Debates in Media Effects Literature

The biggest take away from the contemporary scholarship is that Media Effects seems to be having its “Expanding Field” moment (a term I know from art history; see Krauss, 1979). Shit’s getting complicated, and things can’t be adequately explained without venturing into the theoretical frameworks of other disciplines or redefining some of the field’s foundational terms.

Following up the criticism from Holbert et al. to not toss the baby out with the bathwater, my instinct is to think that the discrepancies between Media Effects models that can describe effects and uses in earlier periods and the ones needed to describe today’s as requiring some overarching model or theory that can adequately explain effects from both periods. However, I don’t know if that’s possible, already happening, or within the scope of media effects study. The human ecological factors that audiences feel likely have confounding influences on media use, as the differences in early Modern (1890-1930) and late Modern (1930-1960) periods show — media use that was most informed and guided by social, political, and economic factors like urbanization and mass migration (Chaffee & Metzger, p. 367).

A second, counter-perspective also comes to mind. To continue the parallel that Neumann draws between Media Effects models and the Heliocentric and Geocentric astronomical models, the Geocentric Model didn’t cease being useful for navigation, timekeeping, or for telling you where in the sky to point a telescope. It is important to note that a model doesn’t need to represent truth to be useful; it simply must have its limitations qualified. Maps and diagrams are another perfect example of this. Michael Beirut has a great video lecture (“The genius of the London Tube Map”) that explains how a geographically accurate map of London’s Underground train system was challenging to read and understand, but when they trialed a map which was abstracted from geography, it was instantly successful and quickly became the world standard for public transit maps.

Between this mess of mixed notions that I have, I think the key to evaluating any model is its simplicity and utility.

I think that there is a certain amount of alarmism around media fragmentation. While, yes, new technology is creating the infrastructure for extreme selectivity and individualized media use, there must be a finite ability for a population to create desirable, gratifying media content with diminishing quality and gratification for audiences and diminishing revenue and resources for creators as the audience narrows. Eventually, this media and audience fragmentation will equalize; though it may be at different levels depending on the nature of the platform. For example, I have a lower tolerance for low-quality YouTube videos than I do for low-quality links and discussion on Reddit. It takes more effort to evaluate the quality of a video (being a linear, durational medium), while Reddit’s text comments take minimal effort to skim and skip over. But in both platforms, I regularly reach the limits of the desirable content, and either become less-selective or move onto other things. The only thing which concerns me are echo-chambers and Eli Pariser’s Filter Bubbles, and not because they might completely isolate but because they might legitimize fringe ideas and largely seem to be passive, unintentional consequences of algorithms. Being driven by algorithms optimizing for clickthroughs and ad revenue, filter bubbles have the power to make us more extreme versions of ourselves in strange and unexpected ways.

Literature reviewed
Bennett, W. Lance, and Shanto Iyengar. 2008. “A New Era of Minimal Effects? The Changing Foundations of Political Communication.” Journal of Communication 58 (4): 707 – 31.
— —  — . 2010. “The Shifting Foundations of Political Communication: Responding to a Defense of the Media Effects Paradigm.” Journal of Communication 60 (1): 35 – 39.
Chaffee, Steven H., and Miriam J. Metzger. 2001. “The End of Mass Communication?” Mass Communication and Society 4 (4): 365 – 79.
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.
Neuman, W. Russell. 2018. “The Paradox of the Paradigm: An Important Gap in Media Effects Research.” Journal of Communication 68 (2): 369 – 79.

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