Media Theory: How Individual Audience
Members Negotiate Media Messages

      by Ashley Grisso  



Television plays a significant role in shaping viewers' social realities. This reality is cultivated and maintained by on-going television viewing and consumption of various types of media as posed by the cultivation theory (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1994). Television is the most common and constant learning environment for young people today. It has a unique influence on learning because it is our society's most prominent storyteller. It is our oracle. A key component of the cultivation theory is that when a person possesses a heavily cultivated television perspective, the concept of "mainstreaming" can contribute to sense-making. Mainstreaming refers to an existence of a dominant current of cultural beliefs, attitudes, values and practices to which heavy television viewers are exposed.

An example of a cultivated mainstream perspective is indicated in a recent study called "Girls, Media, and the Negotiation of Sexuality: A Study of Race, Class and Gender in Adolescent Peer Groups" (Durham 1999). In this study Duurham describes how girls negotiate sexuality and the media. It is clear that the students she studied, despite, race, class or socio-economic background, determined that heterosexuality is normal.

Resonance, another important component of the cultivation theory, denotes that the cultivation process becomes even stronger when particular salience to specific issues exist to viewers. All but one of the girls in the study are heterosexual, and, not surprisingly, these girls found the messages reinforcing heterosexuality to be affirming and ubiquitous. In the infamous television program, Ellen that aired in 1997, when Ellen Degeneress came out as a lesbian, the subjects found the programming content very disturbing. When heavy television viewers receive a continuous bombardment of messages regarding how females should look, behave and feel over a long period of time, audiences believe this as truth. If mainstreaming and resonance occur simultaneously, the result can be a "double dose" of the media message and will significantly boost cultivation (Gerbner, etal, 1994). The subjects in this study had cultivated a strong sense of what "normal" female behavior is. Their strong beliefs around this ideal of feminine normativity, provided resonance to the heterocentrist world-view that serves as the mainstream perspective in the media.

According to Berry and Shelton (1999), relevancy can indicate the importance of an image or message in an individual's life and can indicate the level of influence an image or message could have in a cultural or social group. Relevancy can also indicate additional layers of understanding and significance within the meaning process. Individual and social interpretations can vary widely based on social, historical and cultural contexts. Interpretive media theory tells us that the content of any text is polysemous, suggesting a multiplicity of possible meanings (Berry & Shelton, 1999). Almost 80% of 11-15-year-old participants in a study in Portland, Oregon agreed that their interpretation of a song comes from the combination of listening to the lyrics and watching the music videos, then making their own decisions (Leming, cited in Berry & Shelton, 1999).

Social construction of reality assumes that our meanings and understanding arise from communication with others (Berger & Luckmann 1967). The "social constructionist movement" assumes that the world does not present itself objectively to the observer, it is known through human experience, which is largely influenced by language. The languages through which reality is apprehended are situational. They emerge from the social interaction within a group of people at a particular time in a particular place. Reality changes from moment to moment. The conventions and communication in force at the time determine how reality is understood at a given moment. The stability or instability of knowledge, therefore depends more upon the vicissitudes of social life than on any objective reality outside of human experience. Socially constructed understandings of reality shape many aspects of life. How we think and behave in ordinary life is largely a matter of how we understand our realities (Berger & Luckmann 1967).