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  Media is the plural of medium (Latin, ‘middle’), though it is popularly used as both singular and plural. It refers to the whole range of possible channels of communication employed in discourse: any vehicle or entity through which communication takes place. The word media is commonly associated with the mass media, that is those means by which information, entertainment, advertising, and news are transmitted to a general audience. However, its usage is constantly expanding and currently includes public relations, direct marketing and computer networking. A medium is any single vehicle (‘channel’) through which a message is transmitted to people, and its properties determine the range of codes it can transmit and thus will affect the nature of the message and its effect on the receiver.

A channel of communication carries a signal from a sender to a receiver. This signal has been converted from a message in a order that it may be carried. The medium converts the message. Thus a voice, gesture or expression, paper for drawing, television, radio, clothes and books are all types of medium bound by different physical or technological constraints. John Fiske, in Introduction to Communication Studies, divides notions of ‘media’ into three convenient, though not exclusively independent, categories: the presentational media; the representational media; the mechanical media.

The presentational media are the face, voice and body. These make use of such ‘natural’ languages as speech and gestures. Here the medium is the communicator (or sender of the message) and such communication is restricted to the here and now. It produces acts of communication where the medium is the communicator. Representational media might also be termed creative media. Books, photographs, writing, sculpture, painting, architecture, fashion and other forms of design are representational in that they make use of the conventions, signs and symbols of culture and aesthetics to produce a ‘text’. This text can exist independently of its producer(s), and thus is a work of communication. Mechanical media (such as telephones, television, film and faxes) transmit the first two categories. They are subject to technological constraints, including the potential for physical noise.

These categories are marked as much by their similarities as by their differences. They are useful only as a convenient device for the formal analysis of communication process. Apart from its central meaning, the word ‘media’ is also worth considering in the light of the ideological, sociological and commercially angled prefixes and suffixes it attracts. The most widely used are media control, mass media, media image, media coverage, media vehicle, and the phrase ‘The Medium Is The Message’.

Media control is generally agreed to be either authoritarian, paternal, commercial or democratic. Authoritarian control is a monopoly of communication channels and therefore control of what messages are sent. (To a certain degree such control could be said to extend to the way such messages are interpreted also.) Raymond Williams, in Communications, describes the second type, paternal media, as ‘authoritarianism with a conscience’. This means that, unlike the first category, there is evidence that the simple maintenance of absolute power is not the sole concern of the ‘paternal’ body; values can be held which might contradict those of the body, though not challenge it. The BBC in the UK, for example, might be classed as maintaining a ‘paternal’ control over its operations. Commercial control is that exerted by market interests. The fourth category, democratic control, is the rarest. Decision-making must be the joint task of all those involved in the production and distribution of its messages. Ideally the recipients of those messages should also be able to feed back their response into the system, and so influence its output.

The general development of media control has been one of a cross-media concentration of corporate ownership. Sophisticated techniques of multi-marketing have grown alongside the centralization of power (sometimes into a very small group of people or even down to one single person), enabling the exploitation of several media in the sale of one prime commodity. The ‘star’ singer, for example, is created and marketed worldwide via television, makes an album and accompanying video (about which a book might be written). Spinning off from these activities are such things as magazines, posters, T-shirts and television interviews.

Media images are those images which the mass media prefer and relentlessly project, while apparently showing a ‘truthful’ and ‘normal’ picture of the world. Most of us receive the bulk of our information about the world through such media and thus our perception of it is to a certain extent formed by its images. The constancy and seemingly ‘naturalness’ of these images is such that they have become conventional, the yardstick by which we judge ‘normality’ and any deviation from it. Many would argue that in fact the media offers a mediation of reality while appearing simply to pass on such ‘natural truths’.

Media coverage is the percentage of targeted people or households reached by one or more of the media used in a specific advertising campaign. In such a campaign the mass-communications medium used is known as the ‘media vehicle’. This is not the same as the channel: that is, the media vehicle for television or radio is the programme, and for a magazine or other periodical it would be the issue.

‘The Medium Is The Message’ was the celebrated phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan (1911 - 1980). McLuhan believed, and was one of the first to say, that what is said in a message is conditioned by the way in which it is said, that is by the medium used. Whatever attributes a medium possesses contributes to the meaning in any communication. The phrase is the title of the first chapter of his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). RG

Further reading Hartley, Goulden & O\'Sullivan (eds.), Making Sense of the Media.



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