Polarity in Effects Research

How much impact does mass communication have on audiences? This central question of media effects came about during the early Twentieth Century when the proliferation of broadcast and “industrialized” media was underway and the consequences of “European totalitarian propaganda” were becoming apparent (Neuman and Guggenheim 2011, 171). Since its inception as a formal field of study — and perhaps before (see Greenberg and Salwen 2009, 61) — Media Effects research has gone through phases that can be typified as dealing with, and occasionally assuming, significant effects and minimal effects. This has its origins in the specific contexts of different periods and places, it has shifted from contrasting extremes to nuanced perspectives, and it has presented a narrative that media effects researchers have relied on to orient their field for both critical and detrimental purposes.

If it was the industrialization of mass media that began the study of media effects, then it was for what industrialization entailed. In broader contexts, it came with the newfound uniformity and ubiquity of goods that mass production offered (Geddes 1932, 13 – 15). For communication researchers, industrialization of the media meant that state-sponsored propaganda could be served directly to the people instead of filtering through error-prone messengers and the well-informed (Neuman and Guggenheim 2011, 171; Valkenburg, Peter, and Walther 2016, 316). The Modern era was a societal paradigm shift — this was a period when everyone shifted from purchasing artisan handiwork to buying identical teapots. Just like the artisans imparted imperfections and humanistic qualities to their work, messengers imparted their own (Neuman 2018, 370 – 71, 374). Applying this analogy, what changes when messages lose their humanistic qualities and imperfect transmission? Greenberg and Salwen posit that in the aftermath of WWI there was an intuitive belief that a very few, powerful individuals would be able to use an industrializing and modernizing media to send propaganda with uniform effects (2009, 62). Neuman and Guggenheim indicate that the early “magic bullet” perspective of media effects may have had more nuance than it is typically credited (2011, 172), which may also indicate that early media effects research was prompted by concerns over these new technologies and media contexts, mirroring today’s similar, if opposing, concerns (compare Bennett and Iyengar 2008, 716; Chaffee and Metzger 2001, 367). However, some researchers and the public at-large held the impression that media had a direct influence over “vulnerable audiences” (Chaffee and Metzger 2001, 366 – 67), that the message need only be received to have impact, and that audiences were homogeneous, passive, and “malleable” (Greenberg and Salwen 2009, 62).

Researchers eventually abandoned this perspective — and in light of Congressional interest, researchers like Klapper heavily criticized it (Neuman and Guggenheim 2011, 172). Mass media doesn’t have such clear effects; nor are audiences homogenous, passive, or malleable. The earlier notions were predicated on a mechanistic approach to the study of mass media (Rubin 2009, 165), but these simplistic models presumed uniform and immediate effects and were therefore ill-equipped to explain the factors that lie between communication and effect (Carey, 1989, via Neuman 2018, 370). The minimal effects hypothesis was championed by Klapper in response to political science research which revealed that political persuasion was heavily mediated by external factors like predisposition, interpersonal relationships, and the influence of thought-leaders (Neuman and Guggenheim 2011, 172). Klapper argued that the media’s influence was confirming and reinforcing existing beliefs (Greenberg and Salwen 2009, 66 – 67). This era of minimal effects was an attempt to explain why there were not uniform and immediate effects resulting from media use by using “two-step flow” which models how such external factors as personal influence might mediate messages and persuasive effects (Bennett and Iyengar 2008, 707 – 8; Greenberg and Salwen 2009, 72; Valkenburg, Peter, and Walther 2016, 319). This area of research quickly lost its footing — Klapper was lampooned with a procession of examples with “not-so minimal effects” (Iyengar, Peters, & Kinder, 1982, via Neuman and Guggenheim 2011, 172), and the field began embracing an era of new models which can be loosely called “moderate effects” (Greenberg and Salwen 2009, 67). 

Moderate effects, agenda setting in particular (Bennett and Iyengar 2008, 708), is the prevailing view of media effects research. It envelopes models like “agenda setting, knowledge gap, [and] gatekeeping” (Greenberg and Salwen 2009, 67). However, these models are as much an artifact of their time and place as the models from the 1920s (Bennett and Iyengar 2008, 707). Does agenda setting pass muster when the number of media sources is orders of magnitude larger than those in 1968? Can knowledge gap make sense of knowledge distribution when digitally-democratized information with always-on access presents a total and fundamental upheaval to how information was accessed in the 1970s? Is gatekeeping meaningful when audiences become their own gatekeepers, or when the role is delegated to algorithms? In light of new technology and new paradigms of media use, Bennett and Iyengar argue a return to minimal effects — or, more accurately, a return to the minimal effects paradigm as a perspective for readdressing contemporary models and research (2008, 707 – 8). The old models, prior to Klapper’s minimal effects era, were insufficient to describe a changing media environment, and the minimal effects era sparked the creation of new methods, measures, and models to describe the “strong effects” that were manifesting in new contexts (Bennett and Iyengar 2008, 708). Bennett and Iyengar’s call for a return to minimal effects is, at least in part, a provocation to again generate new models for new contexts. It’s also a callback to that era; an opportunity to do it better, this time considering the social and technological changes within comprehensive models which address the oversights that Bennett and Iyengar consider the greatest failure of the literature from that earlier period (Bennett and Iyengar 2008, 708). In the contemporary landscape, they see society as being hyper-niche and disconnected from the social institutions which once bore considerable influence (Bennett and Iyengar 2008, 707), and they see the challenges that threaten to break, not just current models, but also the relevance and validity of current designs for media effects data collection and research (Bennett and Iyengar 2008, 724). Central to Bennett and Iyengar’s argument is that audience structure is radically different due to changes in communication technology (2008, 717) which allow audiences to self-select media (2008, 717) while largely avoiding inadvertent media-use (2008, 717 – 18). The authors assert that audiences are becoming increasingly politically fragmented through selective exposure and partisan echo-chambers (Bennett and Iyengar 2008, 717, 719 – 20). In this environment, current measures and models of persuasive media effects begin to fail (Bennett and Iyengar 2008, 724) — they show as minimal effects. Holbert, Garrett, and Gleason largely agree about the need for new theorizing, but they also contend that this focus on news and political information hides some unfounded assumptions (2010, 15 – 16). They caution that a preoccupation with examples, questions, and measures based around news sources in the study of political media effects is itself an assumption to be questioned (2010, 15, 17 – 18, 31). The critical discourse between the groups reveals that Bennett and Iyengar aim to uncover the field’s assumptions at-large (2010, 38) and that their true concern is current research methods and models being insufficient to describe and measure the effects taking place in the new media environment (2008, 708, 2010, 37). 

The media effects research is abundantly clear that effects do occur and that they can be anything from minimal to strong (Bennett and Iyengar 2008, 708; Greenberg and Salwen 2009, 67; Valkenburg and Peter 2013, 222), leading to a new era of theorizing broadly called “moderate” (Greenberg and Salwen 2009, 67). However, this name predisposes the literature to a specific narrative. The models and research implications have moved well beyond minimal versus strong effects, there is no polarity nor debate, yet Neuman and Guggenheim accuse the scholarship of continuously casting these new models against Klapper’s minimal effects (2011, 173). A polarity between minimal and significant effects belies the complex interconnectedness of mass communication, media effects, and audiences. It also belittles Klapper’s contribution to the field, integrating selectivity and nonmedia factors into mass communication studies (Greenberg and Salwen 2009, 66; Neuman 2018, 373). In a field already preoccupied with responding to public fears regarding harmful media effects (Potter 2011, 897), this polarity (rather, the narrative of it) is a false dichotomy between one-dimensional options when a greater breadth of perspectives exist. Even with the addition of a “moderate effects” perspective, this narrative conflates what is significant (in the sense of noteworthy, non-trivial) with what is measurable (Neuman and Guggenheim 2011, 172), and it hides an assumption that minimal and significant are mutually exclusive when this need not be the case. Conceivably, effects may be both minimally measurable through current methods and models while still having significant consequences on media audiences. Conversely, if we imagine a pair of Maximal Effects — to abuse the language — the first may weaken over time, while the other appears as a flash-in-the-pan. Neuman and Guggenheim strive to move the literature beyond this fictitious debate, and they chastise the field for perpetuating and engaging in the narrative: 

[T]he minimal-effects/significant-effects polarity we believe is a demonstrable impediment to the design and interpretation of media effects. […] It would appear that even after 50 years, simply to demonstrate a statistically significant effect in the ongoing battle against the vestiges of Klapper’s evil empire is sufficient justification for celebration and publication. (2011, 173) 

And, Neuman later adds to this line of reasoning:

Perhaps our paradigm would be strengthened if we recognized that media effects are neither characteristically strong nor are they characteristically minimal: they are characteristically highly variable. (2018, 370)

The narratives of polarity and of conquering minimal effects are simplistic comforts in the face of the crucial issues and limitations that the field must contend with. It is time for media effects researchers to put them aside.

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. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-2466.2008.00410.x.
  • — —  — . 2010. “The Shifting Foundations of Political Communication: Responding to a Defense of the Media Effects Paradigm.” Journal of Communication 60 (1): 35 – 39. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-2466.2009.01471.x.
  • Chaffee, Steven H., and Miriam J. Metzger. 2001. “The End of Mass Communication?” Mass Communication and Society 4 (4): 365 – 79. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15327825MCS0404_3.
  • Geddes, Norman Bel. 1932. Horizons. Boston, Little, Brown, and Company. http://archive.org/details/horizons00geddrich.
  • 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.
  • 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. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-2466.2009.01470.x.
  • Neuman, W. Russell. 2018. “The Paradox of the Paradigm: An Important Gap in Media Effects Research.” Journal of Communication 68 (2): 369 – 79. https://doi.org/10.1093/joc/jqx022.
  • Neuman, W. Russell, and Lauren Guggenheim. 2011. “The Evolution of Media Effects Theory: A Six-Stage Model of Cumulative Research.” Communication Theory (1050-3293) 21 (2): 169 – 96. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2885.2011.01381.x.
  • 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.
  • Rubin, A. M. 2009. “Uses-and-Gratifications Perspective of Media Effects.” In Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research, edited by Jennings Bryant and Mary Beth Oliver, 3rd ed, 165 – 84. Communication Series. Communication Theory and Methodology. New York: Routledge.
  • 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.
  • Valkenburg, Patti M., Jochen Peter, and Joseph B. Walther. 2016. “Media Effects: Theory and Research.” Annual Review of Psychology 67 (1): 315 – 38. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-122414-033608.

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