While Marxist and Feminist perspectives generally discuss media representations in terms of how and why they misrepresent particular groups, Baudrillard (1995) argues representations shouldn’t be considered in terms of whether something is fairly or unfairly represented; this follows because, he argues, how something is represented is its reality.
In this respect conventional approaches to understanding media representations suggest the media re-presents something like ‘news’ in a way that’s somehow different to the original event; ‘something happens’ that is then described (re-presented) to an audience. Conventionally, therefore, sociologists contrast ‘the real’ – the ‘thing’ that ‘happened’ – with its representation and examine the media to see if they can disentangle the real from the not real.
Baudrillard however argues “reality” is experienced differently depending on who you are, where you are and your source of information. Every audience, therefore, constructs its own version of reality and everything represented in the media is experienced as multiple realities, all of which – and none of which – are real; everything is simply a representation of something seen from different viewpoints. Thus, the ‘reality of anything’ can’t be found in any single definitive account or experience; that which we can “real”, therefore, has no definitive or essential features that distinguish it from how it is represented.
Rather, Baudrillard uses the term hyperreality to express how different narrative accounts interweave and conflict in an ever-changing pattern of representation-built-upon-representation until they form a ‘reality’ in themselves – something “more real than reality” since our knowledge of ‘reality’ is itself the product of different representations. Each reality, therefore, is constructed from the way individuals pick-and-choose different ideas to suit their own particular prejudices or beliefs. Baudrillard calls this process simulacra (‘representations that refer to other representations’) or simulations that are the reality they depict. For postmodernists, therefore, the idea of media representations as distortions of some hidden or obscured ‘reality’ ( ‘deep structures’) misses the point: the media don’t simply ‘mediate the message’ through representations; as McCluhan (1992) argues “they are the message”.
This idea is important in relation to something like the social construction of news since news reporting involves a representation of reality that Fiske (1987) calls the transparency fallacy – a rejection of the idea news reporting represents a neutral ‘window on the world’ that objectively reports events as they unfold. The world represented through the media is always and inevitably a reconstructed reality – one filtered through a media lens that is no more and no less objective than any other reality filter.
Postmodernists argue power, in terms of control over the production and distribution of information, is no longer concentrated within institutions. Rather, it exists within social networks where information is produced and consumed by the same people. Information flows between different points (nodes) within a network in such a way as to make it impossible to distinguish between producer and consumer. This idea challenges Marxist and Feminist notions of power as centred, on class and gender respectively, and the claim misrepresentations flow from this centred control of information. Lyotard (1984), for example, argues that in postmodernity there are “many centres” and “none of them hold” –
there are no definitive “centred realities” that contain the essential features of an event (“news”); rather, there are many competing interpretations of the meaning of events because in postmodernity there are many centres of information, each of which pumps-out different representations of categories like class, age, gender and ethnicity. Unlike in the past there are no dominant forms of representation because there are no dominant forms of media anymore. What we have, in a media-saturated society built on information structures and networks, is a series of shifting representations of these categories.
While postmodern approaches give a different perspective on media representations, critical evaluations focus on three areas:
Firstly, the extent to which producers and consumers converge is overstated; in terms of mainstream mass media, whether old or new, the distinction between producer and consumer is still important. This means how the media construct and represent social categories has far more currency than postmodernists allow.
Secondly, media diversity and audience literacy is overestimated; we still, for example, find a relatively narrow range of representations in the mainstream media sources used by very large audiences. The critical sophistication of new media audiences and their ability to separate out different sources of information is also questionable – conventional class and gender stereotypes, for example, still consistently reproduced in the world of new media.
Thirdly, the idea the media “is the reality it represents” is questioned by Strinati (1992); this view, he argues, gives too much significance to the media and ignores a wide range of other information sources – such as out interpersonal relationships – that have stronger claims to influence.