Media Effects in Aggregate: Confluences and limitations

In prior updates, these posts have addressed the various complications of media effects research; across models, eras, and paradigms, media effects research is a complicated field trying to study, figuratively, already fidgety subjects within contexts that are moving faster than scholarly papers can be produced (Valkenburg, Peter, and Walther 2016, 331). The field either needs new theories (Bennett and Iyengar 2008, 708) or to find the underlying assumptions and biases which are undermining their perspectives (Neuman 2018, 376). With this aim in mind, Valkenburg & Peter (2013) and Valkenburg, Peter, & Walther (2016) strive to reassess the literature. These papers deconstruct the literature to make cross-comparisons and groupings between independently developed models, to find unifying descriptors for areas of seemingly infinite variety, and to collect and re-integrate their findings into a digestible, succinct-yet-comprehensive form. 

Valkenburg, Peter, and Walther identify five “global features” of media that are shared amongst different models, which they use to mark out the contexts which media effects models address (2016, 319). The features are audience selectivity, media properties (like mode, format, and genre), an assumption of indirect media effects, conditional effects based on individual differences, and transactional or reciprocal media effects (Valkenburg, Peter, and Walther 2016, 318 – 26). From their analysis, they find that both media and nonmedia factors are inexorably linked (Valkenburg, Peter, and Walther 2016, 332). Media effects take form through a web of interdependent factors that exist within and between media, outside the media, and even outside the context of media-use. Since the factors involved in media use, influence, and selection cannot be taken in isolation, more sophisticated and comprehensive models are required. They posit that inconsistencies and minimal media effects might be caused by undertheorizing (Valkenburg and Peter 2013, 222). However, this poses methodological challenges, as “theories in the social sciences are not applicable irrespective of context” (Busse, Kach, and Wagner 2017, 576).

Media effects models as a whole are at risk of narrowing generalizability in the face of technology-driven social changes (Valkenburg, Peter, and Walther 2016, 332). Other researchers are even more damning, with Bennett and Iyengar (2008) believing that the validity of current research methods and theories faces risks that can only be addressed through new theorizing. Other researchers believe the models may be valid, but incomplete, and instead they call for structural changes to the publishing and funding of research that would permit researchers to pursue their work with critically different mindsets: “We may be asking the right questions but have a paradoxical paradigm-induced blind spot that leads us to ignore or explain away null finding or reverse effect” (Neuman 2018, 376).

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.
  • Busse, Christian, Andrew P. Kach, and Stephan M. Wagner. 2017. “Boundary Conditions: What They Are, How to Explore Them, Why We Need Them, and When to Consider Them.” Organizational Research Methods 20 (4): 574 – 609.
  • Neuman, W. Russell. 2018. “The Paradox of the Paradigm: An Important Gap in Media Effects Research.” Journal of Communication 68 (2): 369 – 79.
  • Valkenburg, Patti M., and Jochen Peter. 2013. “The Differential Susceptibility to Media Effects Model.” Journal of Communication 63 (2): 221 – 43.
  • Valkenburg, Patti M., Jochen Peter, and Joseph B. Walther. 2016. “Media Effects: Theory and Research.” Annual Review of Psychology 67 (1): 315 – 38.

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