Prejudice and Our Shared Notions of Reality

Media effects scholars have long recognized the role of mass media in establishing culture, norms, and shared conceptions of reality — indeed, these links exist across historical literature far predating the formalized, scientific study of mass media. George Gerbner, in a seminal paper laying the groundwork for what would become the Cultivation approach to mass communication studies, states that mass media messages can be thought of as “the common culture through which communities cultivate shared and public notions about facts, values, and contingencies of human existence” (1969, pp. 137 – 138). Where social perceptions and shared realities overlap with mass media, media effects can be understood through different lines of theoretical inquiry. 

Broadly, media priming and framing provide explanations for how media messages activate biased predispositions already existing in an individual. However, these mechanisms, when incorporated within the agenda-setting perspective, can explain other, counter-intuitive effects. Second-level agenda setting provides insight into how media portrayals are able to influence collective perceptions by increasing the “salience” of issues in the minds of audiences (McCombs & Reynolds, 2009, p. 2; Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007, pp. 14 – 15). Alongside these frameworks, two other theories can be used to study the relationships between media effects and social bias, stereotyping, and prejudice. First, group threat theory provides specific mechanisms that media effects researchers can use to connect messages with social group biases and resulting attitude or behavior. Group threat theory explains the ethnocentric responses of dominate social groups, which arise when members of the dominant group perceive threats to either the hierarchical social orders that benefit them or their position within a social order (Skinner & Cheadle, 2016, pp. 545, 551 – 552). For media effects studies, the theory provides control variables (Skinner & Cheadle, 2016, p. 548) that can be used in priming and framing studies. Those studies are able to observe how moderating attributes, like racial identity, interact with other intervening and confounding factors, like internal predispositions and external pressures to respond without prejudice (Skinner & Cheadle, 2016, pp. 544, 546). These additional — and crucial — audience characteristics can be studied through measures devised by Plant and Devine (1998) who used two scales to “disentangle” the complex mesh of internal and external motivations that people have for responding without prejudice (p. 812). Since people can have a variety of reasons to mask or not present their biases, the web of factors must be sorted out before researchers can adequately determine when and how media effect those biases. It’s important, now, to recognize that within the frameworks of agenda setting — and especially of media priming and framing — researchers are looking at the short-term effects of media. While longitudinal studies (which involves repeated observations over time) can be used to examine long-term effects, and control for prior biases (Sparks, Sparks, & Sparks, 2009, pp. 276 – 277), the Cultivation approach may lend itself the most to explaining and modeling the effects of mass media on the worldviews of audiences. 

The cultivation approach understands mass media (particularly television) as having small cumulative effects over a long time with significant, even powerful, implications for the collective worldviews and shared notions of reality in an audience. This, at face value, is a wild suggestion for media effects scholars (Morgan, Shanahan, & Signorielli, 2009, p. 37). The theory seems to imply that, regardless of factors like selection and active versus passive use, the media acts as a systemic force in establishing culture. In the face of apparent contradictions, Morgan et al. (2009) instead argue that audience choices and selection do matter, but that between those choices are sets of commonalities which, over time, construct a shared vision of the world. It is this effect, they state, that cultivation studies (2009, p. 37). Cultivation effects are best understood as a dynamic and continuous process of pushing and pulling, and cultivation scholars neither negate the literature from an audience selectivity perspective nor backpedal the powerful claims of the cultivation literature (Jacobs, Hooghe, & de Vroome, 2017, p. 247; Morley, 1997, p. 35; Shanahan, Morgan, & Morgan, 1999, p. 125).

Media effects can be, at once, a study opposed to grand claims of direct and overwhelming sway while also demonstrably connecting changes in the culture at-large with the currents of mass media.  This idea is, to say the least, provocative. But the critical literature is clear, media effects must be understood at all levels. In developing these two lines of inquiry, scholars gain access to both the canopy and the undergrowth in the forests of human culture.

Literature reviewed
  • Gerbner, G. (1969). Toward “Cultural Indicators”: The Analysis of Mass Mediated Public Message Systems. AV Communication Review, 17(2), 137 – 148. Retrieved from JSTOR.
  • Jacobs, L., Hooghe, M., & de Vroome, T. (2017). Television and anti-immigrant sentiments: the mediating role of fear of crime and perceived ethnic diversity. European Societies, 19(3), 243 – 267.
  • McCombs, M., & Reynolds, A. (2009). How the news shapes our civic agenda. In J. Bryant & M. B. Oliver (Eds.), Media effects: advances in theory and research (3rd ed, pp. 1 – 16). New York: Routledge.
  • Morgan, M., Shanahan, J., & Signorielli, N. (2009). Growing up with television: Cultivation processes. In J. Bryant & M. B. Oliver (Eds.), Media effects: advances in theory and research (3rd ed, pp. 34 – 49). New York: Routledge.
  • Morley, D. (1997). Theoretical Orthodoxies: Textualism, Constructivism and the “New Ethnography” in Cultural Studies. In M. Ferguson & P. Golding (Eds.), Cultural Studies in Question. Retrieved from
  • Plant, E. A., & Devine, P. G. (1998). Internal and external motivation to respond without prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(3), 811 – 832.
  • Scheufele, D. A., & Tewksbury, D. (2007). Framing, Agenda Setting, and Priming: The Evolution of Three Media Effects Models. Journal of Communication, 57(1), 9 – 20.
  • Shanahan, J., Morgan, M., & Morgan, M. (1999). Television and its Viewers: Cultivation Theory and Research. Retrieved from
  • Skinner, A. L., & Cheadle, J. E. (2016). The “Obama Effect”? Priming Contemporary Racial Milestones Increases Implicit Racial Bias among Whites. Social Cognition, 34(6), 544 – 558.
  • Sparks, G. G., Sparks, C. W., & Sparks, E. A. (2009). Media Violence. In J. Bryant & M. B. Oliver (Eds.), Media effects: advances in theory and research (3rd ed, pp. 269 – 286). New York: Routledge.