‘The media’ (in their various incarnations) can be said to play three broad political roles, or sets of roles. The ability to perform these functions well is thought to be an indication of the health of the polity, not least when it comes to the communicative rights of the members of a given political community. These are also broad conceptualisations of media power. Fundamental to communicative rights is the right to information. The first political role that media actors play is that of ‘information relayer’. The second political role is a service provided not so much by media actors as by media institutions and forms. Media outlets (newspapers, channels and websites) are thought to promote the pluralism that is necessary for healthy polities by providing a place for different actors to be heard. The second role treats the media as a site of power - ‘the place where public sphering gets done’, as Peter Dahlgren put it. The third role is to play the part of ‘culture-bearers’ - the agents that discursively weave together the different threads that are the fabric of multicultural societies. This third role relates to ethnos - the imagined community of membership and affiliation. It is a profoundly political role, although this is not always evident, because it is ideological and concealed in discourse. This kind of power resides in the stories we are told about ourselves in media and popular culture texts - the powerful discourses that shape everyday life. Rather than attending to what goes on in the Kremlin, on Parliament Hill or in the Palacio Nacional, scholars interested in what is designated here as the third role look to everyday discourses and practices to see how phenomena like television provide ‘materials to be worked on’ when people construct their identities.
media roles • media roles in flux
To think about: how important is the watchdog role in the context of radical transparency? Are empowering technological developments a force for good or problematic?
Key concepts: power, gatekeeping, agenda-setting, identity
For suggestions for further reading click here.
The Guardian has kept an archive of WikiLeaks-related material, which can be accessed here. Both this and the Wikileaks website are good sources of empirical material. When it comes to ideological power, a non-profit organization identifying itself as a ‘progressive research and information center’, MediaMatters, keeps an eye on everyday stories about the way the world works that circulate in right-wing US media, that it finds problematic. Both the site and the links it provides to news stories it designates as ‘lies’ can be considered primary source materials worth analyzing. They are colourful illustrations of how media outlets are sites of power and contestation.
Wikileaks is a good point of entry (or ‘portkey’) into the study of media power. As well as posing a problem to governments across the world, and to its journalistic collaborators, WikiLeaks poses a scholarly problem to those interested in understanding the media-politics relationship, and how that is changing as a result of developments in media technology. How are phenomena like this organization to be understood, and sense made of the developments that brought it into being, its zenith and its nadir?
One way forward is to link empirical analysis of the actions of such players (and the technology which makes them so influential) to scholarship on the political roles traditionally ascribed to media actors and institutions, and on power.