Theories of Mass Communication
Theories of mass communication have changed dramatically since the early 1900s, largely as a result of quickly changing technology and more sophisticated academic theories and research methods. A quick overview of the state of the media in the early 1900s and in the early 2000s provides some context for how views of the media changed. In the early 1900s, views of mass communication were formed based on people’s observation of the popularity of media and assumptions that something that grew that quickly and was adopted so readily must be good. Many people were optimistic about the mass media’s potential to be a business opportunity, an educator, a watchdog, and an entertainer. For example, businesses and advertisers saw media as a good way to make money, and the educator class saw the media as a way to inform citizens who could then be more active in a democratic society. As World War I and the Depression came around, many saw the media as a way to unite the country in times of hardship. Early scholarship on mass media focused on proving these views through observational and anecdotal evidence rather than scientific inquiry.
Fast forward one hundred years and newspapers are downsizing, consolidating to survive, or closing all together; radio is struggling to stay alive in the digital age; and magazine circulation is decreasing and becoming increasingly more focused on microaudiences. The information function of the news has been criticized and called “infotainment,” and rather than bringing people together, the media has been cited as causing polarization and a decline in civility (Self, Gaylord, & Gaylord, 2009). The extremes at each end of the twentieth century clearly show that the optimistic view of the media changed dramatically. An overview of some of the key theories can help us better understand this change.
Hypodermic Needle and Beyond
In the 1920s, early theories of mass communication were objective, and social-scientific reactions to the largely anecdotal theories that emerged soon after mass media quickly expanded. These scholars believed that media messages had strong effects that were knowable and predictable. Because of this, they theorized that controlling the signs and symbols used in media messages could control how they were received and convey a specific meaning (Self, Gaylord, & Gaylord, 2009).
The hypodermic needle theory of media effects claimed that meaning could be strategically placed into a media message that would then be “injected” into or transmitted to the receiver.
ChrisWaldeck – The Media Needle – CC BY-NC 2.0.
Extending Aristotle’s antiquated linear model of communication that included a speaker, message, and hearer, these early theories claimed that communication moved, or transmitted, an idea from the mind of the speaker through a message and channel to the mind of the listener. To test the theories, researchers wanted to find out how different messages influenced or changed the behavior of the receiver. This led to the development of numerous theories related to media effects. Media businesses were invested in this early strand of research, because data that proved that messages directly affect viewers could be used to persuade businesses to send their messages through the media channel in order to directly influence potential customers.
This early approach to studying media effects was called the hypodermic needle approach or bullet theory and suggested that a sender constructed a message with a particular meaning that was “injected” or “shot” into individuals within the mass audience. This theory is the basis for the transmission model of communication that we discussed in Chapter 1 “Introduction to Communication Studies”. It was assumed that the effects were common to each individual and that the meaning wasn’t altered as it was transferred. Through experiments and surveys, researchers hoped to map the patterns within the human brain so they could connect certain stimuli to certain behaviors. For example, researchers might try to prove that a message announcing that a product is on sale at a reduced price will lead people to buy a product they may not otherwise want or need. As more research was conducted, scholars began to find flaws within this thinking. New theories emerged that didn’t claim such a direct connection between the intent of a message and any single reaction on the part of receivers. Instead, these new theories claimed that meaning could be partially transferred, that patterns may become less predictable as people are exposed to a particular stimulus more often, and that interference at any point in the transmission could change the reaction.
These newer theories incorporated more contextual factors into the view of communication, acknowledging that both sender and receiver interpret messages based on their previous experience. Scholars realized that additional variables such as psychological characteristics and social environment had to be included in the study of mass communication. This approach connects to the interaction model of communication. In order to account for perspective and experience, mass media researchers connected to recently developed theories in perception that emerged from psychology. The concept of the gatekeeper emerged, since, for the first time, the sender of the message (the person or people behind the media) was the focus of research and not just the receiver. The concepts of perceptual bias and filtering also became important, as they explained why some people interpreted or ignored messages while others did not. Theories of primacy and recency, which we discussed in Chapter 9 “Preparing a Speech”, emerged to account for the variation in interpretation based on the order in which a message is received. Last, researchers explored how perceptions of source credibility affect message interpretation and how media messages may affect viewers’ self-esteem. By the 1960s, many researchers in mass communication concluded that the research in the previous twenty years had been naïve and flawed, and they significantly challenged the theory of powerful media effects, putting much more emphasis on individual agency, context, and environment (McQuail, 2010).
The next major turn in mass communication theory occurred only a few years after many scholars had concluded that media had no or only minimal effects (McQuail, 2010). In the 1970s, theories once again positioned media effects as powerful and influential based on additional influences from social psychology. From sociology, mass media researchers began to study the powerful socializing role that the media plays but also acknowledged that audience members take active roles in interpreting media messages. During this time, researchers explored how audience members’ schemata and personalities (concepts we discussed in Chapter 2 “Communication and Perception”) affect message interpretation. Researchers also focused more on long-term effects and how media messages create opinion climates, structures of belief, and cultural patterns.
In the late 1970s and into the 1980s, a view of media effects as negotiated emerged, which accounts for the sometimes strong and sometimes weak influences of the media. This view sees the media as being most influential in constructing meanings through multiple platforms and representations. For example, the media constructs meanings for people regarding the role of technology in our lives by including certain kinds of technology in television show plots, publishing magazines like Wired, broadcasting news about Microsoft’s latest product, airing advertisements for digital cameras, producing science fiction movies, and so on. Although these messages are diverse and no one person is exposed to all the same messages, the messages are still constructed in some predictable and patterned ways that create a shared social reality. Whether or not the media intends to do this or whether or not we acknowledge that how we think about technology or any other social construct is formed through our exposure to these messages is not especially relevant. Many mass communication scholars now seek to describe, understand, or critique media practices rather than prove or disprove a specific media effect.
More recent media effects theories acknowledge that media messages do affect the receivers but that receivers also have some agency to reject or reinterpret the message.
Sean MacEntee – – CC BY 2.0.
Additionally, mass communication scholars are interested in studying how we, as audience members, still have agency in how these constructions affect our reality, in that we may reject, renegotiate, or reinterpret a given message based on our own experiences. For example, a technology geek and a person living “off the grid” have very different lives and very different views of technology, but because of their exposure to various forms of media that have similar patterns of messages regarding technology, they still have some shared reality and could talk in similar ways about computers, smartphones, and HD television. Given the shift of focus to negotiated meaning and context, this view of mass communication is more in keeping with the transactional model of communication.
Media effects are the intended or unintended consequences of what the mass media does (McQuail, 2010). Many of the key theories in mass communication rest on the assumption that the media has effects on audience members. The degree and type of effect varies depending on the theory. In general, we underestimate the effect that the media has on us, as we tend to think that media messages affect others more than us. This is actually so common that there is a concept for it! The third-party effect is the phenomenon just described of people thinking they are more immune to media influence than others. If this were true, though, would advertisers and public relations professionals spend billions of dollars a year carefully crafting messages aimed at influencing viewers?
There are certain media effects that are fairly obvious and most of us would agree are common (even for ourselves). For example, we change our clothes and our plans because we watch the forecast on the Weather Channel, look up information about a band and sample their music after we see them perform on a television show, or stop eating melons after we hear about a salmonella outbreak. Other effects are more difficult to study and more difficult for people to accept because they are long term and/or more personal. For example, media may influence our personal sense of style, views on sex, perceptions of other races, or values just as our own free will, parents, or friends do. It is difficult, however, to determine in any specific case how much influence the media has on a belief or behavior in proportion to other factors that influence us. Media messages may also affect viewers in ways not intended by the creators of the message. Two media effects that are often discussed are reciprocal and boomerang effects (McQuail, 2010).
The reciprocal effect points to the interactive relationship between the media and the subject being covered. When a person or event gets media attention, it influences the way the person acts or the way the event functions. Media coverage often increases self-consciousness, which affects our actions. It’s similar to the way that we change behavior when we know certain people are around and may be watching us. For example, the Occupy Movement that began on Wall Street in New York City gained some attention from alternative media and people using micromedia platforms like independent bloggers. Once the movement started getting mainstream press attention, the coverage affected the movement. As news of the Occupy movement in New York spread, people in other cities and towns across the country started to form their own protest groups. In this case, media attention caused a movement to spread that may have otherwise remained localized.
The boomerang effect refers to media-induced change that is counter to the desired change. In the world of twenty-four-hour news and constant streams of user-generated material, the effects of gaffes, blunders, or plain old poor decisions are much more difficult to control or contain. Before a group or person can clarify or provide context for what was said, a story could go viral and a media narrative constructed that is impossible to backtrack and very difficult to even control. A recent example of such an effect occurred at the University of Virginia when the governing body of the university forced President Teresa A. Sullivan to resign. The board was not happy with the president’s approach to dealing with the changing financial and technological pressures facing the school and thought ousting her may make room for a president who was more supportive of a corporate model of university governance (Pérez-Peña, 2012). When the story picked up local and then national media coverage, students, faculty, and alumni came together to support Sullivan, and a week later she was reinstated. Instead of the intended effect of changing the direction and priorities for the university, the board’s actions increased support for the president, which will also likely add support to her plans for dealing with the issues.