Classifying Infinite Variety

Once scholars shifted to incorporate how audiences themselves effect media, they were confronted with the messy realities of humanity; that our individual differences complicate, confound, and defy but that those differences also “[represent] the very thing that makes humans interesting, unique, and infinitely worthy of our research attention” (Oliver and Krakowiak 2009, 517). Models had to become to more sophisticated to adequately explain media use and influence as new technologies upset old paradigms and as media audiences generated new trends and variety in media use. Using a negative outlook for illustrative purposes, media use has consequences that can be described in terms of where they take place or manifest, the forms those consequences take, and finally the severity of their outcomes. 

Media effects can manifest at multiple levels. Overtime, models had to incorporate different levels of analysis to explain apparent effects because influences and effects take form both within and between people. Broadly, these are the micro- and macrolevels of media effects (McLeod, Kosicki, & McLeod, 2010, via Potter 2011, 903). The micro is the intrapersonal level — it includes factors like pre-existing beliefs and amount of activity or engagement — whereas the macrolevel is concerned with the societal effects of media (Potter 2011, 903 – 4). However, this initial division ignored how effects manifest differently within societal groups (as well as institutions, organizations, and cultures) than they do within relatively smaller groups of individuals (like social groups and co-workers), so researchers like Chaffee and Berger (1987), McLeod, Kosicki, and McLeod (2010), and Potter (2011) have suggested additional levels of analysis that fall between the individual and the many (Potter 2011, 903 – 4). This is the mesolevel, though some research further distinguishes between person-to-person and network scales of interaction (Potter 2011, 904). Across the different levels, models also need to consider the results of media use: their forms and the impact that they have.

First, Potter (2011) frames the outcomes as coming in distinct types of effects — the media can act on our “cognitions, attitudes, beliefs, affects, physiology, and behaviors” (2011, 904), though the exact typology varies across the literature (Potter 2011, 897). Valkenburg and Peter’s Differential Susceptibility Model of Media-use expands the means of discussing outcomes by reframing the aforementioned types as conditional effects and adding four other categories of indirect media effect — collected and synthesized from the media effects literature (2013, 222 – 23). Those categories consider how outcomes can manifest differently based on: (1) how/why/for-what individuals are using the media, (2) how individuals mentally and physiologically respond to that media, (3) the “second-order” media effects resulting from other media effects, and (4) the reciprocity between outcomes and further media use (Valkenburg and Peter 2013, 222 – 24). 

Finally, each outcome of media use has an impact that can be described in terms of varying strengths of effects. Implicit in this is change. Effects can result in a change to an attribute which can vary in strength — take a jumpscare, which triggers an orienting reflex, elicits a strong (magnitude of the change) physiological response (type of effect) in a person (level of effect) that increases their heart rate (a specific measure of change) — but this is a fundamentally limited perspective. Potter expands types of changes to include other dimensions. He intuits three properties to describe the changes resulting from an effect: “kind, magnitude, and weight” (2011, 904). This permits him to describe amounts like minuscule to large changes (magnitude: a change occurred, by how much did the attribute change?), changes that reinforce existing factors and resist further change (weight: does the change reinforce/strengthen existing beliefs?), as well as more radical shifts which overcome prior insusceptibility (kind: true persuasion, the change to an attribute was from one type to another). That said, the distinction between magnitude and weight can be confusing — they are a mixed metaphor — and Potter’s later use of waveform metaphor (2011, 907 – 9) or, alternatively, terms from social influence scholarship like change, formation, and reinforcement (Holbert, Garrett, and Gleason 2010, 17) may provide better clarity when quantifying and qualifying what results from a media effect. 

Literature reviewed
  • Holbert, R. Lance, R. Kelly Garrett, and Laurel S. Gleason. 2010. “A New Era of Minimal Effects? A Response to Bennett and Iyengar.” Journal of Communication 60 (1): 15 – 34.
  • Oliver, B., and K. M. Krakowiak. 2009. “Individual Differences in Media Effects.” In Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research, edited by Jennings Bryant and Mary Beth Oliver, 3rd ed, 517 – 31. Communication Series. Communication Theory and Methodology. New York: Routledge.
  • Potter, W. James. 2011. “Conceptualizing Mass Media Effect.” Journal of Communication 61 (5): 896 – 915.
  • Valkenburg, Patti M., and Jochen Peter. 2013. “The Differential Susceptibility to Media Effects Model.” Journal of Communication 63 (2): 221 – 43.

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