Media Effects Research Paper

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1. Introduction

Communications research, or media studies, is about effect. It might have been otherwise—consider the study of art, for example—but it is not. However, the field is subdivided—audience measurement, content analysis, production process, reception studies—the underlying aim, not always acknowledged, is to account for the power of the media.

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From Plato’s admonition that the written word might corrupt unintended audiences to Postman’s admonition that television would corrupt rational discourse, there has been continuous speculation— both scholarly and popular—about the effects of media. The questions, however, are much better than the answers. How effective was the use of radio for propaganda in World War I? What role did radio play in Hitler’s rise to power? Did Roosevelt’s ‘fireside chats’ persuade Americans to join the allies in World War II? Did the televised pictures from Vietnam and Bosnia hasten American withdrawal in the one case and engagement in the other? Is television responsible for the personalization of politics? Do television debates affect the outcome of presidential elections? Are the media simply salesmen of the status quo? Does cinematic glorification of violence induce real-world violence? Why is it taking so long for the media to get people to quit smoking? How does representation of minorities on television affect intergroup relations? Will global media homogenize or exacerbate cultural differences?

There are some answers. Scholarship has shown, for example, that the printing press played a part in the Protestant Reformation by undercutting the Church’s monopoly on the word of God; that the newspaper fostered integration of nation–states; that the radio broadcast of an ‘invasion from Mars,’ resulted in a near-panic; that the live telecast of Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem changed Israeli opinion towards the prospect of Middle East peace; that the televised debates of 1960 helped John Kennedy win the presidency; that a heavy diet of media violence in childhood may influence later behavior. Even this handful of questions and answers is enough to illustrate the futility of generalizing about media effects without a conceptual scheme to link types of ‘effects’ to particular attributes of ‘media.’ Even if an agreed scheme were available, the complexity of operationalizing it makes evident why the empirical study of media effects should have veered so strongly towards the ostensibly simple study of media campaigns, that is, towards the power of persuasive messages to change the opinions, attitudes and actions of individuals in the very shortrun.

One attempt to map the field was made by Lazarsfeld (1948). Coming from the man whose name is so closely associated with the study of campaigns and their ‘limited effects,’ it is reassuring to note that he was quite clear about what he was and was not doing. Lazarsfeld’s scheme is based on the crosstabulation of response-time (immediate, short-run, long-run, institutional) to media stimuli ranging from single units (a particular broadcast, for example), to genres (soap opera, for example), to type of ownership (public vs. private broadcasting, for example), to types of media technology (print vs. broadcast, for example). Thus, addressing the long run, he speculated that Cervantes’s Don Quixote (a single unit) influenced our image of chivalry, that foreign language radio broadcasts (genre) contributed to the assimilation of immigrants, that commercial advertising (ownership) cultivated cynicism, and that radio (technology) demeaned the experience of listening to classical music. Note how this typology equates effect with change, ignoring the possibility that the media may also be effective in slowing change in the service of the status quo, cognitive or societal. Note, too, that Lazarsfeld’s typology is focused largely on individuals rather than on societal change.

Amending Lazarsfeld’s scheme the discussion that follows distinguishes among (a) the nature of effect: change vs. reinforcement; (b) the object of effect: opinions, social organization; (c) the unit affected: individual, group, institution, nation; (d) the time frame of the response: immediate, short-run, long-run; and (e) the active ingredient, or attribute, on the media side: technology, ownership, content, and the context associated with reception. This still-crude schema will help differentiate among several major traditions of research on media effects, to parse how each defines media and effect and to identify the theory that is invoked to connect them.

2. Persuasion

From about 1940 to 1960, research on media effects focused on the study of persuasion, that is, on whether the media can tell us ‘what to think’ or what to do. More formally, the question is whether the media are able to induce (a) change (b) in the opinions, attitudes, and actions (c) of individuals (d) in the short-run (e) by means of campaigns of persuasive appeals. This work centered on Carl Hovland at Yale and Paul Lazarsfeld at Columbia, but the paradigm also applies to studies of advertising’s wartime propaganda and, somewhat circuitously, to studies of the effect on children of media portrayals of violence.

Hovland’s group were experimentalists (McGuire 1996) who varied the rhetoric of persuasive messages–fear appeals, repetition, one-sided vs. two-sided arguments—in order to assess their impact on attitude change both in the laboratory and in the real-life orientation of American soldiers during World War II. Hovland (1959) gave much thought to the problem of why change is more likely in the laboratory than in the field.

Lazarsfeld and his co-workers worked in the field, applying survey research to the study of mass persuasion, particularly to how people make up their minds in election campaigns. The well-known results of this work, as summarized by Klapper (1960), is that the media have only ‘limited effects,’ that is, that the response of attempts to influence individuals via mass media is more likely to reinforce prior attitudes than to change them. Explanation of these results, in turn, led to an interest in the obstacles that persuasive message encounter enroute to their targets as well as the conditions under which they are most likely to succeed. Two of the identified obstacles were the tendency to protect prior cognitions and prejudices through selective attention, perception, and retention, and the tendency to anchor opinions and attitudes in small groups of valued others, from whose norms and network, members are reluctant to depart unilaterally. Academically, these studies reflected the then-current interest in the social psychology of influence, in the validity of the theories of mass society in which individuals were thought to be disconnected from each other, in the power of radio which had just come of age, and, not least, in the methodology of survey research which nurtured the twin fields of opinion and communication.

Persuasive messages are more likely of success, it was thought, if they could be harnessed to existing cognitions (canalization), and endorsed by existing social networks (supplementation). Monopolization of the message, as in totalitarian societies, was also thought to enhance effect (Lazarsfeld and Merton 1948). It is ironic, but probably true, that these assertions comforted the media establishment by absolving them of the sin of brainwashing (even at the expense of deflating their egos). Researchers were comforted, too, that the mass was less vulnerable than had been feared (even at the expense of failing to find ‘powerful effects’).

Belief in the persuasive potential of the media—certainly among politicians and advertisers, but also among researchers in fields such as public health, for example—has fueled continuing efforts to identify the conditions under which communications campaigns are more likely to succeed (McGuire 1986). The ability of the new media to custom-tailor their messages is a new condition of research interest (Turow 1997). Most researchers do not deny ‘limited effects.’ Some, however, dissent (e.g., Zaller 1996, Iyengar and Simon 2000), arguing that research on short-run effects is poorly designed in that it fails to take account both of the variance in the reach of competing messages—say in an election campaign—and variance in the attention of message receivers to information and influence.

3. Diffusion

Having identified interpersonal networks and selectivity as keys to persuasion, researchers invoked these processes to explore two additional paradigms; one is called ‘diffusion’ and the other ‘uses and gratifications.’

Diffusion research is an effort to trace the adoption of an idea or innovation as it spreads, over time, among a community of potential adopters exposed both to the media and to each other. It reaches out to the many disciplines that are interested in how things get from here to there, such as the spread of religion, stylistic change in fashion and the arts, change in language and naming, or the epidemiology of disease. It builds on the finding of campaign research that interpersonal relations are a major key both to influence and adoption.

Diffusion studies, ideally, combine the sample survey with sociometry, as in Coleman et al.’s (1966) study of the adoption of a new antibiotic by communities of doctors and Ryan and Gross’ (1943) study of the adoption of a new farm practices. Rogers (1983) summarizes this work, and applies it also to studies of developmental communication and certain aspects of nation building (Lerner 1958). These several branches of diffusion research posit that we are told ‘when to think’ (or act). They focus on (a) change, (b) in the behavior (c) of networks, (d) in the middle to short-run, (e) in response to mass and interpersonal messages. Diffusion differs from persuasion in the perception that influence takes time, especially as it has to wend its way through the norms and networks of a community.

If persuasion research had to lower its expectations of the media, so did diffusion research, which had no illusions. But diffusion research was beset by the difficulty of generalizing across its many case studies; even the self-same innovation, while diffusing, may take on new meanings. And the diffusion paradigm did not take adequate account of power, it was said, in its over simple assumption that decision-making was in the hands of autonomous individual adopters. A further argument against diffusion research is that its findings have a tautological ring: people adopt (things that are closest to) what they already have. For these reasons, diffusion research has waned.

4. Gratifications

The other lead from persuasion studies—the idea of selectivity—points in a different direction. Selectivity, as has been noted already, suggests that audiences have to ‘resist’ media influence or bend it to their own wishes. This possibility turned attention to what audiences do with the media rather than vice versa, and to hypotheses about the ways in which persons with particular interests or particular roles adapt media messages—even the media themselves—to their own purposes. Early studies looked at the advicegiving functions of the soap opera or the self-testing implicit in quiz programs, or the uses of classical music as anticipatory socialization for the upwardly mobile (for reviews see Blumler and Katz 1974, Rosengren et al. 1985). The pioneering studies tended to result in a list of functions as reported by audiences, while later studies proceeded more rigorously to identify media uses associated with different ‘interests’ or ‘needs’ or roles. Thus, there were studies comparing use of the media by children who were well-integrated and poorly-integrated in their peer groups; adolescents whose parents had and had not coached them in sexual knowledge; towns whose newspapers were and were not on strike; voters who had and had not made up their minds.

Even more oriented to limited effects, gratification studies lean towards a paradigm of nonchange, or (a) reinforcement (b) of role or interest (c) of individuals (d) in the relatively short-run (e) via a media smorgasbord (or tool-chest). They imply that the media tell us ‘what to think with.’ While the selectivity of gratification studies coincides with one of the by-products of persuasion research, it is somewhat exaggerated to claim that gratification research is a direct heir to persuasion studies; in fact, the two paradigms coexisted at Columbia. Gratification draws more on functional theory than persuasion research, and can be applied to groups and whole societies, not only, to individuals. Ball-Rokeach (1985) has addressed these issues in her theory of ‘media dependency.’

Gratifications studies are also precursors of the more recent ‘reception theory,’ proposed by an alliance of literary and communications theorists. Reading, they say, is a collaborative effort between text and audience—and, more radically, that readers are the authors of their texts.

Like its partners in the tradition of limited media effects, gratification research has waned somewhat, victimized by the disenchantment with functional theory. Specifically, critics ask gratificationists whether the needs and roles which they attribute to persons and groups were not themselves created by the media so as to gratify them. They also ask—as they do of reader reception theory—whether theory has not gone too far in abolishing the power of the text in favor of the reader’s power to read upside down or inside out.

5. Agenda Setting

Media effects are limited—as we have seen so far— because they are intercepted by prior attitudes and group norms, that is, by the selectivity imposed by prior commitments to cognitive and social structures. It follows that if there are powerful media effects, they will have to circumnavigate these obstacles. This inference underlies several major movements to break loose from limited effects, and redeem communication research for bigger things. If so, we may define theories that claim powerful effects by whether and how they neutralize or side step the barriers to persuasion.

Beniger (1987) suggests that one way to discover powerful effects is to focus on the operation of information, rather than influence. Information, says Beniger, is neutral—unlike influence-attempts, it does not threaten prior cognitive structures or structures of social relations. A prime example is the agenda-setting paradigm, which does not presume to tell us ‘what to think’ but, rather, ‘what to think about.’ Agendasetting research, hand in hand with priming and framing (Price) is a flourishing enterprise since the pioneering papers of McCombs and Shaw (McCombs 1981). It fits well with the idea that media confer status on persons not just on issues (Lazarsfeld and Merton 1948). It maps on our scheme as (a) change (b) in the attention (c) of individuals or society (d) in the shortrun (e) in response to information. This resonates with some of the classic writings on media effects, and is not as innocent as it sounds. It is, evidently, a powerful effect in itself, but also can operate indirectly. If the media can prime citizens to think ‘domestic policy’ rather than ‘foreign policy,’ it may be that the President’s performance will be evaluated differently.

6. Knowledge Gap

Cognitive theory also fits nicely with another paradigm of media effects called information-gap or knowledgegap. Its thesis is that an information (not influence) campaign will be more readily absorbed by those who are information-rich on the subject of the campaign than by the information-poor (Tichenor et al. 1970). Even though everybody learns something—about ways of investing money, or contraceptive techniques–the net result will be that the gap between the classes will further widen, thus paving the road to hell with another good intention. The explanation, it appears, lies not with the valence of a cognitive structure—since the message is not challenging an existing attitude—but the complexity of the structure, inasmuch as well-developed structures can more easily make room for yet more. Thus, knowledge gap studies may be mapped on our scheme as (a) reinforcement (b) of the stratification (c) of society (d) in the short-run (e) as a result of an information campaign. The requisite theory, of course, proceeds from the level of individual response to the level of social structure. It can be sloganized as the media telling us ‘who should think.’

7. Critical Theory

Reinforcement, that is, nonchange is the aim of the media according to its most famous proponent, the Frankfurt School. Unlike the reinforcement of gratifications or of knowledge-gap studies, which are based on ‘audience power,’ the critical Frankfurt School sees the media as agents of hegemonic power, telling their audiences ‘what not to think.’

Ironically, critical theory and classic persuasion theory shared similar views of a powerless mass audience and of media omnipotence. But the Frankfurt School was interested in long-run impositions on society not in the short-run effects of campaigns on individuals. They conjure up a conspiratorial culture industry, presided over by captains of industry, determined to impose a soothing false-consciousness. This is the best of possible worlds, say the media, and, with luck, you’ll be discovered (just as Hollywood discovered the girl next door). Lowenthal’s (1944) study of biographies in popular magazines captures this dynamic.

Ownership of the media is what concerns the Frankfurt School, and the mass-production and distribution of entertainment is their strategy for neutralizing the power of the audience to defend itself. The seemingly egalitarian mix of ‘Benny Goodman and the Budapest String Quartet’ (Horkheimer and Adorno 1972) is a way of packaging the message of classlessness, and thereby effacing a working-class culture that might keep class consciousness alive. Conformity and consent is the end-product of ‘what not to think.’ This is a neo-Marxist theory which continues to enlist a distinguished following, albeit with a less conspiratorial bent (e.g., Gitlin 1978, Gerbner and Gross 1976).

There is critical theory on the right as well. Noelle-Neumann (1984), for example, indicts journalists (not owners) for falsifying reality. The result, as in the Frankfurt School, is to promulgate a fabricated consensus which serves to silence opposition—even of a real majority who come to believe, erroneously, that they are part of an embarrassed minority.

Classical critical theory (no less than functional theory) has trouble explaining change and, a fortiori, representation of change in the media, for the obvious reason that the theory expects the media to reinforce the status quo. In response to the strong movements for change in the second half of the twentieth century—civil rights, feminism, etc.—critical theorists have, ironically, become interested in variations in audience reception. This openness to the possibility that members of the audience may resist media dominance, and that different readers may read differently, has been championed by the Birmingham branch of critical theory, under the leadership of Hall (1980), founded on the neo-Marxism of Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart. This group has pioneered the establishment of cultural studies that conceptualizes the media as a site for negotiation. Critical and functional theorists now find themselves ringing the same doorbells to observe viewers’ negotiations with the once unchallenged text.

The critical approach to media effects would map on our scheme as (a) reinforcement (b) of the stratification (c) of society (d) in the long-run (e) powered by the hegemonic consortium of media managers and owners. The Birmingham branch of critical theory would allow for much more variation in audience reception of the media.

8. Technological Theory

The powerful effects proposed by technological theory circumvent audience defenses by dismissing the influence of content altogether. McLuhan (1964) is the most radical advocate of this approach, arguing that the media do not tell us what to think, but ‘how to think.’ This controversial guru of media effects believed that the media technologies of each epoch discipline our brains. Thus, cognitive processing of the linearity of print creates personalities and societies that think in lines (e.g., before-and-after causuality, hewing to lines, delaying gratifications until the end of the line, etc.) and act in lines (assembly lines, railroad lines, chains of command). The dotted screen of television, on the other hand, is much more diffuse, and invites viewer participation to make sense of the ambiguous signal. McLuhan’s colleague and mentor, Innis (1950) emphasized the socio-organizational implications of different media technologies—how ‘space-oriented’ media such as papyrus, for example, enabled the Egyptian empire, while ‘time-bound’ media, such as pyramids, make for religious continuity across generations. These are the themes of the Toronto School.

More in the spirit of Innis than McLuhan, technological theory has enlisted many first-rank researchers. Goody and Watt (1963) have spelled out the effects of transition from orality to literacy; Eisenstein (1979) has explored the effect of the printing press on religion, science, and scholarship; Tarde (1989) credits the newspaper with the rise of the public; Carey (1989) has shown how the telegraph affected the economic integration of the United States; Gouldner (1976) suggests that the proliferation of paper created a need for ideology; Meyrowitz (1985) argues that television’s accessibility has lowered the boundaries that separate generations, genders, classes, etc. Rather than wild speculation, each of these theories is specific about the particular attribute of media technology (the fixedness of print, the accessibility of television, the simultaneity of the telegraph) that is responsible for the hypothesized effect. As a group, technological theories can be mapped in two related ways. McLuhan proposes (a) change (b) in the mental processing (c) of individuals (d) in the long-run (e) as a result of unique technological attributes of the different media. This combines with the more characteristic emphasis on (a) change (b) in social organization (c) of societies and institutions (d) in the long-run (e) in response to media technologies.

Technological determinism is much criticized, of course, not just in communications research. It is easy to show that the same technology—radio, for example—has been put to different uses at different times, to different effect. It can also be argued that the same technology has different effects under different social and cultural circumstances—as is the case with European-style public television and American-style commercial television.

9. Sociological Theory

For such reasons, the sociology of media effects proposes a ‘soft determinism’ that harnesses media technologies to social management. It is interested in the effect of managed media technologies on social organization emphasizing social maintenance and reinforcement rather more than social change. Its best-known proponents were at the University of Chicago in the first decades of the twentieth century, and were concerned with the assimilation of immigrants, the coherence of cities, the integration of nation–states, the fostering of participatory democracy, and the role of the media—among other factors—in these processes (Carey 1996). This looselyknit group, which included John Dewey, Charles Cooley, Robert Park, Louis Wirth, Herbert Blumer, W. I. Thomas and, later, David Riesman, Morris Janowitz, Kurt and Gladys Lang, were much influenced by the social psychology of Tarde and Toennies. Some of the earliest studies on the possible relation between media and deviance were conducted in Chicago.

Chicago is where modern communication research began, and it is an irony of intellectual history that its immediate successor, the Columbia School, hardly took notice. While Chicago and Frankfurt share the idea that the media reinforce social structure, Chicago places emphasis on social organization and disorganization, whereas Frankfurt (and knowledge-gap studies) emphasizes stratification and domination. It shares an interest in technology with Toronto. But it shares almost nothing with Columbia. Where Columbia is interested in (a) change (b) of opinion (c) of individuals (d) in the short-run, (e) due to media content, Chicago may be said to be interested in (a) reinforcement (b) of the integration (c) of society, city, nation, ethnicities (d) in the long-run due to (e) the shared experience made possible by content and technology. A group at MIT added a cybernetic paradigm to this perspective in their studies of the media in nation building (e.g., Deutsch 1966). Work on the role of media and ‘media events’ in the integration of nation–states continues in this tradition (Dayan and Katz 1992, Cardiff and Scannell 1987) and approaches Carey’s (1989) call for study of the ritual aspects of mass communication.

10. Situational Theory

The social and physical locus of media reception cannot be considered as intrinsic as can technology or even content, and yet it is so much a part of the media that it may be said to have its own effect. Stereotypically, the newspaper is read alone, television is watched at home with family, and movies are viewed at a downtown theater with friends. The fact that these settings are in constant flux makes it possible to ask, for example, what difference it makes to read the news on paper or on the Internet, or to watch a film at a theater or on TV.

It is comparisons of this kind that are implicit in the tradition of psychoanalytic study of the cinema (Flitterman-Lewis 1987). Surprisingly, perhaps, cinema theorists wed technology and psychology in proposing that a darkened theater and projection from behind-the-head (abetted by the seamless Hollywood narrative) regress cinema-goers to an infantile stage in which a movie becomes their dream or their voyeuristic experience, with the reenactments and renegotiations that that implies. This contrasts with the television experience which invites a more dialogic stance based on the vis-a-visness of the set and the intimacy of the setting (Horton and Wohl 1956). Houston (1984) has developed this comparison.

This approach to ‘positioning’ is also central to reception studies. In its most elementary form readers know whether a text is intended for them—which is what makes books different from TV, according to Meyrowitz (1985)—and its more subtle forms gives the reader an identity or a role to play. Along the same line, television events—presidential debates, for example, or the World Cup—position viewers as citizens, or as sport fans, in roles very different from the consumer (and other) roles ascribed by everyday television. Cyberspace, perhaps, proposes altogether different identities.

That cinema and books are central to this tradition of work reveals how differently researchers themselves approach the several media. The concept of ‘identification,’ for example, so central to thinking about the effects of film does not figure at all centrally in the empirical study of television effects. Some studies of the effects of TV violence on children have used the concept (Bandura 1963) as have some studies of soap opera and television drama.

The performing arts share this interest. Adorno (1942) insists, for example, that listening to classical music at home is a different experience than listening in a concert hall. But, it might be added, many of the compositions one hears reverently in the concert hall were once background music in some feudal court.

It is relevant, too, to recall the concern with which the Royal Family confronted the BBC’s proposal to broadcast the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953, lest the viewers at home fail to conform to the decorum expected of them. Cinema audiences can be controlled, went the argument, so can the audience on the route of march, but how can one make certain (Scannell 1996) that the television audiences will take the proper ‘position’?

Perhaps the earliest paper in this tradition is Freidson (1953) and its flowering is in psychoanalytic studies of cinema and reception theory. It maps on our scheme as (a) change or reinforcement (b) of the identity or role (c) of individuals (d) in the relatively short-run (e) in response to media ‘positioning.’ Perhaps this approach can be sloganized as the media telling me ‘who I am (now),’ and about my selves.

11. Recapitulation

This has been an effort to present multiple approaches to the study of media effects without attempting to present the findings of these approaches, or to assess their validity. It is an effort to bring some order to the conceptualizations of media effects, and to put the overblown ‘persuasion’ paradigm into perspective.

Each approach is characterized by linking an aspect of the media (technology, ownership, content, situation of contact) to a particular kind of effect. Effects are classified as change vs. reinforcement of some aspect (e.g., opinion, role, organization) of individuals or social systems within a given time frame. It takes theory to spell out the processes that link ‘cause’ and ‘effect, and relevant theories have been specified wherever possible. A catchphrase (‘what to think,’ ‘what to think about,’ ‘what not to think,’ etc.) was proposed to caricature each approach. And, whenever appropriate, a School name (Chicago, Columbia, Toronto, etc.) was assigned to each (see Table 1).

Media Effects Research Paper

This summary highlights the unease in the field between the findings of so-called ‘limited effects,’ and the both popular and theoretical intuition that the media are ‘powerful.’ It does so, first of all, by showing that different kinds of effects may be limited or powerful, and may well co-exist. Second, it spells out the operational meaning of ‘limited’ in terms of audience resistance, whether cognitive or interpersonal, finding resistance particularly strong when media content make frontal assaults on embedded attitudes and behavior. It follows, therefore, that proposals of powerful effects must identify processes that circumvent or overcome such resistance, and, indeed, this is the case for theories labeled here as cognitive, critical, technological, psychoanalytic.

The history of study of media effects is full of discontinuities, suffering less from competition among paradigms than from paradigm exhaustion. Two kinds of requiems have been recited, repeatedly: (a) that media effects are exaggerated, and or that there is nothing much left to learn (Berelson 1959) and (b) that effects research is exaggerated—either too positivistic or too wild—and that study of the media will benefit from abandoning the obsessive search for provable effects (Carey 1989). Both suffer from an impoverished conceptualization of ‘effect.’


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