Debates in Media Effects Literature

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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.

On media selectivity and the Uses-and-Gratifications perspective

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The thing that immediately stood out to me about Rubin’s discussion of Uses and Gratifications was the language. Uses and gratifications …what? Is it a perspective? Approach? Theory? It frequently goes unqualified, which seemed to be a deliberate affectation. I looked into it, and there seems to be some criticism or debate around the precise terminology, and this paper may be attempting to stay out of it. Apparently, U&G originally received criticism for being called a theory while not qualifying as one.

These are the types of things that I tend to notice when practicing “active reading,” where I approach a text as a conversation with the author (parasocial). I note questions and tangential thoughts that come to mind as I’m reading. Overall, this increases my engagement with a text, improves my recall and comprehension, and I find that it permits me to be more critical — in contrast to Kim & Rubin (1997) who classify skeptical responses as reducing comprehension. This is an area where I’m active by choice and utility, but my TV viewing has become active out of necessity and format.

I’m both a cord-cutter and a huge nerd, which I think makes me acutely aware of media selectivity, the intentions behind my media use, and desires that I pursue through that media use. I love science fiction (for its reality exploration) and educational television (value reinforcement; learning is fun) to the exclusion of most other types of TV content. Knowing that, it’s probably easy to see why I cut cable.

For me, primetime television was replaced, many years ago, with educational YouTube videos because they better met my cognitive and affective desires. With what happened to TLC, Discovery Channel and the History Channel, an entire genre was increasingly absent from cable TV; I missed it and resented its departure. I sought out educational content as much I could, selectively exposing myself content like Nova and Cosmos. When the last blocks of WW2 programming gave over to the History Channel’s paranormal and pawn shop crazes, I almost entirely ceased using television and video media for passive, ritualized, and diversionary viewing. Once YouTube dominated my use of the video medium, I had to be a much more active viewer. Partly because the content is short and I have to pick what to watch next, and partly because I have to fight to keep the algorithm trained to my preferences (avoidance: list videos and conspiracy theories).

The industry is finally catching up with this. I’m a big Star Trek fan, so I am watching Star Trek Discovery. Being the show that launched CBS’s online-only platform, it requires even more intent (and money) to watch. However, it provides me with fresh (affective) involvement in a fandom from my childhood. Involvement that doesn’t end with the episode itself; I also have to participate in the fan discussions (behavior involvement) over the course of days and weeks, because I enjoy the fan-created critical essays that dissect each moment, reference, and context as much as the show itself. 

Literature reviewed
Knobloch-Westerwick, Silvia. 2015. “Building Blocks of the Selective Exposure Paradigm.” In Choice and Preference in Media Use: Advances in Selective Exposure Theory and Research, 3 – 24. New York: Routledge.
Oliver, B., and K. M. Krakowiak. 2009. “Individual Differences in Media Effects.” In Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research, edited by Jennings Bryant and Mary Beth Oliver, 3rd ed, 517 – 31. Communication Series. Communication Theory and Methodology. New York: Routledge.
Riles, Julius Matthew, Andrew Pilny, and David Tewksbury. 2018. “Media Fragmentation in the Context of Bounded Social Networks: How Far Can It Go?” New Media & Society 20 (4): 1415 – 32.
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.

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

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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.
— —  — . 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.