Magazines As Informers. The Social Role of the American Consumer Magazines. A Blast from Mr. Magazine’s™ Past: Dissertation Entries Part 8April 17, 2015
In a country such as the United States, media critics claim that mass communication media should have a social responsibility toward the audience it is serving. In the case of magazines, for example, Roland Wolseley argues that they should have the obligation “to provide the people with a fair presentation of facts, with honestly held opinions, and with truthful advertising.” This obligation was obvious in the case of Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts where the court penalized the Saturday Evening Post for not taking more time in checking its story on coach Butts. The Magazine Advertising Bureau agreed that magazines have more obligations than other mass media because they “do not have the spot news function of either the newspaper or the radio. With the advent of television and its role in entertaining, magazines began to focus more on informing people about different matters that help them with their daily living. This new focus covered a broad base of information. Topics such as how to prepare food better, or to cope with rigors of living, or even how to survive a nuclear war, are but a few examples of this new focus.
Magazines as Informers
The role of magazines as informers is chiefly detected through the news they print, the meanings they give to events, and the descriptions used to identify those events. Benjamin M. Compaine divided this role of magazines into two parts: passive and active. The passive information, he said, is information intended for the reader’s entertainment or for his general knowledge. On the other hand, active information is intended for specific use. Compaine gave an example of each type. Passive information might be an article on the life of Billie Jean King, while active information might be an article on how to cure tennis elbow. Compaine also noted that the special interest consumer magazines deal with active information and that general interest consumer magazines deal with passive information.
Whether active or passive, the role of magazines as informers witnessed no basic change through the years. “There are just as many people who turn to magazines primarily for information,” the study found. “People regard magazines as an excellent way of keeping abreast of trends, keeping informed about new products, and securing information about individual and special interests and activities such as hobbies, decorating, family care, and fashion.”
John Tebbel went a step further in discussing the role of the magazine as informers. He said, “Among the consumer magazines, the informational function is preeminent, no matter what audience is being reached…We live in an Age of Information, and certainly magazines are the prime carriers of it.” Magazines carry information that is far different from that found in other media. This information, especially in the newsweeklies, has helped, according to John Hohenberg, to “fill an indefensible gap in the reporting of national and international affairs by less qualified daily newspapers of the nation and the bulletin-type coverage of radio and television.” This gap would only be filled by magazines in their roles as informers by offering the readers something quite different from that of newspaper or television information.
To put it in the words of Louis M. Lyons, then curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, this information should “give the readers something to chew on, to mull over, something to stir his imagination, to reflect about, not only to broaden his awareness of current issues but to lead him to consider matters that are not now and may never be current issues, but should engage the attention of the questing mind.”
The above information was written in 1983 and is taken from a portion of my dissertation when I was at the University of Missouri-Columbia where I obtained my doctorate in journalism. And while the majority of the material still holds true, things have changed drastically in some areas.
Magazines as Informers
While many facets of magazine media have changed drastically over the years, this is one area that has not. In fact, I still stand behind every word that I wrote in 1983 concerning magazines as informers.
The voices remain status quo as well. In 2015, the passive information exists and so does the active. Examples today of Compaine’s observation could be: passive – Reese Witherspoon on the January 2015 cover of Glamour, offering a look inside her personal life with the statement “I don’t do regret,” and active – February’s Muscle & Fitness, which compels you to ‘Pump up Your Gains with a Proven Workout.’
Magazines inform on many levels: political, epicurean, fashion and beauty, science, celebrity, health, fitness, and the list goes on and on. The words of Louis M. Lyons have never been truer than they are today, the information one finds within the covers of a magazine should “give the readers something to chew on, to mull over, something to stir his imagination, to reflect about, not only to broaden his awareness of current issues but to lead him to consider matters that are not now and may never be current issues, but should engage the attention of the questing mind.” And without a doubt, they do.
Next week Mr. Magazine™ begins the journey of The Commercial Role of magazines then in 1983, and now in 2015.
Until next week…stay ‘informed,’ pick up a magazine.