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Before trying to analyze the media, understanding what media is should be the first priority.

To understand what exactly the media is, it is first important to define the term “media.” Even more specifically, we want to know about the mass media. Although many different meanings and interpretations may exist for the term “mass media,” for our framework we can say that the mass media is a group that constructs messages with embedded values, and that disseminates those messages to a specific portion of the public in order to achieve a specific goal.

Let’s analyze this definition.

“A group” – When referring to the mass media as a “group,” it's to say that newspapers, movie studios, television networks, radio stations, and so called “media conglomerates” are all a part of this group of people and companies related to the collective we call “the media.”

Obviously, this group has evolved over the years. In the beginning of civilization, we only had the ability to transmit messages from person to person, through words in the form of stories and conversation. Later, humans developed written language and messages were recorded on some sort of surface. This method further evolved with the capability to copy written messages over and over again. In the twentieth century we began using electronic media. At first, radio was the electronic media of choice. This later evolved into television, and eventually into the internet.

“that constructs messages with embedded values” – The media do not only create messages, but they create messages with embedded values. As we will soon discover, it’s impossible to find any message in the media (or even with people we know personally) that doesn’t have a subjective bias. No part of the media is objective and unbiased, including the news media.

This part of the definition carries important information. If we know that all media messages have embedded values, this should immediately be a reason to analyze the media and criticize the message before accepting it. What if the embedded values in the media message do not match your embedded values? This is where problems of controversy arise.

Notice that the word “constructs” was used instead of a word such as “creates” or “produces.” The notion that media messages are constructed means that one or more persons made a conscious effort to build the message you’re viewing, listening to, or reading. For example, in a photograph, the photographer uses specific techniques to make her subject more emotionally engaging to the viewer.

“and that disseminates those messages” – In order for the media to be the media, and not someone’s own personal journal that no one else reads, the messages brought forth in the media must be disseminated. In other words, the messages created by journalists, television writers, film directors, and even musical artists must be put into society for consumption.

This part of the definition doesn’t limit media by the number of people able to view the disseminated message. For example, a large newspaper with a circulation of one million copies each day is as much a part of the mass media as a person who writes an internet blog with only five people reading it. Both methods use their intended medium to disseminate the message into society.

“to a specific portion of the public” – Since we know that media messages are constructed, and that they all have embedded values, it’s also important to know that the people and companies creating these messages target them to a specific part of the public. The most obvious example is a local newspaper. If you live in Wichita, Kansas, it’s very unlikely that you’ll be interested in news happening in Boulder, Colorado. Due to the proximity, the people and companies creating the messages know they should target the people most interested in reading their messages.

Proximity is only one method the media uses to target and segment its audience. As we’ll see, the media also segments based on ethnicity, nationality, religious beliefs, political beliefs, gender, class, and almost any other sub-culture you can think of.

Note: You can learn a lot more about this topic by buying our book, Practical Media Literacy: An essential guide to the critical thinking skills for our digital world. You would be supporting our work so that we can bring you more great resources.

An example of this extreme segmentation is in the world of magazines. The reason thousands of magazines are available for purchase, is because magazine publishers know there is a target market for each magazine. A target market is the specific portion of the public likely to be interested in the disseminated message, hence, this portion of the definition.

“in order to achieve a specific goal” – This last part of the definition is perhaps the most important of all. The media constructs a message, disseminates it into society, and targets specific people in order to achieve an end result. The end result is ultimately meant to sell you something: either a product or service, or an ideology.

As we’ll soon discover, the media is a business selling a product (the message), to a set of consumers (the audience). An example of the media’s intent to sell a product or service, is the commercials we watch between the segments of our favorite television shows. Those commercials have the intention of selling you a product or service. An example of the media’s intent to sell an ideology is the television show between the commercial segments. The television show appeals to your sensibilities and in turn it sells you a lifestyle.

Of course, as with all things, extremes do exist in the media’s attempts to sell a product or ideology. When an extremely biased media source tries to sell you a political ideology, it is considered propaganda.