Chapter 8 and Podcast 8 from Superconnected

We say that something is an institution when it is foundational, functional, long-lasting, large-scale, systemic. It has been around a long time and it seems like it may always be. Social institutions provide a society with structure and order and give its members a framework within which to make their social connections and communities. They are so critical to helping a society (and its members) function that all societies “contain” some social institutions; mostly, the very same ones that we examine in this chapter: the family, business and the workplace, health care, religion, education, politics and governing, the criminal justice system, and the media. And each of these has been strongly influenced by technological developments over time, with the internet and digital media in particular playing a very strong role, which I why I call them the techno-social institutions.




This brief excerpt from the book focuses on the rapidly changing institution of “the media.”  The mass media, which include print media like newspapers, magazines, and books and electronic media like television, radio, and movies, are increasingly thought of, collectively, as constituting a social institution. In recent years, the internet and digital media have begun to be included among the mass media when the role of the media as a social institution is included.

While the government exerts substantial control over the mass and digital media in many countries worldwide, in democratic societies, the media institution is considered separate from the institution of governing. It is organized as a market, not a state, system, and is expected to be controlled and staffed by professionals who should seek to be accurate, impartial, and informative. While political power and the media intersect in different ways in different societies, American media and news reporting are often looked to, globally, as an example of the free and independent press. This independence has been compromised, though, by the media’s domination by a small number of conglomerates.

A conglomerate exists when a set of companies that may not necessarily be similar to one another are owned by the same larger company. This has happened with mass and digital media companies across the globe, as most of them have become owned by certain parent companies. In 1996, the Telecommunications Reform Act was passed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), allowing radio and television stations in different regions to be owned by the same company and paving the way for continued deregulation in which a relatively small number of corporations could own more and more media organizations.

At this writing, six corporations in the United States– Disney, Viacom, News Corp/20th Century Fox, Time Warner, Comcast, and CBS – act as conglomerates, controlling 90% of what is read, watched or listened to via the media. As recently as 1983, fifty countries owned the same percentage of television and radio stations, magazines, newspapers, movies studios, and the like. These media conglomerates even own some sports teams and theme parks. It has been estimated that 232 media executives control the information diet of 277 million Americans (that’s one media exec to 850,000 subscribers (Lutz 2012). In other countries, there is a similar concentration of the media in different corporations or, in some cases, political parties.

This concentrated consolidation of media ownership is often critiqued as detrimental to the free and open exchange of information so important to a democracy.  The potential exists for fewer points of view to be expressed as the dominant corporation sets standards of tone and content. It is also important to keep in mind that many media organizations are for-profit ones, with their main objective to make money, rather than to educate or to serve the public interest. Dominant points of view may not be contested and censorship can result as these corporations favor special interests and profits over newsworthiness. The quality and diversity of the information that is shared becomes, in effect, sacrificed for standardization, a charge often made in a globalized culture.

Journalism and and news dissemination have changed dramatically with the advent of the internet and digital technology, especially social media. Journalists and news organizations today work within a 24/7 news cycle. That is, they are expected to provide newsworthy information to a public around the clock. 24-hour cable news networks and online news sites are examples of this. While all-news radio stations have existed for decades, this relatively recent innovation in television (the first all-news cable network was CNN in 1980), transformed the process of news gathering and dissemination, since much more product is required to fill that much time and space. It is also endemic upon media outlets to entice viewers and readers to their product, as many of them are profit-making organizations that need audiences to survive.

In addition, the dissemination of news, once solely the task of journalistic entities, now increasingly takes place by people without journalistic training, resulting in the proliferation of media aggregation sites and even less formal information-oriented blogs. It can be quite difficult to ascertain the source and credibility of the information  found in these varied digital spaces. And as recently as 2012, nearly as many U.S. consumers have followed the news on such sites (29%) as on traditional news outlets (36%) Only about 10% of Americans turn to social media as their primary or sole news source, however (Mitchell, Rosensteil, and Christian 2012).

While many consumers of aggregated news appreciate the ease and convenience of obtaining a variety of sources of information in one place, the practice can be seen as exploitation – even theft — of the original work of others. It has also weakened traditional journalistic organizations and the industry as a while. In 2011, hundreds of U.S. newspapers ceased publication, while news aggregators were on the rise. Media diversity has been reduced, and misinformation can be easily amplified.

Digital and mass media have begun to assume some of the functions that other institutions have traditionally met. Via the media, people become educated, practice their religions, amass health and fitness information, elect candidates, follow and influence and become influenced by the practices of politicians and governments, and come together as families. These media are, therefore, a primary way that people learn about and come to understand how each of the other social institutions operate. And as we have seen in the U.S. presidential election of 2016 and the social media- (and Twitter-) fueled rise of Donald Trump, it is a powerful one indeed.

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