Why Is Media Effects Important
16 CHAPTER 1 paradigm” (Gitlin, 1978), more powerful, yet subtle effects, such as social control, manufacturing of consent, and reluctance to challenge the status quo, are unable to be studied; so they are ignored. WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO STUDY MEDIA EFFECTS With all these questions about the existence and substance of media effects, why is it important to continue to study them? Students in introductory mass communication courses are often reminded that mass communication is functional in society (Wright, 1986) and an important field of study because of its role as a major societal institution.
Mass communication is an important economic force in the United States.
In 1993, the entertainment industry alone (movies, music, cable television, and home video) brought an estimated $50 billion into the U. S. economy. Network television advertising added an additional $30 billion (Warner, 1993). Mass communication is also an important political force, acting as a watchdog over official actions and as the platform for political information and activity. The Watergate scandal, for example, was brought to light by the Washington Post and the Pentagon papers were first published by the New York Times.
Political campaigns are now built around television. In 1992, the Republicans spent two-thirds of their budget on television advertisements for George Bush. Talk shows and news program coverage are crucial to campaigns. Our political leaders contact the public primarily through the mass media—press conferences, political talks. Ronald Reagan noticed that there was little political news that was made during the weekends, so he (an old radio announcer, himself) began to make radio addresses about various issues on Saturday mornings.
These addresses got so much news coverage (Martin, 1984), in part because there was so little else happening, that Saturday morning radio talks are a current presidential practice. At the same time, mass media are a major source of entertainment and the main source for news for most people. In 1995, a majority of people in the United States turned to media for news: 70. 3% were regular viewers of local television news, 67. 3% were regular viewers of network television news, and 59. 3% read a daily newspaper. In INTRODUCTION 17 addition, 48. % listened regularly to radio news and 31. 4% read a news magazine regularly (Stempel & Hargrove, 1996). Beyond the importance of mass communication in society, there are two main reasons for continuing to study media effects. The first reason is theoretical. Although most scholars acknowledge that mass media effects can occur, we still don’t know the magnitude and inevitability of the effects. That is, we don’t know how powerful the media are among the range of other forces in society. And, we don’t know all the conditions that enhance or mitigate various effects.
Most importantly, we don’t understand all the processes by which mass communication can lead to various effects. Research in media effects must continue to add to our knowledge. A second reason for studying media effects is practical and policy oriented. If we can elaborate the conditions and understand the various processes of media effects—how media effects occur—we can use that knowledge. At a practical level, understanding the processes of media effects will allow media practitioners to create effective messages to achieve political, advertising, and public relations-oriented goals.
Additionally, agencies will be able to formulate media campaigns to promote prosocial aims and benefit society as a whole. That is, understanding the processes of media effects will allow media practitioners to increase the likelihood of prosocial media effects. Most importantly, understanding how media effects occur will give parents, educators, and public officials other tools to fight negative media effects. If we understand the processes of media effects, we will also understand how to mitigate negative effects.
No longer will changing or restricting media content be the only methods to stop media effects. We will be able to mitigate negative media effects by also targeting aspects of the process of impact. WAYS TO CONCEPTUALIZE MEDIA EFFECTS: DIMENSIONS OF MEDIA EFFECTS Over the years, scholars have suggested that it is useful to analyze media effects along specific dimensions (Anderson & Meyer, 1988; Chaffee, 1977; McGuire, 1986; J. M. McLeod, Kosicki, & Pan, 1991; J. M. McLeod & Reeves, 1980; Roberts & Maccoby, 1985).
Some of the dimensions delineate the type of effect; other dimensions elaborate the conditions of media impact. 18 CHAPTER 1 Cognitive-Affective-Behavioral Dimension Media effects are commonly described along a cognitive-affectivebehavioral dimension, which marks a distinction between acquisition of knowledge about an action and performance of the action. Mass communication scholars have been greatly influenced by persuasion models that see human action as logical and driven by cognition (e. g. , McGuire, 1985).
This dimension is important in keeping scholars from assuming that knowledge and attitudes translate directly into action. Persuasion research during World War II, for example, found that although media content may be quite effective at teaching information, it had less influence on attitude formation and motivation to act (Hovland, Lumsdaine, & Sheffield, 1949). The Theory of Reasoned Action (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975) posits that, although knowledge and attitudes have some impact on behavior, their influence is mediated (or eliminated) by social constraints.
Micro- Versus Macrolevel Another dimension that describes the type of effect is one that focuses on the level of media influence: micro- versus macrolevel. Most concern about media effects focuses on impressionable audiences and has been grounded in psychological approaches. So, there is a wealth of research on media effects at the individual, or microlevel. It is a fallacy, however, to assume that all media effects are accumulations of individual-level effects.
Scholars recognize that a focus solely on individual-level media effects can obscure more subtle societal-level effects. Research on the effects of Sesame Street, for example, showed that children of all socioecomic status (SES) classes learned from the program. But, that learning led to another, unintended effect: a widening gap in knowledge between higher and lower SES groups. Although all children learned from the program, children from higher SES families learned at a faster rate (Cook et al. , 1975).
So, individual knowledge gain may lead to greater inequities in society. Another area in which an accumulation of individual-level effects might conceal more macrolevel effects is news learning. Although many researchers have uncovered various media-related influences on public-affairs knowledge (e. g. , J. P. Robinson & Levy, 1986, 1996), these studies cannot assess the completeness, accuracy, or objectivity of media’s presentations about public affairs. Several scholars argue that larger influences on news gathering and reporting may make INTRODUCTION 19 ndividual-level knowledge effects inconsequential because news sources and practices present only limited public affairs information to the public (e. g. , Gitlin, 1980; Herman & Chomsky, 1988; Tuchman, 1978). So, knowledge gain by individuals may not necessarily be functional for society. Several important effects of mass media maybe at the societal, institutional, or cultural level. Over the years, for example, the expanding telecommunications revolution has changed, and no doubt will continue to affect how political campaigns and the workings of govern-ment are conducted.
Clearly, scholars need to consider various levels of media impact. Intentional Versus Unintentional Another dimension of media effects directs scholars to consider whether the effects are intended versus unintended—planned for or accidental. Although this dimension is a descriptive one, it also offers some insights in the processes of media impact. For example, the development of knowledge gaps between high and lower SES children who watched Sesame Street is generally considered an unintended effect of the flow of media information. So, cholars and media policymakers study ways to close accidental knowledge gaps by increasing access to a variety of sources of information, by making information more relevant to lower SES groups, or by increasing the motivation of lower SES audience members to seek additional information. The identification of these knowledge-gap effects as accidental, then, has led scholars to focus on how knowledge is carried by the mass media, how audiences access that knowledge, and how people use media-delivered information. Another example of the relevance of the intended versus unintended dimension is one effect of television violence.
The cultivation hypothesis suggests that one, often overlooked, effect of television violence is that it affects social perceptions of heavy viewers and leads those groups who are victimized in television drama to feel fearful, alienated from society, and distrusting of others (Gerbner & Gross, 1976; Gerbner et al. , 1994). If scholars believe that these effects are unintentional due to the conventions of television drama production, they might advocate certain remedies to help mitigate these effects, such as television program ratings to help fearful people avoid certain programs or to help parents screen what their children watch.
If, on the other 20 CHAPTER 1 hand, scholars believe that cultivation is an intentional effect designed to reinforce the existing power structure in society by structuring reality for women and minorities so that they avoid involvement in political affairs, possible solutions would be quite different. Those scholars (at the very least) would be less trusting of television program ratings affixed by television producers and probably not advocate that sort of solution to cultivation effects. Studying unintended effects can be a way of increasing media effectiveness.
Dramatic story lines in soap operas and telenovelas have been found to not only captivate their audiences but bring about knowledge gain and some prosocial attitudinal effects (e. g. , Singhal & Rogers, 1989). So this dimension of media effects directs scholars to search for a range of effects, beyond those planned for the media producers. Content-Dependent Versus Content-Irrelevant The content-dependent versus a content- irrelevant distinction reflects the impact of specific classes of media content as opposed to the impact of media use itself.
The most visible media effects research has focused on the effects of specific media content, such as stereotypes, violence, and pornography. This research assumes that specific content is linked to specific effects. As J. M. McLeod and Reeves (1980) paraphrase the nutritional analogy, “We are what we eat”: We are what we watch. So, one way to reduce aggressive behavior in children would be to reduce the amount of violent media content that they read or watch.
Or, one way to reduce sexual aggression against women would be to reduce access to media content that depicts violence against women. Although there is a good deal of evidence of the effects of specific media content, scholars should also be aware that some effects are due less to specific media content, and more to the form of the content or the act of media use. Displacement effects are a commonly identified content-irrelevant effect. Lazarsfeld and Merton (1948) suggested that political involvement could suffer if people become politically “narcotized. That is, public affairs media use might replace real political action and some people might be informed, but politically apathetic. Watching television has been attributed with lower academic achievement because children are replacing homework and study with television watching (Armstrong & Greenberg, 1990; Hornik, 1978). INTRODUCTION 21 Other content-irrelevant effects maybe due to the form of the media presentation. Tavris (1988) is one writer who has suggested that television’s regular commercial interruptions has led to shorter attention spans.
Scholars (Shannon & Weaver, 1949) investigating how information theory is relevant to media effects have found that the randomness of television’s formal features are connected to aggressive responses (Watt & Krull, 1977). Kozma (1991) speculated how the form and use of different media lead to different learning styles and outcomes. And there is a good deal of evidence that arousing media content, whether it is violent, pornographic, or suspenseful, can lead to similar excitation effects (Zillmann, 1980, 1982).
In order to understand how media effects occur, we need to uncover, first, if they are content-relevant or content-irrelevant. Short Term Versus Long Term Media effects can be long or short term. This dimension is not only a descriptive one, but also helps describe the process of media effects. When we examine media effects, we need to question how long the effect is theoretically expected to last. Some effects, such as increased arousal (or relaxation) are relatively short term, and disappear quickly. Others, such as agenda setting, may last somewhat longer, but may disappear as the media agenda changes.
Still other effects, such as the social learning of aggressive behavior, are expected to be fairly enduring, especially if the aggressive behavior, once performed, is rewarded. Some theories do not specify the persistence of their effects. Do the stereotypes that children learn from television persist even as children watch less and less television as they get older? How long do the effects of televised political ads (and their associated voting intentions) last? What are the possibilities that new ads (and new information) will change voting intentions?
And what are the implications of differing periods of influence? Clearly, short-term effects can have a profound impact. If, for example, a short-term arousal effect of a violent film leads someone to get involved in a fight, permanent injury could result. But, if agenda-setting effects last only as long as an issue stays near the top of the media agenda, what long-lasting impacts can result? Media effects scholars should be clear in specifying the duration of the effects that they study. 22 CHAPTER 1 Reinforcement Versus Change A final dimension of media effects is that of reinforcement versus change.
Does media exposure alter or stabilize? The most visible media effects studies focus on how media content or exposure changes the audience (or society or culture). For example, we are concerned how placid children might be changed into aggressive ones by watching violent cartoons. Or that respectful men will change into uncaring desensitized oafs through exposure to pornography. Or that voters might have their political values adjusted through exposure to political ads. Or that ignorant citizens will become knowledgeable through exposure to public affairs news.
And so on. There is evidence, though, that communication’s strongest effect, overall, is reinforcement and stabilization. Selective exposure leads people to prefer media messages that reinforce their preexisting views. Selective perception points out that people interpret media content to reinforce their attitudes. Because it is often easier to observe change than reinforcement, we often neglect media’s power to stabilize. Advertisements that keep supporters active in a political campaign and keep them from wavering in support yield important effects.
Media content that reinforces the already existing aggressive tendencies of a young boy may be an even more important influence than prosocial messages that have little impact. We must be careful not to equate reinforcement effects with null effects. CONCLUSION The study of media effects is grounded in the belief that mass communication has noticeable effects on individuals, society, and culture. Evidence for these effects, though, is problematic. On one hand, despite consistence findings of effects, the variance accounted for is typically small.
Moreover, the strongest effects are usually relegated to laboratory settings, which are highly artificial settings. There are, however, several reasons to expect that research underestimates media effects. Our models, theories, and methods are still imprecise; we still cannot offer complete explanations for media effects. The study of media effects remains important so that we can increase understanding of the role mass communication plays in shaping our lives. Awareness of the process of media effects will allow us to use mass communication effectively—to maximize desirable outcomes and minimize negative effects.