How to study Mass Media: thoughts and responses to Media Effects literature

While I initially took issue with Potter’s definition of Mass Media, I see the need for the distinction that he makes between modes of mass media and the senders themselves. But, his framework raised questions in me on how to consider and qualify “viral media” — those messages (typically) made by individuals which achieve extremely pervasive exposure across societies for an extremely brief period. Are such messages exerting an influence and what types? Is there a meaningful distinction between viral messages and forms of mass media with short exposure? How do “fake news” or disinformation campaigns factor in, and do they work within or further complicate the existing models of media effects?

Greenberg and Salwen pose a question in a similar vein; is accessing internet databases a form of mass communication? Setting aside the issues Wilbur Schramm had with academia’s narrow focus, it seems that mass communication is worth studying separately from interpersonal communication because of emergent attributes and consequences unique to those forms. For my current understanding of the field, this notion points to a more fundamental definition than the one Potter provides. Valkenburg and Peter fill this gap. What makes mass communication effects distinct from interpersonal communication are the complex interactions between indirect effects and conditions that can accrue over time, reinforcing or negating each other, and spreading across a population.

The number of models and ways of conceptualizing media effects that are in and alluded to in these readings suggest that there is a “wickedness” to media effects. Wicked, as in Wicked Problems, is a term used to describe issues that are complexly interconnected, inherently human, and (because of that humanness) difficult to describe and define. Valkenburg and Peter reinforce this idea with their focus on conditional and indirect media effects. Their DSMM article does the best job of qualifying the challenges of media effect studies, and they layout a path for further research that they hope can lead to some predictive capacity that links specific media content with specific media effects.

Perhaps because of a dispositional susceptibility, I was the most engaged with Potter’s discussion of the physiological effects of media because several overlaps in areas of my work, studies, and personal life. And as an ADHD person, I often have to use sensory noise to control an overactive orienting reflex. Within design, this relates to my studies of gestalt theory, kinesthetic (body) empathy, and sensory toys/affectations.

The four arousal responses miss something that I think is necessary to fully describe the physiological effects of media. He slightly hits on it with his example of a fight/flight response, but we can vicariously experience more than just triggers for that reflex. Distinct from generalized arousal, which treats the brain like a black box and seems to be more of a catchall for the mechanisms lacking an explanatory process, I argue that we also have an empathetic arousal — that is, the activation of “mirror neurons” in response to events happening to others (usually living creatures, but not necessarily). This empathetic response allows you to feel a facsimile of another’s internal state, like the pain of a scraped knee or the love behind a proposal. It would provide explanatory power for why there is audience backlash when a favorite character is written out of a show. It explains for me why I felt dissonant with the TV show Last Man on Earth, which had character-driven stories in socially awkward situations that were genuinely hard to watch, but which also elicited endearment through vignettes on the human condition. Though this is conjecture on my part, an empathetic reaction may also be responsible for some of the principals of gestalt theory, allowing us to interpret things like implied motion from static arrangements.

Potter’s brief on Brain Processing is in dire need of an update; the vast majority of its cited material is two or more decades out of touch. We have better ways of conceptualizing brain activity than brain waves, the Left/Right Brain theory carries a lot of baggage, and the connection between media exposure and ADD (now called ADHD) is entirely fallacious. Describing brain functioning in terms of contemporary computer-use and using analogies from neural-networks may be more useful (which is a realistic expectation for something published in 2012).

Literature reviewed
Greenberg, Bradley S., and Michael B. Salwen. 2009. “Mass Communication Theory and Research: Concepts and Models.” In An Integrated Approach to Communication Theory and Research, edited by Don W. Stacks and Michael Brian Salwen, 2nd ed, 61 – 74. Communication Series. Communication Theory and Methodology. New York: Routledge.
Potter, W. James. 2011. “Conceptualizing Mass Media Effect.” Journal of Communication 61 (5): 896 – 915. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-2466.2011.01586.x.
— —  — . 2012. “Types of Mass Media Effects on Individuals.” In Media Effects, 85 – 106. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Valkenburg, Patti M., and Jochen Peter. 2013. “The Differential Susceptibility to Media Effects Model.” Journal of Communication 63 (2): 221 – 43. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcom.12024.

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