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Ideology and the Media: A Response

COMMENT
Ideology and the Media: A Response
Martin Barker’s examination of problems and evasions discernible in the use made of the concept of ideology by major
strands of media research (Radical Philosophy 46) is timely.

Media analysis in Britain seems now to be well-launched into a
phase in which empirically-based studies, including studies of
audience behaviour and understanding as well as of production
settings, have replaced the tendency to attempt the perfection
of some general theory of the media ‘apparatus’. Where this
leaves many of the earlier formulations about media powerabout ideological reproduction, reality-defining and the
capacity of the media to inscribe ‘preferred readings’ into their
texts-is not immediately clear. As the more recent research
brings in a wider range of data and of variables concerning
media processes, questions of a more general kind about the
role which the media might play in the sustaining of cultural
and political hegemony are having to be re-addressed.

Barker’s lucid and openly-worked discussion contrasts
strongly with the litany of under-argued theoreticisms which
have all too frequently provided the currency for writing on the
topic. I would like to respond here by commenting on aspects
of Barker’s main point that there is a damagingly non-cognitive
and often non-social character to the conceptualisations of
ideology and ideological influence employed. I would also like
to bring into this consideration, more than he finds space to do,
the matter of representational form, in particular distinctive
forms of realism/naturalism developed within television.

Too often, Barker argues, ideology is regarded as something
which is ‘implanted’ in the audience or readership through a
bypassing of cognitive understanding which allows textual
devices to work upon emotions and feelings. He notes that
media research is often extremely unclear about quite how this
process is achieved, observing that the whole matter of
‘mechanisms’ in the study of ideology and the media has
received far less attention than, say, that of the various formal
features which can characterise ideological discourse. Such an
affective emphasis is, Barker suggests, inadequate as an approach to studying how popular opinion and prejudice are formed and sustained and he uses the example of racism to illustrate his point.

I think he is right in identifying this assumption that
ideology works ‘deeper than belief’ as a weakness in many
studies of the media. If racist ideology is seen to be reproduced
through the emotive devices of a ‘moral panic’ and appeals to
fear, then questions about what sense people make of media
depictions, the reasons which they give for their views on
‘race’ and then about the particular (including sociological)
conditions of such reasoning might seem beside the point.

For a radical critic, one strategic advantage in taking up
such a position is that, within its terms, the majority of the
people, whilst not necessarily seeming to be dupes, do not appear to be much implicated in the production of the non-radical
‘beliefs’ to which they apparently lend support and they can
therefore be presumed more accessible to projects of radical
realignment. However this may be, though, it seems to me that

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one of the main factors behind the non-cognitive emphasis follows from a concern with the particular semiotic and epistemic

character of the visual media.

There is by now an extensive literature on the ‘naturalising’

power of film and television production techniques. In engaging with film and television which so often stress their
‘transparency’ and ‘immediacy’, it is perhaps not surprising
that researchers became preoccupied with devices of realism
and with ideas concerning the propagation of a ‘naturalised’

public knowledge grounded in the technology of illusion. This
has led to far too many assumptions being made about the success of programmes in, first of all, actually seeming transparent
and obvious to real audiences and then, under this ‘cover’, in
actually generating ‘preferred readings’ consonant with
dominant ideology.

Barker appropriately cites David Morley’s book The
Nationwide Audience as an attempt to get beyond speculation
of this kind by means of a sociological survey of decoding
practice. He finds, nevertheless, that commendable as it may be
in general design and aims, here too the problems arise of an
essentially non-cognitive (mystificatory) ideological process
being worked upon an audience which, insofar as it is ‘taken
in’ by, or affectively succumbs to, the ‘preferred reading’, is
really being viewed as desocialised in its receptive/interpretative behaviour. I have some reservations about what Barker has
to say here and these, together with the question of the
‘transparency effect’ mentioned above, bear on the important
issue of how it might be possible to undertake duly ‘cognitive’

audience studies whilst retaining the framework of an
ideology/power analysis.

There is considerable conceptual confusion surrounding the
notion of ‘preferred reading’, as any attempt to answer the
question ‘preferred by whom, how and at what point in the
meaning process’ might quickly attest. Moreover, the
widespread use of Frank Parkin’s meaning-system typology
(dominant, negotiated and oppositional) as a way of categorising audience responses has led both to unhelpful conflations
and divisions. 1 Nevertheless, Morley seems to me to regard his
‘dominant code’ readers as interpreting from inside fully social
frameworks of meaning. These frameworks provide them with
the sets of relations and categories, the connotational fields etc.,
by which to construe from the programme elements a package
of meanings consistent with dominant ideology. Such interpretative resources are already socially instalied by a variety of
discursive routes not excluding the accumulation of previous
‘media knowledge’. The signifiers of the programme elements
interact with them, most likely extending and re-organising
around some new topic or event such as finally to prompt and
inform a closure of understanding within dominant terms. (Can
we legitimately refer to this as an ‘ideological effect’? I think
so.)
So the socioality of the process does not seem by itself to
be a problem, though I would agree with Barker that a lot of
other questions might be begged in the description. Does this

mean, as he suggests, that influence is only ever putative in this
line of research, that in practice all that are found are
‘negotiated readings’?

My own understanding of current audience studies and my
own work, with a colleague, into interpretations of documentary television indicates not 2 First of all, the sheer range of ‘fit’

between programme elements and viewers’ interpretations and
the extent to which viewers regard these elements as suspect,
motivated (in whatever direction) or not and then as of various
weight and alignability in relation to existing knowledge and
ideas make ‘negotiated reading’ a pretty banal category for the
researcher to use (part of Barker’s point too, I think).

But viewers’ accounts also document the unproblematic use
of filmed material as evidence; the ways in which particular
phrasings or depicted ‘telling instances’ appear to move
viewers through to certain positions and to seal understanding
and, more broadly, the shifts and turns in interpretation occasioned by often unrecognised aspects of production method,
structure and style. I believe it follows from this that attempts
to use media education as, in part, a way of developing critical
resistance need not be so outlandishly misconceived as Barker
seems to think.

‘Influence’ has a treacherously psychologistic ring to it and
‘reproduction’ may smack of too neat and totalising a process,
but the variable ideological bearing of media representations
upon viewer understandings remains the most important
dimension for audience research to investigate. This is in con-

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trast to that celebration of interpretative relativism and readedy
independence which some studies have displayed, seemingly
still caught up in the exhilaration of rejecting structuralist
rigidities to the extent that questions of power and domination
have almost entirely slid off their agenda. Certainly, the close
attention to matters of belief and reasoning as well of the
feelings which Barker calls for would be necessary in furthering such an investigation, alongside attention to media
rhetorics and the relationships of social location. As for the use
to which he sees Voloshinov’s dialogical theories being put, I
look forward to seeing that case developed more fully in a furtherpaper.

John Corner
1

2

A useful accmmt of conceptual problems in this area is contained
in Justin Lewis, ‘The Encoding/Decoding Model’, Media, Culture and Society 5(2), 1983, pp. 179-197.

Publications so far are Kay Richardson and John Corner, ‘Reading Reception’, in Media, Culture and Society 8(3), 1986, pp.

485-508, and John Corner and Kay Richardson, ‘Documentary
Meanings and the Discourse of Interpretation’ in John Corner
(ed.), Documentary and the Mass Media, Amold, 1986, pp. 140160. For a provocatively ‘cognitive’ study see also Justin Lewis,
‘Decoding TV News’ in P. Drumrnond and R. Paterson (eds.),
Television in Transition, British Film Institute. 1984.

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