Pluralist explanations recognise a variety of different media representations of categories such as gender. They also emphasise the importance of the role of the audience in interpreting such representations – ideas that relate to two dominant themes in pluralist explanations – diversity and choice.
In terms of diversity, contemporary media and audiences are characterised more by their differences than their similarities; wide differences within categories like class, age, gender and ethnicity makes the Marxist approach of reading audience responses from media representations increasingly problematic. Diverse audiences make diverse choices about what, when and how they consume different media – which puts the audience in control, rather than being controlled by that media. These ideas are brought into even sharper focus through contemporary forms of new media that increase the range and diversity of choices available to individual consumers.
For pluralists, the media follow the market; audiences are given the types of representation they want. For example, the kind of overtly racist, sexist and homophobic representations once found in British sitcoms reflected a society largely tolerant of such things; contemporary audiences are less tolerant and this type of television programme no longer exists because it would be commercial suicide. Media diversity is encouraged by changing audience tastes and higher levels of economic competition for audience share.
In this respect, general representations of class, age, gender and ethnicity have undergone two important changes that flow from increased competition, audience and media diversity and choice. Firstly, for relatively undifferentiated mass audiences, there is now less tolerance of overtly sexist and racist representations; this stems partly from wider social and legal changes and partly from the way new media, such as Twitter, makes representations easier to police. Audiences can respond quickly and directly, through social media networks, to representations they find offensive.
Secondly, the development of digital media has lead to the development of niche programming. Minority groups can seek out media channels – from TV stations, through magazines to web sites – that reflect their personal tastes and interests. Diversity of access and consumption, therefore, widens the range of representations available to audiences who are able to pick and choose what they see, hear and read to match their own particular needs.
Pluralist approaches add an important dimension to our understanding of media representations by their insistence on seeing audiences as active participants in, rather than passive receivers of, media messages. This is significant because it starts to problematise the simple assumption that audiences passively consume whatever the media gives them – a position that is increasingly untenable in the digital age.
Critics, however, point to the idea the pluralists overstate both the separation of ownership and control and the power of audiences to determine media content. Although the Internet makes it more difficult for owners to control what their audience see, read and hear, old media often have far larger audiences than equivalent new media; they may also be trusted more by their audience, which makes them easier to manipulate.
Similarly, Collins (2002) argues competition does not automatically guarantee media diversity. Although a wider range of media products are now available, these products are owned by a relatively small number of global conglomerates; similar representations are presented in a range of different packages that merely give the impression of choice. In addition, where choice does exist it comes at a price. Those who can afford it get unlimited choice; those who can’t have to accept what they’re given.