Empirical Research of Mass Communication Research Paper

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1. Overview

Evolution of today’s industries of mass communication roughly coincided with the development of empirical research methodology and during the middle of the twentieth century the two were closely identified with US academics. In the late 1930s, scholars began studying mass media institutions and audiences in response to what Wilbur Schramm, the driving force in the creation of mass communication as an academic field, often described as their ‘bigness and fewness.’ Schramm published readers composed of publications by social scientists who were skeptical of armchair observation (Schramm 1948). He and others created institutes for research in field and laboratory settings to examine popular and critical claims about what newspapers, motion pictures, and radio were doing. Scholars were mostly attracted to media with large and heterogeneous audiences, particularly those that were controlled by a small number of ‘gatekeepers.’

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Motivated by societal fears more often than by hopefulness, social and behavioral scholars applied systematic methods to analyze media communications, their origins, their popular uses, and their effects on people and society. As mass media reached practically everyone in modern societies, theories about them became commonplace too. Most of these beliefs were expressed quantitatively and many were subjected to statistical testing—some passing these tests, others not. Empiricism, in the broad sense of matching general knowledge claims with general evidence, also spread to more qualitative topics, such as the processes by which mediated communications are produced and consumed (Shoemaker and Reese 1996). The history of this field is documented in Rogers (1994).

By the 1950s, a burgeoning body of multidisciplinary knowledge on mass communication was being taught at several research universities, often in association with education for journalism but mostly as a graduate subject. Empirical scholarship about communication processes and effects was central to most PhD curricula in mass communication through the 1960s. It has remained a significant doctoral option in most schools, alongside more discursive approaches that became popular during and after the Vietnam war. Topics of empirical study have included academic theories about mass communication that cut across media. Predominantly, though, research has centered on the media as social entities and the societal problems each has occasioned.

2. Characteristic Forms of Empirical Research

Lasswell (1948) suggested that an act of communication can be analyzed in terms of the answers to the questions, ‘Who Says What In Which Channel To Whom With What Effect?’ These five queries became the standard categories of research: studies of communicators, of content, of media, of audiences, and of effects (Berelson and Janowitz 1950). Lasswell’s agenda constrained theorizing to a unidirectional transmission model of the human communication process, leaving out ritual uses of media, for example.

2.1 Audience and Content Surveys

The most common modes of empirical research on mass communication are descriptive surveys of the content and the audiences of print and broadcast media. Beyond sheer description, audience surveys usually include measures of both media consumption and personal dispositions thought to represent either its causes or its effects. Audience research is mostly conducted by media themselves and includes, for example, newspaper readership studies and broadcast industry monitoring of audience size. Content analyses are mostly produced by academics, often as a way of critiquing media performance (Rosengren 2000). Field observation, institutional investigations, and analyses of documentary records also contribute to the knowledge base.

Most empirical research in this field is aimed at understanding regularities in mass communication processes and effects. Falsifiable research hypotheses are preferred over propositions that cannot be tested, and standards of evidence are assumed to guard against accepting erroneous propositions (Berger and Chaffee 1987). To generalize about mass communication is a formidable task, as each media industry delivers billions of messages to several billion people every day. This constant stream of events commends itself to systematic sampling methods, which are applied in many content analyses as well as in audience surveys. Most media industries are structured along national lines and researchers generally accept ‘national sample’ data as broad and generalizable. Studies of the internal workings of media are also intranational. The political role of journalism in the USA differs from, for example, that in European systems.

In audience research, representative sampling and measurement are difficult to achieve because interviewing requires cooperation, and objectivity, of the people under study. Self-report data are used, despite their uncertainties, to investigate what other people’s experiences are, in contrast with the critic who presumes an ability to know everyone’s reactions to a message. Empirical evidence often shows for example that people with contrasting value perspectives draw quite different conclusions from the same message.

2.2 Experiments

Experimental study in mass communication is procedurally analogous to the medical sciences, based on random assignment of cases to treatment and control groups or comparison groups. Experimental field testing has overturned some widely held beliefs about media rhetoric. For instance, the stricture that one should not mention arguments opposing an advocated conclusion turned out to be effective with high school dropouts, but it is an ill-advised method of persuading a college-educated audience (Hovland et al. 1949). Despite time-honored journalistic lore, a television news story that frames an economic recession as seen through the tragedy of a single individual or family directs blame, rather than sympathy, toward these victims (Iyengar 1991).

2.3 Correlational Tests

On topics for which experimental manipulation is impracticable, survey research is often used to test causal propositions. Correlations between exposure to media content and corresponding social behavior are ambiguous in terms of causal directions but the most successful investigators manage to rule out alternative explanations. For instance, the correlation between viewing violent television shows and peer-rated aggressiveness is considered more likely to result from that causal ordering than the reverse, because very little correlation is found between aggressive behavior and a preference for violent programs.

Use of mass media is embedded in so many habitual behaviors that even when causal ordering can be isolated, each direction is supported and relationships are deemed to be reciprocal. For example, newspaper reading is correlated with many forms of political involvement, such as knowledge, opinion-holding, and interpersonal discussion. But field quasi-experiments show that increased newspaper reading leads to higher involvement and that stimulated discussion or political activity in turn stimulates newspaper reading (Chaffee and Frank 1996). Similarly, at a macroscopic level, national mass media infrastructure is one of many systemic factors that are ‘both index and agent of development’ (Lerner 1957).

3. Normati e Theory

Empirical scholars think of themselves as scientists (Berger and Chaffee 1987) but normative theory plays a central role in the field. Many scholars study mass communication because of fears about undesirable influences within society or in the hope that media institutions can be used for beneficial ends. It is common to conclude an empirical study with recommendations for ways to ‘improve’ the communication phenomenon involved. Communication is mostly a behavioral science that studies mostly social problems. The divergence between empirical scholars and purely normative theorists arises in the conduct of a study, not in its origins. An empiricist by definition studies those aspects of a phenomenon on which data can be gathered and hypotheses tested and entertains the possibility that evidence will fail to support a theory. For example, the newspaper industry trumpets the ‘marketplace of ideas’ as the basis for a free and competitive press system. But content analyses in twonewspaper communities find few differences between the news covered in the competing papers. Empirical failure of normative tenets in empirical tests forces a choice between one’s beliefs and one’s data that divides scholars into separate camps.

4. Media-driven Research

The empirical research community has seized upon each new mass medium as an occasion for investigation. In the face of innovations toward the end of the twentieth century, the scholarly field is questioning the viability of the very term ‘mass communication’ because no given audience is quite so huge and heterogeneous as was once the case, and control is becoming decentralized. When a new media industry emerges, the earliest studies describe it and speculate on its potential. Soon after come quantitative assessments of its characteristic content and the demography and motivational bases of its use. Eventually investigations turn to questions of effects and of social processes above the level of the individual.

4.1 Newspapers

The newspaper predated social science and in several ways helped spawn it; as a fact-gathering institution, the press is to an extent itself involved in social research and journalism education became the first permanent academic home for mass communication research. The idea that journalism belonged to the social sciences was instituted in the late 1920s at the University of Wisconsin under Willard G. Bleyer when a journalism minor was instituted for PhD students in political science. Bleyer students such as Chilton Bush at Stanford University and Ralph Nafziger at Minnesota and Wisconsin helped to institutionalize mass communication as an academic field of study.

The first newspaper readership studies in Journalism Quarterly were published in 1930 by George Gallup and Nafziger (Chaffee 2000). From these beginnings, audience survey research became a routine newspaper marketing tool and public opinion polls a new form of news reporting. Content analysis was promoted by Nafziger and Bush; they and their students developed sampling methods such as the constructed-week description of a newspaper’s coverage and built an empirical summary of patterns of public affairs reporting in the American newspaper. Content analysis was also used in developing hypotheses about control of mass media and about media uses and effects (Berelson 1952). Journalists themselves have been subjected to empirical scrutiny, including large-sample surveys (Weaver and Wilhoit 1991) and theories to explain their actions (Shoemaker and Reese 1996)

4.2 Motion Pictures

The first wide-ranging program of research on a specific medium was the Payne Fund project on motion pictures and youth (Charters 1933). ‘The movies’ were suspected of broadly undermining education and moral values but the research showed that effects varied widely depending on the individual audience member. This pattern of contradicting conventional fears would be repeated a generation later with television (Schramm et al. 1961). Powdermaker’s (1950) analysis of the power structure of Hollywood was perhaps the most insightful anthropological investigation of any mass media institution. But social scientists did not, by and large, find motion pictures amenable to the methods and goals of empirical study after television captured much of the movie-going audience in the 1950s. Films are too disparate, and ‘mass’ movie attendance too occasional, to meet the assumptions of the empirical research field.

4.3 Radio

During its heyday from the 1920s into the 1950s, radio fit the image of a mass medium more fully than did film, reigning as the channel Americans used most in that period. In many countries of the world today, radio remains the most ubiquitous medium and it is frequently studied in connection with rural development projects (Schramm 1977). But research on radio in the US shrank to a trickle after its social and cultural role was overrun by television in the 1950s. Earlier, though, radio networks headquartered in New York provided the context for the first organized mass communication research institute, Paul Lazarsfeld’s Office of Radio Research at Columbia University. Despite its nominal dedication to radio, Lazarsfeld extended his research program to newspapers and interpersonal communication as factors in, for example, presidential election campaigns (Lazarsfeld et al. 1944, Berelson et al. 1954). The research team also probed public reactions to entertainment, such as a dramatization of an invasion from outer space (Cantril 1940). Long after radio lost its main audience to television, Lazarsfeld’s radio research group left an important theoretical imprint in the ‘limited effects’ or ‘minimal consequences’ model of mass communication (Klapper 1960).

4.4 Magazines

The magazine industry has only occasionally aroused empirical research within the mass communication field. A notable exception within the radio research group was Lowenthal’s (1943) detailing of an apparent shift in American cultural values, based on the subjects of biographies in large-circulation magazines; in the 1920s, most such articles concerned ‘heroes of production’ including industrialists such as Thomas Edison and Henry Ford but, by the late 1930s, magazines mostly featured ‘heroes of consumption’ such as film stars and radio personalities. This was the forerunner of sociological studies that attempt to draw inferences about a society’s values from reading its media content. Competitive business pressures ended the era of mass-circulation consumer magazines by about 1960 and interest among empirical scholars of mass communication waned correspondingly.

4.5 Books

Although the era of mass communication conventionally dates back to the Gutenberg press, books have only occasionally been considered part of the mass media for purposes of media audience, content, or effects analysis. The book has been considered in relation to other media, as in Parker’s (1963) finding that the introduction of television into a community reduced per capita public library circulation by approximately one book per year.

4.6 Theory of Mass Communication

Discourse on ‘mass media’ as a unified entity was well established by World War II (Rogers 1994). Lasswell (1948) provided a very general scheme of the functions a communication system serves in any social system. These included surveillance of the environment, correlation of the various parts of society into a working whole, and transmission of the cultural heritage to new generations of members. These concepts were paralleled in Schramm’s (1964) characterization of traditional society in the roles of the town crier, the village council, and the teacher. In empirical research, surveillance is typified by studies of news diffusion, correlation by agenda-setting, and transmission by political socialization. These and other general ideas about communication functions were presumed to apply to all mass media, including those yet to come.

4.7 Tele ision

Mass communication was newly established as a research field when television arrived in most American homes in the 1950s. As television supplanted earlier media in daily life, it also replaced them as the main context for empirical research. Two critical aspects of television became staple research topics—its impact in politics and on children. Although many Americans cite television as their primary source of news, Patterson and McClure (1976) attracted attention by showing that, in an election campaign, network television gave little attention to political issues. Still, empirical scholars have focused on television networks’ political coverage and news selection processes (Gans 1979). The first major studies on integration of television into daily life centered on children (Himmelweit et al. 1958, Schramm et al. 1961). Inquiries into television violence led to extensive early studies of effects as well as content (Comstock et al. 1978). Anti-social effects of media violence are today treated as a truism in the research community. Field testing of this proposition became rare after American television proliferated into many channels in the 1980s but new studies are occasionally conducted when television is introduced into additional countries around the world. Many nations restrict violent television programming based on empirical findings.

4.8 New Media

The era of outer space, the silicon chip, and the computer brought many additional means of communication that are lumped simply as ‘new media.’ New communication technologies include such rival means as satellite transmission and cable television, tape recordings and compact discs, and computer games and video games. As alternatives to one another, they give consumers more choices, thus eroding the centralized control that typifies mass communication. Many empiricists transferred from traditional mass media to evaluate the social impact of these innovations, examining each new medium in such familiar terms as its audience, its uses, its potential applications, and its social effects for good or ill. After a first wave of descriptive research on a new technology, scholars looked for ways in which it might create ‘new communication’ and thus social change.

While technological innovation greatly expanded the television industry, it had a limiting impact on the newspaper industry. What empirical scholars consider ‘television’ grew in the US from three networks in the 1960s to dozens of cable channels in the 1990s (Wilson et al. 1998). With so many rival media claiming audience attention and advertising support, newspapers shrank steadily in number and size throughout the second half of the twentieth century and many were sold into chain ownership. In the more compact nations of Western Europe, newspaper circulation was essentially stable after World War II, although the number of different newspapers declined somewhat. Newspaper reading grew less common in each succeeding US birth cohort throughout the late twentieth century, and aggregate readership dwindled as aging readers died. Concentration of leisure time in electronic media coincided with a reduction in political activity after the turbulent 1960s, leading scholars to propose media-based theories of declining democratic participation (Putnam 2000).

New media are not perceived as having audiences, content, and effects, so much as having users and applications. User control of new media revived the ‘active audience’ tradition and a flurry of research on ‘mass media uses and gratifications’ in the 1970s evolved into a similar line of study of the rewards of the new non-mass media in the 1980s and 1990s. New media were seen as potentially very profitable and, as capital was invested in designing more versatile media systems, the techniques of empirical science came into demand. Many of these novel uses of media were seen as pro-social in their goals, attracting empirically trained investigators who might have eschewed putting their skills to work for commercial mass communication firms.

4.9 The Internet

As a worldwide communication system free from centralized control of message production and distribution, the Internet is paradoxically a massive technical infrastructure that promises to ‘demassify’ human communication. This new medium could obviate studies of such traditional media institutions as local newspapers and national broadcasting. Empiricists have analyzed such new channels as e-mail, chat rooms, and web sites in terms designed for newspapers, radio and television, but the research agenda is itself being modified as users construct their own specialized networks on the Internet.

5. National Priorities for Research

Within policy circles, systematic quantitative behavioral evidence has generally been valued above impressionistic knowledge claims. However, while studies of mass media organizations, content, audiences, and effects often inform policy debates, they have rarely resolved them. Nonetheless, a great deal of the research in this field has been oriented toward societal priorities, such as the role of the media in democratic political processes, and in the socialization of young people. Content analyses are often concerned with social inequities, such as mismatches between the kinds of people and social behaviors portrayed in the media and those that occur in everyday life. The media have been sought out in times of national emergency, and for the promotion of social goals. To a great extent, the academic field, unlike the media organizations themselves, has devoted itself to evaluation of mass communication on behalf of American society. The same is true in other countries. Mass communication scholars in most nations couch their indigenous research as an expression of their culture’s unique perspectives. In developing countries, national mass media are evaluated as instruments of domestic development, while foreign inputs (especially US and other western media) are criticized for ‘imperialistic’ influences that undermine the indigenous culture.

6. Academic Conceptualizations

During the second half of the twentieth century, the social science of mass communication has existed in the form of departments, journals, and academic associations. This field began in the US, spurred especially in connection with journalism education due to the efforts of Schramm and Bleyer’s proteges, and with speech when the National Society for the Study of Communication split off from the Speech Association of America in the 1950s. In some institutions, associations, and journals, communication is studied generically, divided by levels of analysis such as interpersonal, network, community, and macrosocietal (Berger and Chaffee 1987, Rosengren 2000).

This field has been housed primarily at large state universities, especially in the Midwest. It has spread rather unevenly to other countries of the world, being much stronger, for example, in Germany than in France. In Great Britain, and in former colonies that retain the British educational structure, mass communication has been housed in the polytechnic institutions rather than the research universities, so empirical research has not developed strongly; the same could be said of the New England states, where the Ivy League schools were slow to build communication programs, despite early leadership at Yale (e.g., Lasswell, Hovland) and Columbia University (e.g., Lazarsfeld and Berelson).

6.1 Propaganda

Lasswell’s (1927) analysis of wartime propaganda techniques marks the beginning of systematic empirical research on mass communication as a general process. For more than a decade, the media were considered important primarily because of their potential for mass persuasion. This alarmist viewpoint foundered both because the first studies of effects on audiences found far less impact than had been feared (Klapper 1960) and because, in World War II, the Allied war effort also included propaganda. The term ‘mass communication’ was substituted as a less tendentious synonym and soon took on its scholarly meaning. Propaganda was revived during the Cold War as a pejorative applied to the Soviet Union, but was no longer the way mainstream empiricists identified their research.

6.2 Measurement of Meaning

An early research program at the University of Illinois was the attempt to develop an operational definition of the central concept of meaning (Osgood et al. 1957). The semantic differential response scale was developed to track the dimensions along which people orient themselves to external entities, such as people in the news. Three dimensions of meaning were usually found, across a variety of rated objects: evaluation (‘good–bad’), activity (‘active–passive’), and potency (‘strong–weak’). The three-dimensional concept of ‘semantic space’ was explored for its cross-cultural validity, theoretical implications in cognition, and applications to content analysis. The evaluative rating method persists in the field as a versatile and efficient method for measuring opinion change as a communication effect.

6.3 Agenda Setting

During the 1968 US election campaign, McCombs and Shaw (1972) compared the issues considered important by voters in a North Carolina city and local newspaper coverage of those issues. Finding a strong rank-order correlation between the two and inferring that voter priorities resulted from media priorities, they christened this the ‘agenda setting function’ of mass communication. This phenomenon, widely studied since, was proposed as a partial answer to the ‘limited effects’ model of media persuasion; as one writer expressed it, ‘the media may not tell people what to think, but they are stunningly successful at telling people whraat to think about’ (Cohen 1963).

6.4 Uses and Gratifications

In reaction against the popular emphasis on media effects, empirical scholars began in the 1970s to develop a line of research that is generally called ‘media uses and gratifications’ (Blumler and Katz 1974). It in effect turned Lasswell’s (1948) questions around, asking what people seek when they use mass media. An explosion of research on this kind of question followed a thorough investigation in Israel of what people considered important to them and how well each of five media (newspapers, radio, cinema, books, and television) served those functions (Katz et al. 1973). The main method applied to these issues is audience study, with detailed interviews, usually with a fixed schedule of questions and elaborate statistical analyses exploring, for example, the match between gratifications sought and those received. This approach remains popular as new media have arrived. Weaknesses include reliance on people’s self-reported motivations, and circularity of functional explanations.

6.5 Knowledge Gap

A group of rural sociologists studying communication programs in Minnesota in the late 1960s noted a phenomenon they described as a widening ‘knowledge gap’ across the aggregate population (Tichenor et al. 1970). An information campaign might produce a desired information gain for ‘the average person’ and yet not necessarily succeed at the social level, if its impact is limited to the upper strata of the population who had already been fairly knowledgeable in the first place. By widening the difference between the ‘haves and have-nots,’ the overall pattern could make a bad situation worse, further disadvantaging the lower information strata. This reformulation of information campaign processes argues in effect for a second criterion—reduction of the variance in the system as a whole—alongside that of increasing the average or total store of community knowledge. Many studies found that information campaigns in fact could ‘close the knowledge gap,’ particularly if their designers worked with this outcome in mind.

6.6 Spiral of Silence

A German theoretical formulation that excited a great deal of empirical research in other western countries and Japan in the 1980s and 1990s was NoelleNeumann’s (1984) scenario of a ‘spiral of silence’ in public opinion processes. The model assumes that people fear social isolation if they express opinions that are losing favor in the general public and hence tend not to not talk with people of an opposite persuasion; the result is a magnification of people’s perception of a shift in popular opinion. This prediction tended to be found in Germany and Japan, but did not hold up well in US replications (Glynn et al. 1997).

6.7 Selecti e Exposure

A key principle of the limited effects model was that people selectively expose themselves to media messages that are congenial to their social attitudes and political beliefs. This assumption led to the expectation that mass communication’s persuasive impact would operate on a heterogeneous audience in two opposing directions, toward the extremes of opinion; the net impact would be negligible (‘mere reinforcement’). However, experimental tests showed that media audiences were less self-deceiving than this theory suggested (Sears and Freedman 1967) and the concept gradually disappeared from textbooks.

But it is clear that people seek media messages nonrandomly. The assumption of purposeful exposure to particular experiences via the media, implicit in the uses and gratifications tradition, was revivified in the 1980s by Zillmann and Bryant (1985). Their theory was not one of defensive avoidance but of positive seeking of messages that help an individual manage emotional moods and affective needs.

7. The Need for Empirical Research on Mass Communication

Because huge fortunes and business empires are integral to mass communication, academic claims about the harm these institutions might do, or ways they can serve society better, face skeptics within both industry and policy circles. ‘How do you know that?’ is a common query faced by critics of media violence, election campaign reformers, and protectors of young consumers alike. Media institutions collectively occupy an ever larger position in society, as do our ways of studying them.


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