of appropriation of such goods as they were available on the market. The consumers approached the market in a variety of ways, strongly influenced by their geographical belonging, gender, social position, religious beliefs and cultural tendency. The consumer cultures that were initiated by the circulation and consumption of these new goods are the product of a process of production of everyday life where the main subjects are the consumers who appropriate the goods. Therefore, we can think about consumer cultures, in part, as contributing to the process of identity formation.

Here is a very precise account of how the consumption of coffee, introduced as a new commodity into Europe as well as elsewhere, has contributed to the creation of a certain intellectual and social culture centered on the space of coffee houses.

The interest in consumer cultures focuses on the aspect of production of everyday life as a source of cultural meaning and expression as well as the constant alteration of the symbolic universe through these practices of signification. However, the study of consumer cultures also engages the analysis of a macro sphere where consumer behaviors are strictly connected to economic and commercial aspects of production. In reference to the experience of consumer cultures in 18th and 19th century Europe, for example, the economic and commercial aspects of production involved the deportation of a labor force and the unrestrained exploitation of natural resources. This gave Europe a predominant position in the market. A similar reflection can be made with reference to consumer cultures in the era of mass society. The Americanization of culture in the aftermath of the Second World War placed America into a hegemonic economic and cultural position that influenced European political systems.

This said, it is impossible not to recognize that the formation of consumer cultures is strictly connected to a system of power that periodically redesigns the map of world relations.


Can you think of any big brands or companies representing today’s consumer culture?   Which one do you consider the most powerful?
Where do they originally come from?

Further Reading

P. Capuzzo, Culture del Consumo, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2006 (in Italian)