The Study of Violent Media

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Violent media has a storied history in the United States. It has been the rallying point for numerous moral‐panics, the subject of a great deal of social and scholarly criticism (Sparks, Sparks, & Sparks, 2009, pp. 270 – 274), and the focus of enormous portions of the media effects literature (Sparks et al., 2009, p. 271).

The earliest studies of mass media and violence examined the relationships between content and certain physiological and cognitive measures. Physiological effects can be observed by looking for arousal to violent stimuli or habituated desensitization to those same stimuli (Sparks et al., 2009, pp. 278 – 279), and as externally verifiable, physiological measures are easier generalize. While more difficult to study, validate, and generalize, the cognitive methods house crucial understandings of media effects (Plant & Devine, 1998, make a similar argument in regards to internal and external motivations), though these methods do vary in sophistication and ability to pierce the black box of human cognition (Sparks et al., 2009, pp. 279, 281). These methods observe media effects through social learning (establishing norms), media priming, information processing (with the increasing feasibility of incorporating brain‐imaging), and attitudinal changes like increased aggression (Perse, 2001, pp. 204 – 215; Sparks et al., 2009, pp. 277 – 278). These methods and approaches look to behavior and attitude change, generally in the short‐term, and understand the impacts of individual messages. Were there to be a single, powerful message directly resulting in violent behavior, these mechanisms would be the ones to link message with behavior, and then to qualify and explain the connection.

On the other hand, cultivation theory looks at the entire media context of an audience and only addresses the aggregate effects of media (Mastro, 2009, p. 334). In spite of this apparent complexity, cultivation has a reductive beauty of its own. Instead of linking violent behaviors with specific media, a cultivation approach to studying violent media looks at the culminating impacts of the media, understood as an overarching cultural force, on an audience or a person’s perceived reality. Additionally, rather than looking to the effects of violent media on factors like aggression, this paradigm looks to study the beliefs and assumptions about reality that the media cultivate (Sparks et al., 2009, p. 271). Being studied through surveys that ask respondents to relate the lessons of media content, it is important to note that these media do not need to feature violence themselves to result in perceived lessons and fears related to violence (Morgan, Shanahan, & Signorielli, 2009, pp. 38 – 40). This can be seen plainly in effects like the “mean world syndrome” where audiences believe the world to be more dangerous the more television they view (Morgan et al., 2009, p. 41; Riddle, Potter, Metzger, Nabi, & Linz, 2011, pp. 168, 184; Sparks et al., 2009, p. 271).

Between cultivation and effects approaches are complimentary, if inverted, paradigms for studying the effects violent media. By looking at the effects of individual messages and looking at the aggregate effects of all media, scholars have an opportunity to understand the totality of society’s relationship with mass media.

Literature reviewed
  • Mastro, D. (2009). Effects of Racial and Ethnic Stereotyping. In J. Bryant & M. B. Oliver (Eds.), Media effects: advances in theory and research (3rd ed). 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.
  • Perse, E. M. (2001). Media effects and society. In LEA’s Communication Series. Mahwah, NJ: LErlbaum Associates.
  • Riddle, K., Potter, W. J., Metzger, M. J., Nabi, R. L., & Linz, D. G. (2011). Beyond cultivation: Exploring the effects of frequency, recency, and vivid autobiographical memories for violent media. Media Psychology, 14(2), 168 – 191. https://doi.org/10.1080/15213269.2011.573464
  • 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.

Prejudice and Our Shared Notions of Reality

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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. https://doi.org/10.1080/14616696.2017.1290264
  • 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 http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uh/detail.action?docID=456734
  • 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. https://doi.org/10/b7kztv
  • 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. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0021 – 9916.2007.00326.x
  • Shanahan, J., Morgan, M., & Morgan, M. (1999). Television and its Viewers: Cultivation Theory and Research. Retrieved from http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uh/detail.action?docID=202000
  • 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. https://doi.org/10.1521/soco.2016.34.6.544
  • 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.

The Interleaved Approaches to Political Media Effects

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The political effects of media are studied the most through combinations of priming, framing, and agenda setting. These terms assume definitions with nuanced‐yet‐significant differences across the media effects literature, both changing over time and through differing uses when combined with other models and frameworks (as discussed throughout Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007; and mentioned in Rosko‐Ewoldsen, Rosko‐Ewoldsen, & Carpentier, 2009, p. 79).

Priming is a term originating from psychological theories of memory. Sometimes borrowing from a water pump metaphor — like the hydraulic model, that the priming effect makes certain information more accessible at the cost of making competing information less so (Rosko‐Ewoldsen et al., 2009, p. 77) — in recent literature it has become more apt to understand priming effects as those preparing certain information or concepts for easier accessibility (Kim, 2005, via Rosko‐Ewoldsen et al., 2009, p. 77) rather than as having a negative effect over competing information. Priming is a useful, powerful means of understanding our responses to mass media, but the effect itself is inherently short‐lived (Rosko‐Ewoldsen et al., 2009, pp. 74, 80). The priming effect, which is based in a network model of memory, results when the prior activation of a concept permits the same and related concepts to be more accessible for subsequent recall (Rosko‐Ewoldsen et al., 2009, pp. 74 – 74; Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007, pp. 11, 15). (In addition to accessibility, Rosko‐Ewoldsen et al. note that Price and Tewksbury’s model of political priming also “incorporate[s] the applicability of information” as a moderator of the effect [2009, p. 82].) Together with framing, priming allows communication researchers to explain the impact of news content on the subjective interpretations that individuals take from news coverage, as well as providing an explanatory mechanism for occasions when those interpretations differ from what an individual’s prior beliefs and political leanings would otherwise predict.

Framing, as a general word, is to establish boundaries. It is to separate in from out, to provide selective focus, or to emphasize details at the expense of removing others. As a term in Media Effects, framing carries a similar meaning. It describes how media, even when working with the same sets of facts, can give audiences different interpretations of the events and stories based on how those stories are told to audiences (such as the effects observed in Skinner & Cheadle, 2016). Yet, media frames are also necessary devices to filter and relate complex topics (Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007, p. 12). Where priming investigates effects within the mind of an individual audience member, framing explores content messages themselves and their broader, long‐term effects (McLeod, Kosicki, & McLeod, 2009, p. 230), meaning that it can explore both the macrolevel effects of frame‐building and the microlevel effects of an individual’s mental schema (Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007, pp. 11 – 12). Further still, framing and priming models are able to be used together to explain combinations of applicability and accessibility effects (McLeod et al., 2009, p. 230).

Agenda‐setting is the idea that the media, and their content producers, have a role in establishing the social, civic, and political topics discussed by and on the minds of media audiences. It does this by measuring “salience,” the importance and relevance of information and concepts in the minds of audiences (McCombs & Reynolds, 2009, p. 7; McLeod et al., 2009, p. 230). Like framing and priming, it provides a powerful means for understanding and describing the political effects of media, especially of the news media. Scheufele and Tewksbury (2007) further classify it, alongside priming, as a memory‐based theory grounded in the accessibility of mental constructs (p. 15). The agenda setting perspective, unlike framing and priming, originates in ideas from 1922 and is based on a strong effects understanding of the media (McCombs & Reynolds, 2009, p. 2) where Walter Lippmann, an early researcher of mass communication, sought to “examine how in the individual person the limited messages from outside, formed into a pattern of stereotypes, are identified with his own interests as he feels and conceives them” (Lippmann, 1922, p. 30). Decades later, these ideas were revived by McCombs and Shaw (1972, via McCombs & Reynolds, 2009, p. 2) and have since grown a considerable (as defined by McCombs & Reynolds, 2009, pp. 2 – 3) body of evidence across heterogenous groups.

However, agenda setting (on its own) can be criticized as being overly “simplistic” and “broad” (Funkhouser, 1973a, 1973b, via Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007, p. 15). Once bolstered with framing and priming, the new framework becomes more nuanced (Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007, pp. 14 – 15). Currently, agenda setting uses four perspectives to describe and understand effects which cover those at individual versus population levels and those effects across single agenda items and aggregate sets of agenda items (McCombs & Reynolds, 2009, p. 5). It is further classified into levels, first and second level agenda setting, which permits addressing distinctions between subjects and attributes (Hill & Watson, 2015). The range of these perspectives permit the framework a versatility lacking in framing and priming alone, as well as lacking in earlier agenda setting hypotheses.

Literature reviewed
  • Hill, A., & Watson, J. (2015). Agenda‐setting. In Dictionary of Media and Communication Studies. Retrieved from http://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/dictmedia/agenda_setting/0
  • Lippmann, W. (1922). Public opinion. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.b5232744
  • 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.
  • McLeod, D. M., Kosicki, G. M., & McLeod, J. M. (2009). Political Communication Effects. In J. Bryant & M. B. Oliver (Eds.), Media effects: advances in theory and research (3rd ed, pp. 228 – 251). New York: Routledge.
  • Rosko‐Ewoldsen, D. R., Rosko‐Ewoldsen, B., & Carpentier, F. D. (2009). Media Priming: An updated synthesis. In J. Bryant & M. B. Oliver (Eds.), Media effects: advances in theory and research (3rd ed, pp. 74 – 93). New York: Routledge.
  • 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. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0021 – 9916.2007.00326.x
  • 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. https://doi.org/10.1521/soco.2016.34.6.544

Media Effects in Aggregate: Confluences and limitations

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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

Audience Selectivity: Uses‐and‐gratifications and selective exposure

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Audience selectivity is an area of research that looks to explain the reason that people make the media use choices that they do. The two dominant approaches, uses‐and‐gratifications and selective exposure, share a perspective shift from other types of media research — they focus, not on what the media does to audiences, but on what audiences do with the media (Rubin 2009, 168; Valkenburg, Peter, and Walther 2016, 320); however, the two approaches to selectivity research hold incompatible perspectives on collecting and interpreting data.

The shift to audience‐centered research requires a psychological perspective (Camaj 2019, 1), and for the models to consider the factors that influence selectivity “within the context of other influences” (Rubin 2009, 165). With these distinctions, selectivity research gains a more holistic understanding of the layers of intervening variables that guide and inform the selection process. Both approaches explain selection choices as being based on the needs and desires of the individual as moderated by psychological and social factors (Valkenburg, Peter, and Walther 2016, 320).

From these points of agreement, they diverge in ways with significant implications for data collection and validity. Uses‐and‐gratifications looks to explain the factors that influence an individual’s selection choices because audiences are active participants in both selecting and interpreting media. It further presumes that audiences are fully self‐aware and able to accurately account for the selection‐making process. This is important because uses and gratifications relies on self‐reports as its principal form of data collection. If this assumption is wholly wrong, then the entire corpus of uses and gratifications studies is called into question. Selective exposure, however, argues the opposite; it assumes that audiences are “not fully aware of their selection motives” (Valkenburg, Peter, and Walther 2016, 320). Self‐report data, then, is used minimally (Knobloch‐Westerwick 2015, 8), which comes with the risk of discounting important data related to the selection experience. Instead, selective exposure researchers use behavioral observation in the hopes of collecting more objective measures (Knobloch‐Westerwick 2015, 8). However, these methods bring their own issues because behavioral observation can be invasive, overt observations can alter or bias selection motives and choices, and observational studies — functionally — imply a reliance on laboratory contexts that may hamper generalizability. Being unable to study audiences in‐situ, which would be observing media use and selection as it actually occurs and as it is influenced by differing contexts and environments, may undermine the implications and conclusions of selective exposure research. If you build up models and theories that can only explain selection in a laboratory context, then what have you gained — or more crucially, what have you missed?

The two branches of audience selectivity will persist until one or both of their limitations can be addressed. Setting aside philosophical implications regarding the mind and the impossibility of neutrality, in the practical sense the two branches of research cannot be unified until they are able to accurately qualify the limitations of self‐reporting or to achieve designs of behavioral observation that demonstrably minimize intrusion while remaining ethically sound.

Literature reviewed
  • Camaj, Lindita. 2019. “Week 3: Media Audiences & Selectivity.” Notes. University of Houston. COMM 6317: Media Effects.
  • 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.
  • 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., 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.

Classifying Infinite Variety

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Once scholars shifted to incorporate how audiences themselves effect media, they were confronted with the messy realities of humanity; that our individual differences complicate, confound, and defy but that those differences also “[represent] the very thing that makes humans interesting, unique, and infinitely worthy of our research attention” (Oliver and Krakowiak 2009, 517). Models had to become to more sophisticated to adequately explain media use and influence as new technologies upset old paradigms and as media audiences generated new trends and variety in media use. Using a negative outlook for illustrative purposes, media use has consequences that can be described in terms of where they take place or manifest, the forms those consequences take, and finally the severity of their outcomes.

Media effects can manifest at multiple levels. Overtime, models had to incorporate different levels of analysis to explain apparent effects because influences and effects take form both within and between people. Broadly, these are the micro‐ and macrolevels of media effects (McLeod, Kosicki, & McLeod, 2010, via Potter 2011, 903). The micro is the intrapersonal level — it includes factors like pre‐existing beliefs and amount of activity or engagement — whereas the macrolevel is concerned with the societal effects of media (Potter 2011, 903 – 4). However, this initial division ignored how effects manifest differently within societal groups (as well as institutions, organizations, and cultures) than they do within relatively smaller groups of individuals (like social groups and co‐workers), so researchers like Chaffee and Berger (1987), McLeod, Kosicki, and McLeod (2010), and Potter (2011) have suggested additional levels of analysis that fall between the individual and the many (Potter 2011, 903 – 4). This is the mesolevel, though some research further distinguishes between person‐to‐person and network scales of interaction (Potter 2011, 904). Across the different levels, models also need to consider the results of media use: their forms and the impact that they have.

First, Potter (2011) frames the outcomes as coming in distinct types of effects — the media can act on our “cognitions, attitudes, beliefs, affects, physiology, and behaviors” (2011, 904), though the exact typology varies across the literature (Potter 2011, 897). Valkenburg and Peter’s Differential Susceptibility Model of Media‐use expands the means of discussing outcomes by reframing the aforementioned types as conditional effects and adding four other categories of indirect media effect — collected and synthesized from the media effects literature (2013, 222 – 23). Those categories consider how outcomes can manifest differently based on: (1) how/why/for‐what individuals are using the media, (2) how individuals mentally and physiologically respond to that media, (3) the “second‐order” media effects resulting from other media effects, and (4) the reciprocity between outcomes and further media use (Valkenburg and Peter 2013, 222 – 24).

Finally, each outcome of media use has an impact that can be described in terms of varying strengths of effects. Implicit in this is change. Effects can result in a change to an attribute which can vary in strength — take a jumpscare, which triggers an orienting reflex, elicits a strong (magnitude of the change) physiological response (type of effect) in a person (level of effect) that increases their heart rate (a specific measure of change) — but this is a fundamentally limited perspective. Potter expands types of changes to include other dimensions. He intuits three properties to describe the changes resulting from an effect: “kind, magnitude, and weight” (2011, 904). This permits him to describe amounts like minuscule to large changes (magnitude: a change occurred, by how much did the attribute change?), changes that reinforce existing factors and resist further change (weight: does the change reinforce/strengthen existing beliefs?), as well as more radical shifts which overcome prior insusceptibility (kind: true persuasion, the change to an attribute was from one type to another). That said, the distinction between magnitude and weight can be confusing — they are a mixed metaphor — and Potter’s later use of waveform metaphor (2011, 907 – 9) or, alternatively, terms from social influence scholarship like change, formation, and reinforcement (Holbert, Garrett, and Gleason 2010, 17) may provide better clarity when quantifying and qualifying what results from a media effect.

Literature reviewed
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Polarity in Effects Research

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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
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