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Media in Minutes | VCE Media Edition | Agency and Control

‘Agency and Control in and of the media’, which I will refer to simply as ‘Agency and Control’, is the second area of study in VCE Media Unit 4. It looks at the complex relationship between media and audiences. It examines ideas of media influence, looks at how governments, institutions and individuals use the media; explores notions of regulation; and examines ethical and legal issues in media production, distribution, reception and consumption.

When it comes to Agency and Control, if it’s part of the outcome, it could be part of the exam…so familiarise yourself with the outcome by unpacking the key knowledge and key skills in the VCE Media Study Design. 

If you haven’t already, make sure you download a copy of the VCE Media Study Design from the VCAA website and print out the pages that relate to ‘Agency and Control’ so you can annotate it as we go along. 

Agency and Control is probably one of the most important areas of study in VCE Media. It examines the complex, evolving relationship between media and audiences. On average, people spend more time using media than doing anything else, including sleeping. In 2019, a global survey of 57 countries found that people spend an average of 479 minutes, or eight hours a day, using media. Thanks largely to social media this is predicted to increase. This area of study allows you to examine the role that media plays in our lives. It lets you interrogate the media’s power and influence. Can media influence our behaviour? Make us buy stuff? Or sway elections? This outcome also delves into the increased power and agency that audiences have. In the last two decades, thanks largely to Web 2.0, there has been an explosion of technology and platforms which give ordinary people the ability to create and spread their own media. You also get to discuss the social, ethical and regulatory issues that have accompanied these massive and unprecedented changes. 

The outcome starts with a statement acknowledging the complex relationship between media and audiences. The next few sentences discuss how these changes redefine the way academics and commentators conceptualise the nature of communication: “The media has always been considered to have the capacity to influence, but now the balance of power is shifting and arguments around who influences who have become highly contested. The media and its audiences are now both thought to exercise agency; the capacity to act and exert power.”

During the twentieth century, large media organisations exerted control over the production and distribution of media products. The equipment and infrastructure required to distribute media to a mass audience was expensive: television broadcasts, for example, required expensive broadcast towers. As Andreas Wittel notes, this meant that traditional media was “hierarchical, linear, with a control centre and one-way flow of media content from few producers to many recipients.”

Web 2.0 changed all of this. Social media and participatory platforms—such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitch—mean that audiences can now create and spread their own content. Although this technology has led to increased audience agency, remember that traditional and new media exist side-by-side, one hasn’t simply replaced the other. Indeed, some media theorists, contest how much agency audiences actually have on platforms owned and controlled by large media institutions. Keep in mind that there are also barriers to creating your own content which may include time, money and media literacy. Given these barriers, media theorists like Emma Keltie contend that what we end up with is little more than “provisional participation”. Ideas of audience agency and media control are complex and contested. 

The next paragraph discusses the changes caused by social media. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have given increased agency to audiences and led to “new modes of production, distribution, consumption and reception based on user-generated content.”

The preamble mentions how large media organisations, like Twitter and Facebook, harvest and monetize the data they collect about audiences. 

The final paragraph looks at the challenges that these new forms of media pose for regulation. 

Now onto the key knowledge and key skills. The key knowledge is all the stuff you’ll need to know when you’ve finished studying this outcome. You will notice similarities between the key knowledge and key skills. In this video, we’ll read through the key knowledge, then delve into the key skills in a little more detail. 

By the time you finish studying ‘Agency and Control’ you are expected to know about:

• the dynamic and changing relationship between the media and its audience

• the influence of both the media and audience

• the way media is used by globalised media institutions, governments and the individual

• the rationale for regulating the relationships between the media and its audience in Australia

• the issues and challenges relating to regulation and control of the media

• ethical and legal issues in the production, distribution, consumption and reception of media products

• media language.

Now let’s delve a little deeper into what you’re expected to do by examining the key skills. 

The first dot point in key skills asks you to discuss the dynamic and changing relationship between media and audiences. In my class, we unpack this by discussing changing modes of production, distribution, reception and consumption. The rise of Web 2.0 means that audiences have increased opportunities to produce their own media. Armed with little more than a cell phone, you can create content that can potentially be shared with millions of people. Platforms like YouTube, Wikipedia, Twitch, Twitter and Instagram are testament to the increased agency and power of audiences. Nevertheless, established and emerging media organizations continue to wield significant power and influence. Indeed, it’s kind of ironic that the very platforms that enable this participation, collect massive amounts of data about audiences and increase the media’s influence on our lives. When it comes to our relationship with the media, new technology is also changing the way media is distributed. Henry Jenkins suggests that traditional distribution is being challenged by a concept that he calls spreadability. According to Jenkins, spreadability describes the active role audiences play in spreading media via social networks, “their choices, their investments and their actions determine what gets valued.” It’s audiences, not media, who determine what spreads. Finally, the very nature of how we receive and consume media is changing. In my class, we consider changes occurring in the television industry—the transition from scheduled to on-demand access, the rise of the ‘second screen’ and the way large streaming companies like Netflix harvest and analyse our viewing habits to inform programming decisions. The first dot point in this outcome is lots of fun—allowing you to discuss the complexity and continuing evolution of our relationship with the media. 

In this outcome, you are also expected to discuss the extent of the influence that media and audiences have. You might look at the effect of video games, social media influencers or the influence of fandom. In my class, we discuss the impact that media can have on public opinion, taking a look at contemporary theories and examples that might explain how the media can influence who people vote for. Notions of audience agency and influence are really important here. Audiences have more power than ever before. When discussing the influence of audiences, we look at the impact of social media activism, the influence of fandom and how online communities, like Wikipedia, have challenged existing industries. Remember that both media and audiences exert “varying degrees of agency and control at different times and under different circumstances.”

The next dot point asks you to “analyse the regulation of relationships between the media and its audience in Australia.” In Australia, we regulate the media for a number of reasons, such as preventing copycat behaviour, protecting children, preserving our cultural identity and curbing political influence. There are a number of regulatory bodies—including ACMA, the Classification Board and Advertising Standards that are currently grappling with issues and challenges caused by new media technology. Governments around the world are working with large media organisations, like Facebook and Google, to confront these challenges. And, that’s precisely what the next point asks you to discuss. 

‘Agency and Control’ also requires students to discuss ‘ethical and legal’ issues in the media. In my class, one of the ethical and legal issues we explore is privacy, focusing on the vast amounts of personal information that social media companies harvest and monetise. 

Finally, like all learning areas, this one requires that you use appropriate media terminology along the way. 

That’s it! Remember, as you’re studying Agency and Control, your best source of information is the VCE Media Study Design. Read it closely, speak to your teacher and good luck.