Media Edge

Media Logic and Social Reality

by David L. Altheide (Author)
©2014 Textbook XII, 200 Pages


This book challenges social science to address the most important social change since the industrial revolution: the mediated communication order. More of our everyday lives and social institutions reflect the compelling media logic that resonates through conversation, interaction, marketing, as well as social programs, issues and foreign policy. We are beyond the time when people take into account media matters; rather, media matters are now incorporated as a kind of social form in routine and extraordinary activities. This thesis was first laid out in ‘Media Logic’, co-authored with Robert P. Snow in 1979.
Thirty-five years on, Altheide discusses his recent thinking about how media logic and mediation is a basic element in constructing social reality.
From the internet to the NSA, he shows how media logic has transformed audiences into personal networks guided by social media. He argues that we have reached the media edge as social media have all but eviscerated the audience as a significant factor in the communication equation; mediated communication is increasingly about media performances and individual selection to promote identity.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1: Introduction
  • Entertainment Reality
  • Dark Media
  • Dark Media Come to Light
  • The Media Spiral
  • Chapter 2: Media Logic, Social Power, and Fear
  • Media Logic in Context
  • Political Communication
  • Social Control and Mediation
  • Mediated Communication and Gaming
  • Mediated Fear
  • Summary
  • Chapter 3: Symbolic Interaction Illuminates the Mediated World
  • Symbolic Interaction Concepts and Mediated Communication
  • Summary
  • Chapter 4: Media Dramas and the Social Construction of Reality
  • Fear and Terrorism Redux
  • FBI Stings and the Politics of Fear
  • Summary
  • Chapter 5: Terrorism and Fear Post 9/11
  • The Israeli Attacks in Gaza
  • Not Just Another Shooting (Mall Shooting)
  • Anti-Muslim Video
  • Muslim Video and WikiLeaks
  • Edward Snowden
  • Summary
  • Chapter 6: Terrorism and the National Security University
  • Marketing Fear and Social Control
  • Project Camelot
  • Minerva Project and Human Terrain Systems
  • Summary
  • Chapter 7: Risk Communication and the Discourse of Fear
  • Summary
  • Chapter 8: Shielding Risk
  • Shielding the Risk of Guns
  • Risk Communication about a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
  • Shielding the Risk of Societal Costs of Prison
  • Other Examples of Shielding Risk
  • Shielding Many Risks of War
  • Shielding Financial Costs of Financial Crimes
  • Summary
  • Chapter 9: Our Mediated Condition
  • The E Audience and the Definition of the Situation
  • Big Data
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index


This book challenges social science to address the most important social change since the industrial revolution: the mediated communication order. Increasingly mediated interaction is instantaneous, visual, and personal. More of our everyday lives and social institutions reflect the compelling media logic that resonates through conversation, interaction, marketing, as well as social programs, issues, and foreign policy. We are beyond the time when people take into account media matters; rather, media matters are now incorporated as a kind of social form in routine and extraordinary activities. This is my claim, and it has been so for nearly 40 years, officially marked by the publication of Media Logic (Sage, 1979) with my co-author Robert P. Snow. That work and numerous books, journal articles, and book chapters stressed the significance of media logic and the mass media for understanding the nature of social power—the ability to define a situation. While we have known that the media are significant—especially since McLuhan’s important work—the integration of communication formats into daily living has taken us well beyond notions of “The Medium is the Massage.” This book covers my recent thinking about how media logic and mediation (some prefer “mediatization”) are basic elements in constructing social reality. Previous books delineated the role of the mass media in helping to create and organize perceptions of social reality, including the nature and impact of new propaganda forms. Journalism ← ix | x → as a distinctive social form was diminished as journalists, news sources, politicians, and numerous other political actors became aware of an underlying media logic. This was the post-journalism moment, but the audience was still an important factor in the communication process. This has now changed. This book is about how we have reached the media edge, as social media have all but eviscerated the audience as a significant factor in the communication equation; mediated communication is increasingly about media performances and individual selection to promote identity.

This story could not have been understood, created, and told without the help of numerous scholars and colleagues. My initial co-author and friend, Robert P. Snow, was an intellectual force of courageous imagination in helping to propose the initial media logic thesis that joined interaction processes to institutional orders. John Johnson has been a lifetime friend and supporter of my work, routinely offering insights about the negotiated order and subtle media interpretations of numerous events. Justice and Social Inquiry (Arizona State University) provided support post-retirement. Other colleagues and students—many of whom are now professors—who contributed include Norman Denzin, Gray Cavender, Richard V. Ericson, Michael Coyle, Chris Schneider, Tim Rowlands, and Ray Maratea. A special thanks to the members of Justice 585 (Spring, 2010) for work on Rush Limbaugh’s media career. I am especially grateful to the opportunities and insights provided by the Universitat Rovira i Virgili (Taragona, Spain) and the faculty members who provided support and opportunity to develop and present Chapters 7 and 8, particularly Jordi Farré Coma, Bernat Lopez, and Enric Castelló. I am also very grateful to Marion Adolf and Nico Stehr (Zeppelin University) and Klaus Schoenbach (University of Austria) for providing opportunities during a Fulbright visit to develop materials in Chapter 5. Janet Chan and her colleagues provided valuable integrative suggestions for the entire manuscript when I was a Distinguished Research Fellow at the Law School of the University of New South Wales (Australia).

Most of all, I am most fortunate to have the love and support of Carla, who has heard the ideas develop as we walked beaches on several continents, attended baseball games, and wrestled our four wonderful grandchildren, whose video game antics fueled more than a few insights.

Drafts and portions of several of the chapters appeared elsewhere. Chapter 2 is partially reprinted courtesy of Wiley Publishers, from “Media Logic, Social Control, and Fear,” Communication Theory, Special Issue: “Conceptualizing Mediatization” (2013), 23(3), 223–238.

← x | xi → Chapter 3 is partially reprinted courtesy of Franco Angeli from “Symbolic Interaction Beyond the Borders,” The Present and Future of Symbolic Interactionism, Proceedings of the International Symposium, Pisa 2010, Volume I (2010, June 3–5), co-editors Andrea Salvini, Joseph A. Kotarba, and Bryce Merrill (2012), 45–54.

Chapter 4 is partially reprinted by permission of Ashgate from “Media Dramas and the Social Construction of Reality,” editor Charles Edgley, The Drama of Social Life (2013), 181–193.

Chapter 6 is partially reprinted courtesy of Emerald Publishing from “Terrorism and the National Security University,” editor Norman K. Denzin, Studies in Symbolic Interaction (2013), 40, 317–333.

Chapter 7 is partially reprinted courtesy of Intellect Publishers from “Risk Communication and the Discourse of Fear,” guest editors Tom Horlick-Jones and Jordi Farré, Catalan Journal of Communication and Cultural Studies, Special Issue: The Communicative Turn in Risk Communication Theory and Practice (2010), 2(5), 145–158.

Chapter 8 is partially reprinted courtesy of Intellect Publishers from “Shielding Risk,” Catalan Journal of Communication and Cultural Studies (2013), 5(1), 97–120.← xi | xii →

← xii | 1 → ·  1  ·


When you’re on a giant wave … you don’t get the full measure of the beast; the experience is more like a collage of sensory impressions …. It’s an exquisite suspension of all things mundane, in which nothing matters but living in that particular instant.

(Casey, 2010 p. 75)

We are caught in a perpetual and rapidly evolving media wave breaking toward the edge, a vortex that is guiding and defining our experiences and changing how we think of ourselves and others. It is a crisis of order and meaning fueled by media logic, expansive information visual technology, and fear that have taken us to the edge of what is familiar and is eroding trust and social order. This demands attention and critical reflection on new ways to understand the rapid expansion of mediated experience. This book looks over the edge to clarify how technologies shifted the focus from events to how we play with, and in, those events. Particular focus is on the way that the media have become more instantaneous, visual, and personal.

Let us start with an account by two reporters about their work in covering the bombings at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, in which 3 people were killed and some 250 others were wounded. Two “self-radicalized” brothers were the main culprits. Initial release of their grainy photos obtained from one of the ubiquitous security cameras sparked a flurry of social media speculations ← 1 | 2 → that proved to be incorrect. There was constant media coverage of events leading to the killing of one brother and search and apprehension of the other over a two-day period, which included a police-ordered shutdown of the city of Boston, including transportation and movement in public. An orgy of non-stop coverage of related events—including funerals, testimonials to law enforcement, and the injured—dominated major network news and social media for nearly two weeks, as the slightest connections (e.g., relevance of foreign travel by one brother) were headlined and discussed. True to its touted emergent form, WikiLeaks posted a “historical” summary of the events within the first few days following the explosions. Familiar frameworks and definitions about “terrorism” and more surveillance were thrown about. There was little new information or insights offered about the alienation of two brothers and how decades of media frenzies over mass murders in schools and other public settings could fuel quests for fame and recognition and “making a statement” about morality. We got something else.

Some two weeks after the bombing, as the media feeding was settling down, a journalist for The New York Times interviewed two other journalists about what they learned about the role of social media from their coverage. Their focus was on their smart phones, specifically how they had used their iPhones in one case, to capture some video and photos, and in the other case, to stay in touch with sources and editors. The emphasis was on how important it was to get immediate information and visuals, for example, regarding bomb victims. The immediacy of the personal technology for journalism was apparent: A photo journalist stated, “do I run back and grab my gear or go with my iPhone … you had that real immediacy” (followed by a discussion of the relative image quality of the iPhone). The print journalist stated that she was using the iPhone not so much for writing but for keeping up with Twitter, texting, and email. They acknowledged that it was harder to get ahead of the “pack” and get “scoops” when so many people have smart phones, even police scanners. But when asked about lessons learned from this tragedy, they agreed:

“A basic reporting lesson … always have a charger for your iPhone. Your battery runs out all the time, and without your phone, you’re pretty isolated ….” “I totally second that. I have a charger that was given to me by a marathon runner in the Starbucks on Boylston street as I was trying to file video …. ” (Berke, 2013).

Capturing images, being first with images; the focus on immediacy rather than meaning—and accuracy and context—is what partially defines the media edge. It is the same logic of orchestrating the attention-grabbing visual of some action for the screen—the TV, the iPhone, and so forth—that leads hundreds ← 2 | 3 → of local television news stations in the U.S. to “go live” with visuals of police chases in autos, often shot from hovering helicopters, before any meaningful information is obtained. But it is also about the disappearing audience, which is now fragmented and pursues individualized news-entertainment-advice-personal-relationships (Facebook). Organized journalism worthy of its name stumbled over the news formula that was shared by journalists, sources, event managers, and audiences. This media logic governed, essentially, public information for nearly three decades, but there was an audience seeking information, which in turn made it susceptible to misinformation and manipulation. But digital media broke up the audience, made it less relevant as a “mass phenomenon,” and promoted fractured-individual-issue-specific grazing for “interesting items,” packaged through still emerging new formats promoting new communication-based activities and events. Participation and media performance was the new governing principle. Social life and interaction are increasingly mediated; there is less non-mediated space available, as surveillance merges with marketing amid claims of promoting efficiency and safety from inefficiency, waste, fear, crime, and terrorism. The essence of the media edge is that accounts of social reality reflect personal media and accompanying news formats and content, which are more relevant to everyday life than traditional/conventional mass media and corresponding news formats and content. It is a result of media logic and the pervasive mediation of social interaction.


XII, 200
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (September)
industrial revolution mediation identity Social power media logic mediated communication Social Media
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. XII, 200 pp.

Biographical notes

David L. Altheide (Author)

David Altheide, PhD, is Emeritus Regents’ Professor on the faculty of Justice and Social Inquiry in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University.


Title: Media Edge
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