It is sometimes said by those in the field of communications that the media is a reflection (or mirror) of society’s values and overall desires. On the reverse of that idea, it is often said that the media shapes society’s values, providing a window to whatever the media wants the world to see.
I tend to take an all-inclusive approach to this question: the media takes on the role of a mirror, but also that of a window. When used by those with a specific agenda, the media can certainly act as a window, shaping the world view of those who take it in. When crafted by a profit-driven group, the media will likely be a reflection, or mirror, of the society the group hopes to sell its message to.
Because of this dichotomy, the question is more an issue of where the cycle started; in a choice between the media and society, which started to shape the other first? The answer determines if the media first catered to what the public wanted, or instead determined what the public would want later.
I argue for the side of the window. The whole reason that mass media exist is to distribute a message to the maximum number of consumers as often and as timely as possible. The media that we take in helps us shape our opinions, and even our basic thought processes and reactions to any given situations.
The cycle seems to begin at media being used to shape society, as a useful tool for popularizing certain ideas, philosophies, and opinions. We can see certain groups pushing their ideas into popularity through the use of any available media; recent prominent examples include the new prominence of the LGBT organization’s prominence in news and entertainment, in constant stories of new legal developments from the news and direct acceptance from certain television programming, such as Modern Family and, more recently, the Disney Channel’s “Good Luck Charlie,” and the legalization and general acceptance of marijuana use.
These are things that not accepted in society until the main media sources changed their paradigm. They once used these subjects as cheap punchlines or darker subject material, but the cycle began as special interest groups took control and began to use the media as a window, at first subtly (treating once-taboo subjects as not such a big problem), and then more directly (treating the now lighter subjects as commonplace or normal, sometimes even as something to be applauded).
It is doubtless to me that the media is used to change society.
We decide if we will take it in, and we decide how we will react to it, but the very fact that we cannot help but react (because even a choice to not react is a conscious choice at some point) defines the media as a window. If we become jaded with the media and stop taking it in, that will shape us, and the media takes its effect even by being absent. If we soak in every message we can, they become part of us, shaping our personality, and the media still takes effect.
Therefore the media, even by existing at all, becomes a changing force to society to start with. The portions of it that function as a mirror are results of the portions that are windows.