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25 9.3 Issues in Mass Media Research

Cultivation Theory

Cultivation theory is a media effects theory created by George Gerbner that states that media exposure, specifically to television, shapes our social reality by giving us a distorted view on the amount of violence and risk in the world. The theory also states that viewers identify with certain values and identities that are presented as mainstream on television even though they do not actually share those values or identities in their real lives (Griffin, 2009). Drawing on cultivation as it is practiced in farming, Gerbner turned this notion into a powerful metaphor to explain how the media, and television in particular, shapes our social realities. Just as a farmer plants seeds that he or she then cultivates over time to produce a crop, the media plants seeds in our minds and then cultivates them until they grow into our shared social reality.

a baby starting at a television screen

Cultivation theory states that heavy television viewing cultivates, or grows, certain ways of thinking about the world that are distorted.

Over decades of exploring cultivation theory, Gerbner made several well-supported conclusions that are summarized as follows:

  • Prime-time television shows and weekend morning children’s programming have been found to contain consistently high amounts of violence over the past thirty years.
  • Older people, children, African Americans, and Latino/as are more likely to be shown as victims of violence than are their young-adult, middle-aged, and/or white counterparts. This disparity is more meaningful when we realize that these groups are also underrepresented (relative to their percentage in the general population) on these shows while their vulnerability to violence is overstated.
  • The effects of television viewing on our worldview build up over years, but in general, people who are more heavy viewers perceive the world as more dangerous than do light viewers. Gerbner coined the phrase “mean world syndrome,” which refers to the distorted view of the world as more violent and people as more dangerous than they actually are.

    • Heavy viewers predict that their odds of being a victim of violence within the next week are 1 in 10, while light viewers predicted 1 in 100. Real crime statistics give a more reliable estimate of 1 in 10,000.
    • Heavy viewers fear walking alone on the street more than do light viewers, believing that criminal activity is actually ten times more prevalent than it actually is.
    • Heavy viewers believe that more people are involved in law enforcement and that officers draw and use their weapons much more than is actually the case.
    • Heavy viewers are generally more suspicious of others and question their motives more than do light viewers (the basis of the mean world syndrome).
  • Given that most people on television are portrayed as politically moderate and middle class, heavy viewers are more likely to assume those labels even though heavy users tend to be more working class or poor and more politically conservative than moderate. In short, they begin to view themselves as similar to those they watch on television and consider themselves a part of the mainstream of society even though they are not.

“Getting Competent”

Applying Media Theories

Although most do not get mass public attention, there are many media criticism and analysis organizations that devote much time and resources to observing, studying, and/or commenting on how the media acts in practice, which often involves an implicit evaluation of media theories we have discussed so far, in particular media effects theories. Media outlets and the people who send messages through media outlets (i.e., politicians, spokespeople, and advertisers) are concerned about the effects and effectiveness of their messaging. As we already learned, the pervasive view of media effects today is that media messages do affect people, but that people have some agency in terms of how much or little they identify with or reinterpret a message.

To understand media effects, media criticism organizations do research on audience attitudes and also call on media commentators to give their opinions, which may be more academic and informed or more personal and partisan. In either case, taking some time to engage with these media criticism organizations can allow you to see how they apply mass communication theories and give you more information so you can be a more critical and informed consumer of media. You can find a list of many media criticism organizations at the following link: http://www.world-newspapers.com/media.html. Some of these organizations have a particular political ideology or social/cultural cause that they serve, so be cautious when choosing a source for media criticism to make sure you know what you’re getting. There are also more objective and balanced sources of media criticism. Two of my personal favorites that I engage with every week are CNN’s show Reliable Sources (http://reliablesources.blogs.cnn.com) and the public radio show On the Media (http://www.onthemedia.org). Reliable Sources even has an implicit reference to reciprocal effects in its show description, stating, “The press is a part of every story it covers.”[1] On the Media ran a story that implicitly connects to cultivation theory, as it critiques some of the media’s coverage of violence and audiences’ seeming desensitization to it (Bernstein 2012).

  1. Of the “functions of mass media” discussed earlier in the chapter, which functions do media criticism organizations like the ones mentioned here serve? Specifically, give examples of how these organizations fulfill the gatekeeping functions and how they monitor the gatekeeping done by other media sources.
  2. Since media criticism organizations like Reliable Sources and On the Media are also media sources (one a television show and one a radio show), how might hey be contributing to reciprocal effects?
  3. Using the links provided, find a substantial article, study, or report that analyzes some media practice such as the covering of a specific event. Apply some aspect of media effects from the chapter to the story. How might media effects theory help us understand the criticism being raised?

Key Takeaways

  • The mass media serves information, interpretation, instructive, bonding, and diversion functions.
  • As a gatekeeper, the media functions to relay, limit, expand, and reinterpret information.
  • The hypodermic needle theory of mass communication suggests that a sender constructs a message with a particular meaning that is “injected” into individuals within a mass audience.
  • Theories of media effects explore the intended or unintended effects of what the media does. Theories have claimed strong effects, meaning that media messages can directly and intentionally influence audience members. They have also claimed weak effects, meaning that media messages have no little power over viewers. More recently, theories have claimed negotiated effects, meaning that media messages do affect viewers but that viewers also have some agency to identify with, reject, or reinterpret a message.
  • Cultivation theory explores a particular kind of media effect claiming that media exposure, specifically to television, shapes our social reality by giving us a distorted view on the amount of violence and risk in the world.


  1. Which function of mass media (information, interpretation, instructive, bonding, or diversion) do you think is most important for you and why? Which is most important for society and why?
  2. What ethical issues are created by the gatekeeping function of the media? What strategies or suggestions do you have for bypassing this function of the media to ensure that you get access to the information you want/need?
  3. Getting integrated: Discuss media messages that have influenced or would influence you in a professional, academic, personal, and civic context.


Bernstein, B., “The Story of the Times Gory Empire State Shooting Photo,” On the Media, August 24, 2012, accessed September 20, 2012, http://www.onthemedia.org/blogs/on-the-media/2012/aug/24/story-times-gory-empire-state-shooting-photo1.

Bittner, J. R., Mass Communication, 6th ed. (Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 1996), 11.

Coronel, S. S., “The Media as Watchdog,” Harvard-World Bank Workshop, May 19, 2008, accessed September 19, 2012, http://www.hks.harvard.edu/fs/pnorris/Conference/Conference%20papers/Coronel%20Watchdog.pdf.

Griffin, E., A First Look at Communication Theory, 7th ed. (Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2009), 352–53.

McQuail, D., McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory, 6th ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2010), 457.

Pérez-Peña, R., “Ousted Head of University Is Reinstated in Virginia,” New York Times, June 26, 2012, accessed November 11, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/27/education/university-of-virginia-reinstates-ousted-president.html?pagewanted=all.

Self, C. C., Edward L. Gaylord, and Thelma Gaylord, “The Evolution of Mass Communication Theory in the 20th Century,” The Romanian Review of Journalism and Communication 6, no. 3 (2009): 29.

  1. “About This Show,” CNN Reliable Sources, accessed September 20, 2012, http://reliablesources.blogs.cnn.com.


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