Now that we’ve acknowledged that audiences can interpret the media in a number of ways for themselves, we can continue to examine viewership as individuals with agency and thoughts about the information they receive. This is what Ien Ang does in her essay “Politics of Empirical Audience Research.” In her writing, the cultural studies professor expands on David Morley’s research in his book The “Nationwide” Audience. Instead of taking a look at how audiences are participating with the media in a solely quantitative method, she argues for the necessity of a more ethnographic approach. The importance of analyzing media audiences is to foster “an ongoing critical and intellectual engagement with the multifarious ways in which we constitute ourselves through media consumption.” Here, she makes the distinction between administrative social research, which uses data to serve the function of the system’s institutional practices, and critical social research, which is more analytical in the system’s motives.
The problem with relying on measurements of audience engagement like Nielsen’s “people meter” is that a representative sample becomes the standard for the rest of the public. Additionally, the passive methods of collecting data from the participants in this manner reinforces a one-way line of communication about a certain issue, particularly when dealing with the media.
A study conducted by researchers at Columbia University showed that even in the music industry, perceived popularity by a sample group influenced the musical tastes of others outside of the group. The study involved two separate testing groups within a constructed “music market.” One group rated songs on a scale based on their own experience of listening to the songs, which didn’t include the names of the songs or artists. The second group could view both the first group’s ratings, as well as how many times each song was downloaded by others. Researchers found that the second group selected their musical preferences based more on the number of downloads and perceived popularity of their social influencers than the “quality” of the song that the first group designated. Here, a sample group shaped the decisions of others based primarily on quantified data. However, this didn’t actually encapsulate the quality of the product.
The same can be said for projects of popularity within political races, as discussed in a study called “Rhetorical Visions of Committed Voters: Fantasy Theme Analysis of a Large Sample Survey.” The researchers studied presidential campaign persuasion and media coverage in the 1980 election to see how it influenced voter results. Where they differed in other studies, however, is that their critical social research didn’t just rely on numbers to tell them why certain people reacted to events in a certain way. The group of researchers analyzed four rhetorical visions projected by groups of publicists through different media (TV, radio, print, etc.) and their efforts to change public consciousness relating to the presidential campaign. After seeing how these “fantasy themes” developed, researchers followed audience participation in receiving the campaign materials, in which voters “actively shared or rejected elements of the visions contained int he messages until they formed rhetorical communities with differing visions of the campaign.” Instead of merely observing how many people were affected by the candidate’s campaign materials, they actively noted how participants actually reacted, whether positively or negatively, and how that in turn affects voter turnout.
This kind of active study with audiences is what Ang argues is necessary to accurately determine how individuals react to the media they engage with. In only looking at the base numbers of a sample representative, media analysts cancel out variant views of their information, thereby reinforcing a dominant model of the majority.