My Philosophy of Media Reception Studies

Along with my thoughts on the encoding-decoding-recoding model, what follows comes from my dissertation on gendered media engagings and describes how I consider the fundamental elements of media reception and audience studies.

What are media products?      

Media products are the technologies, channels and contents that constitute our understanding of what is ‘the media’. They are the items produced for the purposes of disseminating meaning in the form of information, whether or not it is deemed to be entertaining, from one person to other(s). All three aspects are necessary in order to transmit meaning from sender to receiver; that is, a media product exists as some combination of the three. Thus, for example, the media product Orange is the New Black is a specific content that exists only in the Netflix channel which utilizes online technology. When these three aspects converge, we can analyze them as ‘texts’ in that they are created by human beings to serve human beings and are thus imprinted with the meaning-making processes of human beings that can be decoded.

Media technologies are those structures developed to take advantage of current technologies for transmitting information. These technologies include, but are not limited to: novels; newspapers; magazines; comics; photography; telephony; cinema; radio; television; cable; computers; digital games; internet; cellular phones. Because technologies may harness a specific type of information transmission method (i.e. audio, video, print, image, virtual), or a combination of types (such as the World Wide Web), technologies will often develop to fulfill a particular type of need of the people and society, forming a niche that becomes part of its identity.

Media channels are utilizations of a specific technology in order to control the type of content transmitted. These channels are controlled by a single or organized producer, such that a certain space within the technology is being controlled to create a place within which the producer can transmit a specific type of content. Channels would include specific magazines (i.e. Redbook, Maxim, Playboy), specific newspapers (i.e. New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today), specific radio stations (local, national, global), specific television networks (i.e. BBC, NBC, CNN – also independents), and specific websites (i.e. AICN.com, Gamespot.com, MSN.com). Channels can also be conflated with the concept of ‘genres’, in that genres also provide structuring forces (i.e. generic conventions) to determine the make-up of the specific content.

Media contents are specific packaged information transmitted through a channel over some technology. They are the items people ultimately engage with on the everyday level. Contents are influenced by the structuring of the channels and the technologies that they exist in and on, such that the same information transmitted through another path would in some way be different due to the constraints and cues of the technology and the channel. Thus, the terms for contents reflect the channel/technology combination which structures the content – that is, the type of transmission method: letter; photo; ad; strip; article; story; song; game; show; movie; book.

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A media product is thus any specific instance of a confluence of these aspects. How these aspects come together can impact the nature of the media product and thus the engaging with it. For example, the film Guardians of the Galaxy can be seen as a media product that exists at the confluence of digital film + movie theatre exhibition + specific story. However, the technology and channel can change, such as if the film is being illegally downloaded, is being watched on BluRay or DVD, is being streamed via Netflix, is being exhibited on a big screen television, is being exhibited on a smartphone, etc. While the content of the film remains the same, the experience of engaging with it will change depending on the technology + channel being used to watch it.

Similarly, the content can be impacted through a process of adaptation. A story, the characters, the theme, the setting, and so forth could need to be modified given the technology and/or channel being used to produce, distribute, and exhibit the content. Thus, for example, the story and characters of Guardians of the Galaxy are different in the comics books of their origin than in the film that is the adaptation of those comics. The affordances and constraints of being a film impacts the content, which has an effect on how the content is received, engaged with, and made sense of.

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Media engagings, then, can be influenced by the nature of the media product the individual watches, listens to, reads, plays, and so forth.

What are media engagings?   

The term media engaging is being used here instead of “media use” due to the varying applications of the term “use” in describing the activities that constitute a person’s encounter with a media product. The term “use” has been applied both as a measurement of exposure and a description of the reason for the encounter. As a measurement, use is a quantitative variable, implying an interest in how frequently and with what type of media encounter a person has. As a description, use is a qualitative variable, applied to understand what purpose the person has for the encounter. Naturally, these two conceptualizations overlap, with the reasons a person has for the encounter related to the frequency of exposure to that media product.

However, use excludes other aspects of a media encounter that are potentially relevant in understanding the relationship between reasons for and frequency of use. In both the qualitative and quantitative use of the term, use refers to the selecting or the utilizing of the media product, although more focus has been on the reasons for and frequency of selectings. What is excluded is the interpreting of the media product by the individual. And yet the way in which the media product is interpretively received and made sense of can stand as a mediator or moderator between the selecting and utilizing. To reintegrate this aspect of an encounter, I have decided to focus on the term “media engaging” instead of “media use” to discuss the processes that constitute an encounter with a media product.

The other purpose in focusing on the term media engaging is to emphasize how any encounter with a media product is a series of actions that include internal and external behaviors (from thinking, feeling, to acting) and occur within certain time- and space-based contexts, or situations. Researching a media engaging requires understanding a number of different factors that are holistically tallied to determine the nature of the media engaging. These factors include the features of the media product, the individual’s personal preferences and interpretive stance, the sociocultural environment, and the situation of the encounter. Any of these factors may cue or constrain the selecting, interpreting, and utilizing of the media product.

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What are the whats, hows and whys of media engagings?    

Media studies typically focus on the whats of engaging — who, when, where, what — over the hows and whys of the engaging. “Whats” are concerned with identifiable features of the media engaging: who is the nature of the person; when is the temporal nature of the engaging, be it singular or plural; where is the spatial nature of the engaging; and what is the nature of the media products being engaged. Questions of on “how” and “why” are focused on actions, on the processes that occur within media engagings: how is the means by which some aspect of the engaging came to be, while why is the reason that aspect came to be. The answer to either hows or whys may be some material condition, but it is the interpretation of that condition that produces some performative act.

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For example, consider the situation of a person watching the film Guardians of the Galaxy in a packed movie theatre on opening night. The whats would be the media product of the film and the context of the theatre, the who would be the individual and the others who constitute the audience, the when is the particular time of the show, and the where is the location of the showing. All of these questions may be of particular interest to the movie studio who produced the film, as it helps them to understand the popularity of their media product.

However, we can look deeper still into this media engaging by considering the hows and the whys. The hows could describe the means by which the person choose this film and this particular showing, while the whys could explain the reasons behind these choices. We could go deeper still. The hows could help us understand the interpretation the person is making of the experience, how he or she understands what is occurring in the experience. The whys could help us understand why the person understands the experience as he or she does. And we could go deeper still. The first pair of hows and whys listed here could be said to bed the purview of “uses and gratifications” while the second pair is more the concern of reception studies that consider media interpretation and appropriation.

Media uses and effects studies and critical/cultural approaches have historically been more concerned with the whats than the whys and hows, although the rise of seeing media users as active has brought more focus to the hows and whys. The more control the individual media user has over the whats of the engaging process, then the more important it is to understand the more interpretive sense-making of the individual’s media engaging to understand how they lead to the performative acts.

Asking people to speak about their average media use mostly provides information about the whats, as the nature of the media engaging may be the least to change across time and space. Even if the focus is on whys, such as with uses and gratifications, oftentimes the results are a garbled collection of whys that can be seen as a reason why researchers have trouble creating a standard typology of gratifications.

Research that looks into hows typically does so in hypothetical or laboratory conditions, which may be unlike that person’s normal media use and therefore dissimilar to their everyday processing of media information.

Research into any of these questions must be focused on discerning patterns from situated experiences, either as they happen or as they are recalled, to discover the truth of the person’s experience engaging with that media product. Thus, to understand any aspect of a media engaging, a researcher must be approach the interpretive and situated perspective of the individual, whether that individual is brought into the artificiality of the experimental laboratory or is approached in the looseness of the field.

What are moment-by-moment processes of media engagings?

With his background in phenomenology, Roman Ingarden developed the idea that texts contain points of indeterminacy, or gaps, where the reader has to supply his or her own information in order to “see” what the text is “saying”. These gaps, or sense-making instances of the engaging process, could also be filled in a variety of ways because they are reliant on what the reader brings to the text, such that the same reader may engage with the same text differently if the first time he was happy and the second time he was sad. Wolfgang Iser adopted Ingarden’s gaps to explain how the reader moves through a text; a reader has a “wandering viewpoint” and use what the text has provided to construct expectations for what will come, thereby creating a true “page turner”. Iser argued that the placement of the gaps was strategic, so as to manipulate the way in which reader had to fill them to move on. While these theories were developed specifically for literary texts, film studies and reception studies scholars have adopted the idea of “gap-filling” to explain the role of the spectator in constructing the film’s meaning.

The sense-making instances being focused on here could be the moment-by-moment reception of a media product as discussed by these reception theorists. This approach help informed my minutia reception studies approach to measuring media engagings. In this approach, the sense-making instances occur as the individual attempts to make sense of, understand, connect to the media product. Such measurement best occurs as the person engages with the media product, so as to understand the experience as it unfolds.

However, a focus on sense-making instances comes from the concept of the individual dealing with gaps in life, as discussed by Brenda Dervin in her Sense-Making Methodology. In this approach, a focus on measuring sense-making instances is employed to understand how the individual sees the media product being involved in his or her life at the time – that is, in the situation that individual is enmeshed in and that the media product has some role. Just as a person’s experience with a particular media product is not an aggregate, occurring over various instances of space/time, so too is the situation being faced not an aggregate of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Instead, as the person moves through the situation, a series of interpretive/performative acts are required. Each interpretive/performative act constitutes a sense-making instance of that engaging process.

Whichever approach taken, an analysis of the process allows for the comparison of each individual’s unique engaging not on the aggregate level but on the level of the sense-making instances as they occurred within situations of engaging with media products. The analysis allows the researcher to understand how the individual brings into the engaging a set of evaluative criteria as the why that determines how they engage, which is connected to what is their holistically constructed reception of the product.

Thus, in order to understand the reception of a media product, a media engaging must be studied as it occurs or as it is recalled within a specific context. Thus, a media engaging must account for the nature of the media product, the interpretive stance of the individual, and the context within which the engaging occurs. Doing this, a media reception study can better answer the hows and whys in addition to the whats of a media engaging.

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