Editor’s note: Despite our changing media landscape, some beliefs endure. Originally published in Media Information Australia 48 (1988): 22–24.
Our society may have its superstitions—there is always the crank fringe of astrologers, foot reflexologists, and so on—but when it comes to the media, particularly among executives and academics, many expect a rational discourse to prevail. But it doesn’t. People hold beliefs about the media for which there is no evidence, and when they are asked to explain their beliefs they offer arguments which are identical in form to the arguments offered in other societies to justify magical practices.
There are compelling institutional parallels between magic and the media.
It is necessary to exercise extreme care when discussing the so-called ‘power of the media’. Like magic in primitive societies (see for example Evans-Pritchard 1937), its ability to work is less significant in the long run than the belief in its efficacy and more importantly, the belief in the institutions of practice that it maintains.
In human societies of all kinds, there is a long tradition of belief in the possibility of direct power over individuals by indirect means. Religion, magic and the mass media have all laid claim to such powers at some time and their survival as institutions has never depended on the proof of their claims.
In a very important sense their claims to power are not false because in each case they are woven into the structure of the society in such a way that it is impossible to understand these societies, and the behaviour of the individuals within them, without taking the power of these institutions very seriously .
One does not have to try proving the effectiveness of prayer in order to explain the power of religion. (Sless 1981:40-41)
At a linguistic level, there are parallels between the language used in describing the operation of magic and the language used to describe the operation of the media.
In an analysis of methods used by structuralist and post structuralist writers, I demonstrated that the dominant way of describing the relationship between messages and people was by using animism. Messages did things. In one passage analysed in the study, animism was used in 30 out of 33 references to the nexus between messages and people. Messages were said to ‘create’, ‘interpret’, ‘dramatise’ and so forth.
Rather than being a background feature for human activity, media messages become principle players, entities inscribed with intentionality, volition and consciousness. This sense of intentionality is focused most clearly in the tendency to anthropomorphise media messages.
The imagery used in structuralist analyses to describe and account for the patterns, movements and effects of media messages invest it with human-like intent and personal character. The use of transitive verbs provide media messages with a method for actively participating in the world. (Sless 1983:93, after Langer 1980:32-33)
This implicit animism is further reinforced by prevailing common sense views in government and industry, where people talk about communication in an enthusiastic, even fervent, way, believing in a simple mechanistic model of the communication process. The old hypodermic syringe is still alive and pricking (Sless 1985).
These factors put together—institutional framework and implicit animism, reinforced by a belief that the media act directly on people in a simple cause-effect manner—provide the basis of a resilient and self-perpetuating belief system.
There are executives who believe that media campaigns can change people’s behaviour, despite the cumulative evidence from a variety of sources (e.g. Elliot 1987; Schudson 1984). They say that media campaigns must work because otherwise nobody would put money into them.
In another kind of society we might be told that rain-making ceremonies must work, otherwise why bother to perform them and invest so much effort in them. “But”, we might ask the executive, “just suppose your campaign fails, how can you account for that?”. “Oh well,” comes the reply, “we live in a complicated world, and sometimes things occur beyond our control. At least we did everything in our power to make it work. Perhaps we should try again when we have more chance of getting our message across”. In another kind of society, the failure of a rain-making ceremony could be accounted for in much the same way. “There must have been some other spirit beyond our control that influenced the rain god, but at least we did everything we could. Perhaps we should try again when the omens are right.”
Executives also say that some media campaigns don’t work because the agency that handled the account bungled it. In any future campaign, they say, they would use a different agency. Similarly, the failure of a rain-making ceremony could be attributed to the poor magic of the witchdoctor, and another witchdoctor with more powerful magic could be used next time.
Believers may doubt the individual practitioners of the art but they never doubt the practice. The person disappointed in the results achieved by one witchdoctor will not ruminate metaphysically about the nature of witchcraft, he will find another witchdoctor. Our executives don’t pause to wonder about the power of the media, they go and find a new advertising agency.
Academics and researchers are another group amongst whom there are those who hold strong magical views of the media. Some researchers and teachers spend their life investigating ways of making the media more effective. Some even collect evidence as part of their investigations. They account for the poor quality of the evidence by suggesting that either they have not asked the right kind of question, or they have not used the right method.
Either arguments can be used to explain (to people who give money for research) why there is a need for further money to do more work. Similarly, in another kind of society, witchdoctors invest a lot of time investigating new spells and potions. If the spells or potions do not work very well, this shows that more work needs to be done either to invoke a different spirit or to discover a better spell or potion, and so the work continues with the support of the tribe.
Other academics, adopting the style of gurus rather than scholars, believe passionately that the media are already powerful, but the power is exercised by the wrong people. They are unhappy about the way the media are controlled and are used to control the population. They seek to expose the way in which the media serve narrow sectional interests and fail to take account of the interests of the majority or the disadvantaged. Similarly in another kind of society, there are those who grumble about the way in which the chiefs and elders of the tribe control all the most powerful magic in their own interests, ensuring their animals stay healthy and their wives bear many children, while the poor families of the tribe have lean sickly animals and their wives do not bear them many children that live. If the poor had access to the best magic, none of this would happen and they too would prosper.
The logics in both societies are internally consistent, and both are predicated on an unquestioning belief in the power of particular magical practices: in our society there is a belief in the magic of the media, in other societies there is a belief in a different kind of magic. The belief in media magic, particularly, is predicated on a simplistic belief in the power of communication, just as in other societies belief in the efficacy of magical practices is predicated on a belief in animistic forces and spirits. In neither case is evidence needed to sustain the belief.
Failed Schools of Magic
Communication scholars have failed to transcend this belief. They have conducted a curiously abstract (perhaps spiritual?) debate about the supposed differences between critical and process schools of communication: the same tired and confused arguments are regularly rehearsed as if some great differences were being debated (e.g. Fiske 1982; Kress 1988). But in truth, the differences between schools are marginal. Both believe in the magical power of communication, and this is very clear from the definitions that are regularly used in the literature (e.g.Williams 1976; Shoemaker 1987)
There are two distinct ordinary senses of the word communication: transmission and sharing.
Both are founded on an unquestioned view about the positive nature of communication; transmission actually occurs, sharing is a fact of life. Neither sense of communication in any way raises doubts about the nature of communication in practice. Yet the evidence has always suggested that transmission is unpredictable and that sharing is very patchy. Misunderstandings and failure to get one’s message across are the norm, not the exception. Yet these ordinary senses of communication give the impression that communication is something that works well most of the time. Indeed, we describe the quite ordinary failures and misunderstandings as breakdowns in communication – as if they were pathological and abnormal conditions. Common sense definitions of communication are in fact ideals: what some of us might wish communication to be, but not like communication as we experience it. Our common sense definitions of communication have more in keeping with spiritualism and telepathy than with the messy unpredictability of ordinary life. But in an age of magic such things go unnoticed and the witchdoctors prosper.
The mumbo jumbo hides a central, simple fact. Communication is linked to lying. In a technical sense, messages, texts, or signs (you may choose your own vocabulary) are dependent on lying. As Umberto Eco has astutely observed:
Semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. (Eco 1976: 7)
Communication depends on the use of signs and by their nature signs stand for other things which are not present. The process of substitution, of making one thing stand for another, is a form of lying. And another form of lying occurs in the cut and thrust of everyday life. With the normal run of imagination, self-interest, and greed, the temptation to play with the fabric of communication is overwhelming. Dissembling and deception—failing to transmit or share – are among the things that make life interesting and dangerous.
The belief in media magic prevents us from confronting both the delights and the dangers. If we accept the unseen hand of a media spell we are rendered rationally impotent – mere consumers of meanings brewed up in the media cauldron. If we believe that there can be good white magic and evil black magic—the ideologically pure or impure media spell—we might fail to notice the far more potent and dangerous forces of deception and the more insidiously powerful acts of withholding information. But the greatest threat that a magical view of the media holds out to us is that it becomes a way of circumventing obligations and avoiding the difficult moral decisions that accompany lying. The media do not work by magic any more than a card trick does, and like a card trick there are times when the media can be entertaining and there are other times when the deception is wrong.
Eco Umberto, A Theory of Semiotics , Macmillan, London, 1976.
Elliot Barry, ‘A re-look at why it’s so hard to sell brotherhood like soap’ Australian Journal of Communication 11: 20-39, 1987.
Evans-Pritchard E.E. Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande, Clarendon Press, London, 1937.
Fiske John, Introduction to Communication Studies, Methuen, London, 1982.
Kress Gunther, (ed) Communication and Culture: An Introduction, New South Wales University Press, Sydney, 1988.
Langer J. ‘The Structure and Ideology of the “Other News” on Television’, in Edgar P. (ed) The News in Focus, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1980.
Schudson M. Advertising: the Uneasy Persuasion, Basic Books, New York, 1984.
Shoemaker Pamela J. Mass Communication by the Book: A review of 31 Texts, Journal of Communication, 33 No 3: 109-131, 1987.
Sless David, Learning and Visual Communication, Croom Helm, London, 1981.
Sless David, ‘What We Make Messages Do’ in Smith III Ted, Communication in Australia, Warrnambool Institute Press, Warrnambool, 1983.
Sless David, ‘Repairing Messages: the hidden cost of inappropriate theory’, Australian Journal of Communication 9 &10: 82-93, 1987.
Williams R, Keywords, Fontana, Croom Helm, Glasgow, 1976.