Mediating the Message: Stephen Reese

As a journalism graduate student in the late 1970s, Stephen Reese said he noticed a major gap in the media and communication field. While much research emphasized the media’s effects on society, studies on factors affecting the media were rare.

Wanting to correct this research gap, Reese – associate dean for academic affairs at the Moody College of Communication and a professor in the School of Journalism – has focused much of his research since then on factors that influence the media.

Photograph of Stephen Reese

Stephen Reese

His latest research is published in “Mediating the Message in the 21st Century: A Media Sociology Perspective,” a successor volume to the one he originally wrote with Pamela J. Shoemaker in 1991 (and revised in 1996). The new book, like its predecessor, provides a framework for thinking about the factors affecting media – from the political and ideological, to work routines and organizational policy. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly called the previous version one of the “most significant journalism and communication books of the 20th century.”

1. In the book, you define a Hierarchical Influences Model, which consists of five levels. Could you briefly describe each level?

Reese: We consider five levels, starting with the micro individual level, which includes the characteristics of the individual communicator. The routines level includes the most immediate constraining and enabling structures, larger patterns, or routines within which the individual operates. The organization level is distinguished from routines in describing the influences of the larger organized entity within which the individual operates, the larger context of the routinized activities, which includes occupational roles, organizational policy, and how the enterprise itself is structured. The social institution level describes the influences arising from the larger trans-organizational media field, how media organizations combine into larger institutions that become part of larger structured relationships as they depend on and compete with other powerful social institutions. The macro social system level is the outer-most ring of the model, including influences on content from the social system as a whole. This includes ideological forces in the sense that they concern ideas and meaning in the service of interests and power – encompassing how all the other levels add up to a larger result.

2. Which level carries the most influence today and why?

Reese: I don’t conclude that any level is predominant overall, although thinking of them hierarchically often gives that impression. It’s natural to think of the more structural, macro factors over-riding the individuals who carry out their work within those constraints, but the framework simply provides a way to examine which factors seem to be most influential in any given situation.

3. How has this changed since previous versions of your book were published in 1991 and 1996?

Reese: The media have changed greatly since our original work, particularly with changes in technology and globalization. I think we could say that, in general, individual media creators, both professional and citizens, have been empowered by these changes – able to produce their own messages without needing to be a part of large news organizations. The State still exercises considerable control over media, but technology lets citizens push back against those controls, as we can see in many social movements around the world.

4. Your book talks about mediated reality – an unrealistic portrayal of the world that reinforces hegemonic systems of control. What are some examples of this?

Reese: Media representation has been a popular area of research, and I suppose the most common examples involve gender and race. For example, by depicting blacks as perpetrators of violent crime, beyond the actual patterns in crime statistics, the media reinforce negative views. Under-representing women in key roles, whether in entertainment content or as news sources, tends to marginalize them. When Fox News reportedly uses a “leg cam” to feature women on camera, it tends to sexualize their appearance more than men. Hegemonic just means that these patterns make the situation seem “natural” and taken for granted.

5. Which medium provides the most realistic perspective?

Reese: Each medium has its blind spots based on particular formats and traditions. Television is more realistic in being able to show and tell, but it’s been more often accused of sensationalism and emphasizing conflict than have newspapers. Time and space constraints inevitably impose their own limits, so the multimedia news platforms, in having much more of both, could be said to be more realistic – although of course this need not be the case depending on who’s in charge of it.

6. You say that concerns about journalistic autonomy have increased as the structures of media organizations have become more complex. Can you explain this?

Reese: Journalistic autonomy has been a long-standing concern for professionals. This concern became particularly acute when large media firms took on non-media enterprises, making it more difficult to not run afoul of some economic interest of the larger company. Now, the shifting business models for media mean that something is always being promoted, monetized, and sold in different ways than the traditional commercials and print advertising. So, how are economic interests impinging on journalistic work? It’s less clear than before and harder to identify.

7. What do you hope people take away from your book?

Reese: We hope that the book brings clarity to a complex field. With so many debates about media taking place outside of the scholarly realm, such as disputes over mainstream press bias, it’s important for people to have a framework for those discussions. For example, liberals generally put more emphasis on the reliance on official, institutional news sources and corporate influence as factors shaping media, while conservatives emphasize individual personal (allegedly liberal) bias in the mainstream media. Both have their points but often talk past each other because they’re operating out of different levels of analysis.

8. What future projects are you working on?

Reese: I’m working on a project that examines how transnational environmental NGOs produce journalism, and how that can be an important source of information internationally. News is happening in spite of the collapse of the traditional news models, just in different places.

This article by Laura J. Byerley was first published on the Moody College of Communication website on Feb. 12, 2014.