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Context of Media Communications

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 5989 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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Interpretation of findings:

The findings of the reception analysis indicate that audience interpretation of messages is a complex multitudinous process shaped by several factors. Furthermore, the findings demonstrate how social contexts and campaign design influence message reception mediating how the audience decode and actively negotiate meanings. This suggests that the process of media communication is far more convoluted than the simple transmission of a media text absorbed by a passive audience. Similarly, there is evidence to suggest that attempts to increase the public participation in recycling activities goes beyond a 1-way ‘information only’ model of communication. Understanding the contexts in which media messages are used are critical to the use of communication campaign as a resource for behaviour change and social action. (Hall, 1999)

Encoding & Decoding of messages:

The difference between the encoded and decoded campaign messages reflect key aspects of Hall’s (1974) encoding/decoding model and offer insights into understanding campaign design, societal contexts and audience expectations for communication. The findings suggest that there is some distance between the intended messages and those decoded by the audience. A possible explanation for the differences lies in the differing contexts between message production and audience reception. As Hall Hall, et al. (1980) contends:

The production process is not without its ‘discursive’ aspect: it, too, is framed throughout by meanings and ideas: knowledge-in-use concerning the routines of production, historically defined technical skills, professional ideologies, institutional knowledge, definitions and assumptions about the audience (p.129).

In like manner, (Burgess 1990, p.143) argues that the production and consumption of media text is not a ‘simplistic causal stimulus and response’ but ‘a function of a complex environment, that of personality, of the family, of the neighbourhood, of work, of ideology’ (Silverstone, 1985 in Burgess, 1990, p143). Similarly, the findings illuminate the complexities of the audience and how their social contexts underpin how they decoded the messages. As Hall (1999 in Johnson, et al., 2009, p. 533) argues ‘decoding does not follow inevitably from encoding, and that messages are not simply “misunderstood.” Whilst the focus group testimonies indicate the campaign successfully served as a conduit for disseminating recycling information they opted to interpret messages of empowerment, sustainability and behavioural change differently.

There was evidence of ‘conceptual noise’ in their testimonies and reception process. Additionally, the negotiated and oppositional positions adopted by the participants may point a rejection of the campaign as a symbol of the interaction of wider social and political factors at play in participants lives and experiences. As Johnson, et al. (2009) posits:

Encoding of meaning by a producer and the subsequent decoding by an audience are conceptualized as linked but distinctive occurrences, wherein each of those processes is informed by a set of knowledge frameworks, operative meaning structures, language codes, and technical infrastructures within the social domain (p. 533).

The encoding of sustainability, behavioural change and empowerment as part of a basic information only approach may have impacted how the audience decoding messages for several reasons outlined below.

  • Audience:

The campaign’s positioning of the audience as passive recipients of meaning fails to acknowledge that message interpretation is embedded in an individual’s personal experiences and their views of the world (Sullivan, 2013). Focus group testimonies suggest that the process of media communication is far more complex than the one-way flow of messages assimilated by a passive audience (Finlay & Faulkner, 2005). Additionally, the findings indicate that the audience can decode messages using a range of insightful proficiencies embedded in the context of wider social issues. Studies have found that that the ability of the audience to ascribe to a variety of message interpretations is ignored by the passive positioning of them as ‘uninformed and in need of a correction’ (Lupton (1995), Seale (2002) in Johnson, et al., 2009, p. 533). On this basis the importance of understanding audience complexities is imperative for future campaign strategies and design. (Thomas & Sharp  2013, p.13) contend that is vital that recycling schemes are designed with a knowledge of householders ‘habits, social practices, institutional constraints and other influencing psychological factors’. Similarly, Shove (2010 in Thomas & Sharp, 2013, p. 12) also calls for an understanding of social contexts and socio technical systems as opposed to focusing solely on the individual.


  • One-way ‘information only’ model of communication

The one-way communication model adopted as part of the campaign may point to why the encoded and decoded campaign meanings differed. There is evidence that the top-down communication approach failed to incorporate several contextual factors that shaped audience reception of the campaign messages. Correspondingly, numerous reception studies of health communication campaigns also identified that the one-way communication model fails to adequately theorise how audiences may interpret, read or decode messages (Johnson, et al., 2009). In addition, Dutta-Bergman, (2009) argues that the role of context in audience reception is absent from a dominant communication approach. 

Furthermore, the basic information only approach may explain participants partial commitment to behavioural change as the campaign did not connect with their communication needs or expectations. In light of this, future campaign designs must consider the limitations and consequences of adopting a linear communication approach and the potential for limited exposure and message processing if social contexts are ignored (Dutta-Bergman (2004), Hadi (2001) in Dutta-Bergman, 2009, p. 112).This is consistent with a study of household participation rates conducted by Reams & Ray (1993) who found that a general information only approach was not effective in driving recycling commitment, reporting that residents favoured more direct and personal contact.

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Additionally, research undertaken by (Kaplowitz & Wilson, 2009) indicated that no single communication approach can effectively produce the desired outcome, concluding that one size does not fit all, arguing that ‘proposed publicity approaches should therefore differentiate their mode based on the target audiences’. The importance of understanding audience requirements for message is highlighted by Rice & Atkin (2013, p.12) who argue that “message efficiency can be improved if subsets of the audience are prioritized according to their centrality in attaining the campaign’s objectives as well as receptivity to being influenced’.

  • Contextual noise in the reception process

The simple transmission of information to the audience was complicated by several social factors during audience decoding of messages.

  • Power & Trust:

The findings suggest that the participants perceived a power struggle between them and the campaign and/or government ‘telling them what to do’. The conceptualisation of the campaign as a top down approach may have reinforced the power relations discussed by participants during the focus group. The participants difficulties with blame and being singled out point as responsibility to address recycling practices are consistent with Hall (1974) notion of ‘distortions’ or ‘misunderstandings’ which he argues is due to inequality between sides in the communication process. In addition, Brulle (2010, p. 89) argues that ‘individual citizens are treated as objects of manipulation and control’ in linear models of communication which ‘undermines the creation of a democratic process of change’

Burgess (1990) argues that media text can be interwoven with social structures the public perceives as exerting power over them. Furthermore, a study on environmental attitudes and behaviour: undertaken by (Davies, et al., 2005) found that a top-down model of communication from government to communities may be inimical. Consequently, the negotiated or oppositional readings of the campaign messages may be a subconscious attempt to oppose the prevailing social relations of power. This consistent with Griffin & Foss, (1995 in Dutta-Bergman, 2009, p. 3) who espouse that persuasive campaigns are based on a “desire for control and domination, for the act of changing establishes the power of the change agent over that other”.  Furthermore Wilkins & Mody (2001, p. 393) argue that those with power can “select and frame social conditions and groups as problematic, legitimizing particular approaches to their resolution and not others”.

The participants difficulty with the power relations and lack of trust in the integrity of the message, messenger and wider stakeholder’s intentions may have influenced their interpretation of the campaigns messages, challenging the adoption of improved recycling behaviour. As Hall (1980) contends that there are differing structural positioning of the encoder and decoder in society and that although encoded text is powerful, he allows for the possibility that audiences can resist this power (Livingstone, 2005). This is consistent with a study undertaken by (Davies, et al. (2005) who found that attempts efforts to modify waste management behaviour are likely to be ineffective when the information source is perceived to be ‘tainted’.

Moreover, previous studies have found that more trust can be developed through face-to-face communication Magette & Purcell (2011) ,Nixon & Saphores, (2009). Similarly, Tucker & Speirs (2002) found that face-to-face communication tended to work better. Participants expectation for a personal connection to the campaign message is consistent with studies undertaken by Tucker & Speirs (2002) who found that direct personally relevant messages were more effective in gaining pledges to participate and that a general information only approach to promotion was ineffective in changing behaviour (Reams & Ray, 1993).

  • Recognition

Rice & Atkin (2013) argue that individuals positively predisposed are strongly impacted campaign messages ‘via triggering or reinforcement’. However, the findings indicate that recognition of the campaign was minimal across all focus groups despite all participants claiming they were ‘recyclers’, albeit to varying degrees. This was most notable in participants self-reporting as medium recyclers and arguably dispositioned favourably. The findings are at odds with the theory of selective exposure in which ‘individuals selectively orient their attention to those stimuli in their environments that match their existing predispositions, values, and behaviours’ (Dutta-Bergman, 2009). The lack of recognition may be related to several factors related to the design (Evison & Read, 2001), failure of the campaign  to be ‘appropriated as a meaningful discourse and be meaningfully decoded’ (Hall, 1980, p. 130) and those with strong habits taking little account of new or contextual information (Verplanken & Aarts , 1999). Nevertheless, the effectiveness of a message can be advanced ‘if subsets of the audience are prioritized according to their centrality in attaining the campaign’s objectives as well as receptivity to being influenced’ (Rice & Atkin 2013, p. )

Therefore, campaign design and approaches must reflect the social and audience complexities in their development. This position is consistent with a reception study undertaken by (Finlay & Faulkner, 2005) who argues:

The act of consumption is constitutive of both the audience and the social construction of the media message. Understanding the success of a media campaign is more than just judging an audiences’ ability to recall a message or to effect short-term changes in behaviour.  We need to begin to understand the contexts in which media messages are used (e.g., conversations, coaching, teaching), the audiences’ interpretations of specific media discourses and the way in which media messages become embedded and used as a resource for action (p. 128)

  • An absence of ‘why’ they had to do it

The absence of ‘why’ householders should recycle in accordance with the recycling list was a limiting factor for participants during their reception and identifies that the campaign did not meet their informational needs. However, the importance of a connection from recycling practice to a reduction environmental damage by participants points to a cognisance that their behaviours can impact the environment. This aligns with Rice & Atkin (2013, p.9) position that persuasion appeals, ‘why the audience should adopt the advocated action or avoid the proscribed behaviour’ should be the fundamental part of a campaign. Furthermore, educating people on why they are adopting activities has been shown to result in positive behaviours (Magette & Purcell, 2011) An understanding of the predisposition and current inclinations of an audience can also lead to improved campaign impact (Mee & Clewes, 2004).

Likewise, the emotional disconnection reported by the participants to the campaign messages may also have impacted the way participants negotiated the campaign’s call to action. As Edell & Burke (1987) found that consumers evaluations of a brand and an advertisements ability to influence attitude is related to the feelings conveyed by an ad. The absence of an emotional connection may also have isolated participants from an inclusive approach to recycling they clearly sought. This is consistent with Brulle, (2010, p. 89) who reports that linear communication models can ‘inhibits the development of a collective community consciousness and mobilization’.

I t would appear that the creation of a scientifically better informed public will have

complex consequences. Given that the attitudes of the well informed may be more

firmly held than those of the less well informed, we may expect growing resistance to

particular aspects of science From particular sections or society.

Pieters, R. (1991) ‘Changing Garbage Disposal Patterns of Consumers: Motivation,

Ability and Performance’, Journal of Public Policy and Marketing 10: 59–76.

  • Behavioural Change

Despite previous studies indicating that knowledge of how to recycle was a significant contributor to recycling behaviour (Tonglet, et al., 2004) (Hornik, et al., 1995) (Sujauddin, et al., 2008) , there minimal evidence of behavioural change from focus group testimonies. This points to an obvious gap between audience knowledge and improved recycling activity. Previous research undertaken by (Davies, et al., 2002)Steg & Vlek, (2009) indicate that that behaviour change is hardly ever possible with information campaigns and requisite knowledge  does not signify that an individual will recycle (Davies, et al., 2002).  However, Steg & Vlek, 2009, p. 313 claim that a more tailored social marketing approach is a promising communication strategy for behaviour change in which ‘information is tailored to the needs, wants and perceived barriers of individual segments of the population’.

Moreover, scholars concern about the lack of effectiveness of previous campaigns are based on the abundance of information already circulating in an information-rich society (Davies, et al., 2005). In addition, increasing knowledge with an information approach lacks a sophisticated approach to drive more sustainable behaviours. As Jackson (2005, xii) states:

Pro-environmental behaviour change requires a more sophisticated policy approach. A concerted strategy is needed to make behaviour change easy: ensuring that incentive structures and institutional rules favour pro-environmental behaviour, enabling access to pro-environmental choices [and] engaging in initiatives to help themselves.

  • Interpersonal Context

Focus group testimonies indicate a need for campaigns to digress from the dominant individualistic appeals to an approach that incorporates activities at a collective level. The conceptualisation of an individualistic campaign approach lacked a cognisance of the wider social fabric that recycling is embedded in. Similar findings were found from a critical analysis of the theoretical, methodological, and practical issues in health communication campaign scholarship undertaken by Dutta-Bergman (2009). The study found campaigns ‘individualistic’ and ‘ignore the context within which communicative meanings are constructed and negotiated’ (ibid, p.106). Furthermore, an article published by Hargreaves (2011, p.11) refers to evidence that social marketing techniques ‘are excessively individualistic and fail to appreciate the ways in which, variously, social relations, material infrastructures and context are intrinsic to the performance of social practices’.

However, the finding that communication campaign created the space for dialogue interpersonally once more highlights not only the ‘highly contextualized nature of media consumption’ but provides useful insight into ‘interpenetration of the intrapersonal, interpersonal, mediated, group, and community levels of communication’ (Dutta-Bergman 2009, p.111). Similarly, previous studies highlight the benefits of the infusion information into society finding that interpersonal contexts can drive conversations about media programs (Valente, et al., 1996 in Dutta-Bergman, 2009). Thus, the penetration of information at a collective level is an important requisite for sustainable behavioural change as campaigns can be strengthened with a community approach by drawing on capacities, harnessing stakeholder cooperation, collaboration and public participation (Rice & Atkin, 2013)

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Participants calls for a collective approach to recycling and behavioural change provides an opportunity for participants to drive change at society level over individual level for several reasons. There is evidence that collective and interpersonal communication approach spur behaviours by motivating individuals to engage as part of a broader collective (Triandis, 1994) , obtain greater impact by targeting (Evison & Read, 2001) those who can socially influence others (Rice & Atkin, 2013) and develop collective efficacy to mobilise social change (Bandura, 1995).  Moreover, the lack of empowerment as reported by participants could also be addressed through their suggested collective approach. This concurs with White, et al. (2009, p.154) who concluded that ‘social influence emanates from the attitudinal and behavioural characteristics of a psychologically relevant reference group rather than from the perceived pressure from other individuals’.

As evidenced in the focus group discussions, the intellectual capacities and ability of participants to present solutions for waste management issues also underscores the benefits of a collective approach. 

Similarly, a community-level change strategy and interpersonal interactions is consistent with (Dutta-Bergman (2009, p.108) position that these approaches serve ‘conduits for identifying the problem in the sociocultural environment’ and ‘enhanced collective efficacy’. Additionally, the inability of the current campaign to carry currency with the audience demonstrates the importance for environmental promotion to construct messages and design campaigns in a manner needed by the audience. This is consistent with a study undertaken by Evison and Read (2001) who report that participation rates will continue to remain low if LA awareness and promotion campaigns are poorly designed.


Unexpected findings:

There was evidence that participants practiced selective recycling at various points. Admission by focus group members revealed that whilst segregation of glass bottles from their other waste material was practiced in a domestic and public (recycling centre) setting, at certain points in time this practice did not extend to the segregation of waste for disposal and recycling i.e. they continued to mix waste streams. There was also evidence of different recycling efforts in work and at home. One participant revealed that whilst she would drive to the recycling centre with one glass bottle (wine) she would not segregate smaller glass items from her general waste bin and would mingle the waste. This suggests that whilst there is merit, as set in the proceeding sections, in a shift from an individualistic to collective approach there must remain on onus on participants to maintain a sense of responsibility as a part of the collective agency. A sense of personal moral responsibility is consistent with other studies (Tucker & Speirs, 2002) (Davies et al., 2002) that residents should accept personal moral responsibility for waste.

The implementation of a such a message in an already complex process remains a challenge for campaign design.


Conclusion & Recommendations: (act local – think global)

Previous studies proclaim the importance of smart and integrated communications to change behaviours

(Tucker and Speirs, 2002) (Evison and Read, 2001). Conversely, it appears that an ‘information only’ approach is not the panacea to adopt more sustainable behaviours. Moreover, an approach of this type fails to acknowledge the intended audience, their social contexts or their experiences. As Orr (2002) succinctly described: ‘Sustainability, in short, is constituted by a series of public choices that require effective institutions of governance and a well-informed, democratically engaged citizenry’’ (p. 1459). The inclusion of a democratically engaged public is not supported by the existing one-way information communication model in Irelands Recycling List campaign.

Therefore, the use of this communication models needs to fundamentally change with an application of a bottom-up approach that puts the community at the centre of decision making (Narayan & Petesch, 2002; Nyamwaya, 2003). As evidenced in the study’s findings the audience has a wealth of local knowledge, interest and innovative ideas that can be harnessed to implement not only public communication campaigns but also environmental policy. As Davies, et al., (2005, p. 67) states:

As experts of their own experiences householders should play an active part in waste management policy making. Two-way channels for information flows about waste management would enable such communication between communities, householders and waste service providers.

Furthermore, public involvement in decision making can also build credibility and trust (Garnett, et al., 2017). Despite concerns that involving too many perspectives in an issue may prove problematic the solution lies in a context dependent and ‘fit-for-purpose’ approach for engagement (ibid). The implementation of a comprehensive communications protocol has been found to ‘clarify the remit for public involvement and allow local authorities to control the process, imposing a flexible time frame for public engagement activities’ (Garnett and Cooper, 2014 in Garnett, et al., 2017, p.220).

Recommendation: No. 1

Conduct a pilot study to examine suitable context dependent public engagement activities to create two-way communication initiatives that involve the public.

  1. for waste management activities

Recommendation: No. 2

Develop and implement monitoring and evaluation criteria for communication campaigns identifying clear targets and metrics for success.

Recommendation: No. 3

Develop and implement a communications protocol and formalised planning cycle for public sector environmental communication programmes.

Recommendation: No. 4

Publish evaluation findings as part of formal campaign close out to increase transparency and to communicate success against targets and metrics.

Figure 1: Suggested Communication Planning Cycle (Zero Waste Scotland, 2012)

Directions for future research:

There findings of this study offer a stepping stone to future directions and possibilities to develop an encoding/decoding model specifically for communication campaigns. Although Hall’s (1974) model acknowledges the importance of social contexts in audience reception the impact of an individual’s emotional state is not factored into the decoding process. In cases where trust and credibility of the message and wider policy makers is so important, the ability to incorporate an individual’s emotional disposition in the decoding process would prove indispensable for campaign strategies and design. Furthermore, the practice of selective recycling by the public is another possible area for future research. Gaining insight into why some materials are recycled and others aren’t or why recycling is undertaken at certain times and not others would provide invaluable information for policy-makers, waste management planning and future development of waste infrastructure.

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