Key Question #5: Why is this message being sent?

Core Concept #5: Media messages are organized to gain profit and/or power.

Keyword: Purpose

With Key Question #5, we look at the motive or purpose of a media message - and whether or how a message may have been influenced by money, ego or ideology. To respond to a message appropriately, we need to be able to see beyond the basic content motives of informing, persuading or entertaining.

Much of the world's media were developed as money making enterprises and continue to operate today as commercial businesses. Newspapers and magazines lay out their pages with ads first; the space remaining is devoted to news. Likewise, commercials are part and parcel of most TV watching. What many people do not know is that what's really being sold through commercial media is not just the advertised products to the audience-but also the audience to the advertisers!

The real purpose of the programs on television, or the articles in a magazine, is to create an audience (and put them in a receptive mood) so that the network or publisher can sell time or space to sponsors to advertise products. We call this "renting eyeballs." Sponsors pay for the time to show a commercial based on the number of people the network predicts will be watching. And they get a refund if the number of actual viewers turns out to be lower than promised. Exploring how media content, whether TV shows, magazines or Internet sites, makes viewers and readers of all ages receptive target audiences for advertisers creates some of the most enlightening moments in the media literacy classroom.

Examining the purpose of a message also uncovers issues of ownership and the structure and influence of media institutions in society. Commercially sponsored entertainment may be more tolerable to many people than, say, a commercial influence over the news. But with democracy at stake almost everywhere around the world, citizens in every country need to be equipped with the ability to determine both economic and ideological "spin."

But there's more. The issue of message motivation has changed dramatically since the Internet became an international platform through which groups and organizations - even individuals-have ready access to powerful tools that can persuade others to a particular point of view, whether positive or negative. The Internet provides multiple reasons for all users to be able to recognize propaganda, interpret rhetorical devices, verify sources and distinguish legitimate websites from bogus, hate or hoax websites.

Guiding Questions:

  • Who's in control of the creation and transmission of this message?
  • Why are they sending it? How do you know?
  • Who are they sending it to? How do you know?
  • What's being sold in this message? What's being told?
  • Who profits from this message? Who pays for it?
  • Who is served by or benefits from the message
    -- the public?
    -- private interests?
    -- individuals?
    -- institutions?
  • What economic decisions may have influenced the construction or transmission of this message?

from Five Key Questions that can Change the World