The U.S. mass media were focused on sports, the lives of various celebrities, and a Congressman’s relationship with a missing staff member just before September 11. Then everything changed. A skyscraper complex, militant group, and distant country suddenly dominated mass media as people sought to understand what had occurred, what to make of passenger planes turned into missiles, and who to trust for credible information on terrorism.

That dramatic shift in media emphasis is an excellent recent example of how mass media help to shape our shifting concerns and beliefs. Why could we have been so concerned about celebrity lifestyles one week and so unconcerned the next? Why such a prior general disinterest in an already notorious terrorist group, and in festering Middle East countries and cultures? Why the sudden media shift from a Regularly-Criticized-President to an Esteemed-Leader-President?

This column will focus on mass media as an important cultural phenomenon that we must understand if our cognitive processes are to be informed but not unduly influenced by it. Next month’s column will focus on the techniques mass media use to shape and distort information and beliefs.

Dramatic advances in mass communication and transportation during the past 50 years have truly created a global village, a mass society. Things occurring anywhere are now quickly known everywhere. Mass media both overwhelm us with information, and help us to sort it out.

Mass media seek a broad audience for a typically narrow (and often biased) message that’s typically embedded in entertainment or useful information/opinion. Mass media communication is expensive, so it’s funded through participant admissions/subscriptions and contributions, or through sponsorships and advertising (or a combination of these funding sources). It thus must provide something sufficiently valuable to its potential audience to gain that necessary financial support.

The mass media have a slow news day problem. They have pages and time to fill, even when events are mundane. A common solution at such times is to focus on sports and the lives of celebrities (people who are well known for their well-knownness, as Andy Warhol once put it), or to take something relatively trivial and expand it into something important. Think back to the pre-September 11 focus.

Mass media encompass much more than print and electronic forms of communication (such as magazines and television). Sporting events, churches, museums, theme parks, political campaigns, catalogs, and concerts are also forms of mass media, although many people consider them to be something other than mass media.

The U.S. Constitution underscores the importance of the open communication of information and opinion in our democratic society by granting considerable self-direction to the various forms of mass media. A marketplace mentality suggests that useful information and opinions will spread, and the useless will disappear. A free-speech society can thus tolerate instances of false information, stupidity, and vulgarity – assuming them to be a temporary irritant.

Mass media are very competitive. Folks today have many options about the TV and films they watch, the books and magazines they read, the cultural and religious institutions they attend. The challenge for a media program is to get and hold the attention of mass media shoppers — who are channel surfing, browsing at a bookstore, checking out various churches.

In a stimulating competitive environment, a media program must score quickly. Since you’re still reading this column, the title and opening paragraph must have sufficiently caught your attention so you continued. Emotional arousal drives attention, which drives learning and conscious behavior – so it’s important for mass media programmers to understand and present content that will emotionally arouse potential participants.

Our basic biological challenge is to survive and get into the gene pool, so avoiding danger and taking advantage of opportunities for eating/shelter/mating are cognitively important. Events related to these needs are inherently emotionally arousing, and successful mass media programmers understand this.

People complain about the amount of violence, sexuality, and commercialism in mass media, but let’s look at the issue from a TV programmer’s perspective. Channel surfers will give a TV program only a few seconds before moving to the next channel, so programmers focus on content sequences with a high probability for emotional arousal – and program content and commercials related to violence, sexuality, and food/shelter do attract and hold attention. Consider the recent media focus on terrorist violence, the Taliban treatment of women, the food/shelter problems now facing the families of those killed and Afghani refugees — and the resultant widespread outpouring of anger and support.

Similarly, other forms of mass media, from churches to sporting events explicitly or implicitly include these attention-getters in their programming (consider hell-and-brimstone and sexual purity sermons and the appeal of church suppers; or football violence, cheerleaders, and drinks-and-chips).

Mass media thus exploit areas of strong emotional arousal to help shape our knowledge and opinions – such as with our rapid media-driven increase in knowledge of the terrorists and their victims. Osama bin Laden had previously been a peripheral media figure. The several thousands victims had been invisible office workers until many newspapers published a series of anecdotal obituaries of all of them. Police and firefighters across the country were suddenly elevated in esteem – as was New York’s mayor, severely criticized prior to September 11. A nation already beset by a financial downturn had to become emotionally aroused to respond. Charities similarly use examples of a few individuals in desperate straits to encourage contributions for a much broader assistance program.

Given such manipulative potential over our affective processes, it’s important to know who determines the content of mass media. A relatively small number of large corporations control much of our nation’s print and electronic media (newspapers, publishing houses, radio/TV stations, cable systems, etc.). Further, a relatively small number of media stars reach vast audiences – syndicated newspaper columnists and cartoonists, radio and TV talk show hosts, late night TV comedians. On the other hand, most newspapers include editorial columnists who disagree with each other, and the Sunday morning political TV shows are characterized more by argument than agreement. A major media organization that defines itself too narrowly risks reaching a limited audience when they need a massive audience to survive – so this financial reality forces at least some balance in programming.

Magazines and radio stations are perhaps the most successful narrowly defined mass media formats – typically being upfront about seeking an audience who shares their narrow perspective (e.g., Rolling Stone, Gourmet, Ms., The Christian Century, Sports Illustrated – golden oldies, jazz, classical, rock music radio stations).

The Computer Age has revolutionized mass media. The Internet allows the universal inexpensive publication of ideas, whether it’s an email message sent to everyone on one’s list or a narrowly-defined website that’s available to anyone. Desktop publication and advances in duplicating technology have reduced the need for authors to go through a publisher.

So it’s a cultural paradox. We’re simultaneously experiencing the centralization of influence in corporate mass media and the rapid expansion of populist mass media. Both pose dangers and opportunities that we’ll explore in the next column.