Let’s talk about true things

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Listen to the spoken audio version of this essay.

Somehow, between learning about sixteenth century France and shaking my head at politics on Twitter, I found myself reading very old printed ephemera thinking, these are basically the same thing.

I was supposed to be reading on Parisian typefounder Claude Garamond, but I found myself pulled into grand arcs of history. All around this man’s life were social, political, and theological movements like none that had come before. Movements that led to his ideas and letterforms becoming typographic norms that took over French printmaking during his life, and the rest of Europe shortly after. 1 The Fifteen hundreds was a period after the old feudalistic social orders had been up-heaved again and again. First from the Plague, with outbreaks killing a third of a population at a time, and then with the invention of moveable type — mechanizing communication. For the first time in millennia, land and food were cheap and a person’s labor was valuable. Newfound abundance freed people from the burdens of manual labor, who went on to begin entirely new industries and trades. All this while the printing press spread literacy and unlocked the silos of classical knowledge.

Although it may not have been responsible for the powderkeg, the printing press played a crucial role in the Renaissance and Enlightenment. The printed word permitted written communication to take new forms, and it lit that match on the social order, and it presented innumerable challenges to the new social orders that it helped to realize.

For the French people in particular, this increasing literacy, wider access to books, and French translations of scripture and classical texts meant that a people who had always lived under a theocracy were able to think for themselves. They were able to study the discrepancies between scriptures and doctrine, and with access to the wealth of classical philosophy, they had a path for questioning what is and what must be. At the center of this were the printers — who found themselves profoundly influenced by the ideas that ran through their presses.

When the French Wars of Religion pushed out Humanists and Protestants, many of Garamond’s contemporaries fled France spreading the influence of Garamond’s (now ubiquitous) typographic ideas throughout Europe.

This history fascinates me because it encapsulates so much of what is happening now:

The way that new media democratizes information is, by any standard, bizarre and fantastical. At any moment, we can access more information than could ever be read. Online, we can publish without needing to consider cost or labor. From the idealism of the early Web and the founding of opensource and copyleft communities, we now have a public that, through rampant piracy, is challenging the ideas of property and copyright.

Social media has made it possible to forge communities between people from across the world and to reconnect with distant friends and family. And to suddenly realize some of those people are bigots. Okay, so it’s not all good. Anyone who has been trolled or gone into the comments section knows this.

Pamphlets, for their time, were a lot like this. They had their value, and the earliest forms of news came from them. They were also an extremely brief and disposable form of mass media that traded nuance for reactionary writing. Because they were often outlawed for their disruptive — even seditious — writing, pamphleteers had to do their work at night, printing and posting their messages for townsfolk to find in the morning. People had to learn to cope with and account for this medium and type of writing, for both the good and the bad that it can create. The thing for us to know is that it took over 200 years to get a handle on. 2 Today, if someone is on a street corner handing out pamphlets, posting flyers, or shouting in protest — whether we agree with them or not — we can say for certain that they have an agenda. We had to learn to qualify the information we receive this way, and how to apply skepticism to it and to attempt to understand a writer’s message, rhetoric, and bias. If that sounds silly, let me put it another way. Reading and listening are different; you get more from a voice than just the words. For a newly-literate public, the cues for misinformation were different than what their society prepared them for. It took a hundred years from printing press to the standards and ethics of the press. It took the slow cultivation of a public that desired to read on “matters of fact”, 3 of editors who understood how to be impartial, and of a government willing to abide a free press.

Today’s public may not agree on much, but I think everyone can agree that something is different about the problems facing us this decade compared to the issues with mass media and internet-based communication we have faced before. We have never been more connected and less informed. News feeds exhaust our attention with a rapid succession of shallow information, while push notifications, meant to keep us connected and up-to-the-minute, pester us continuously. The ability to be reached at a moment’s notice means that we are interrupted, always.

Further still, social media has become a potent cocktail that exacerbates our worst tendencies by gamifying the spread of ideas. We’re inherently tribal, so signaling identity features prominently in social media and all the Likes, Upvotes, Retweets further entrench this mindset. Extreme views send the clearest signals and spread the furthest, correlating with more sharing and a longer life on social networks 4. When we reward each other for sharing morally and emotionally loaded messages, the most striking and impactful messages will promote authoritarian ideals. In a war over information and attention, vile and derisive wins every time 5. I believe that we have trained ourselves into an instinctual, heuristic mode of thinking which, after ten years of prolific smartphone use, is having repercussions well beyond the confines of devices and networks. Because we, as cultures and societies, do not yet understand the limits of these channels, how to optimize information for them, or how to qualify the information there.

And, I wonder: how long will it take for us to have a healthy relationship with electronic mass media or with everything a smartphone can do? Because of an upheaval to the way that we find, select, and interact with media, the landscape of new media is fundamentally different than what society is preparing us to deal with. News doesn’t come passively anymore so we are forgetting to inform ourselves, and we are missing the cues that would otherwise prompt us to think critically about information and its sources. There may be some lesson we can take from earlier eras, but for all the personal value that I have gained from this history, a roadmap is unlikely.


  • [1] Haley, “Claude Garamond.”
  • [2] Andrews, The History of British Journalism.
  • [3] Andrews; Barker, “The Newspaper Press of England: Its Origin and Growth”; Hunt, Massey, M.P., and Blakey, “The Newspaper Press”; Ward and Ward, The Invention of Journalism Ethics.
  • [4] Brady et al., “Emotion Shapes the Diffusion of Moralized Content in Social Networks,” 7315.
  • [5] See Vox 2018, “Why every social media site is a dumpster fire.”
Literature reviewed
  • Andrews, Alexander. The History of British Journalism: From the Foundation of the Newspaper Press in England, to the Repeal of the Stamp Act in 1855. Vol. 1. 2 vols. London: Richard Bentley, New Burlington Street, 1859. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.c024315313.
  • Barker, Johnson. “The Newspaper Press of England: Its Origin and Growth.” Edited by Henry Pitman. Pitman’s Popular Lecturer and Reader 1, no. 10 (October 1863).
  • Brady, William J., Julian A. Wills, John T. Jost, Joshua A. Tucker, and Jay J. Van Bavel. “Emotion Shapes the Diffusion of Moralized Content in Social Networks.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114, no. 28 (July 11, 2017): 7313 – 18. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1618923114.
  • Camaj, Lindita, and Arthur D. Santana. “Political Deliberation on Facebook during Electoral Campaigns: Exploring the Relevance of Moderator’s Technical Role and Political Ideology.” Journal of Information Technology & Politics 12, no. 4 (October 2, 2015): 325 – 41. https://doi.org/10.1080/19331681.2015.1100224.
  • Haley, Allan. “Claude Garamond.” In Typographic Milestones, 25 – 30. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1992.
  • Hunt, F. K., W. Massey, M.P., and R. Blakey. “The Newspaper Press.” In The Edinburgh Review. A. and C. Black, 1855.
  • Lin, C. A. “The Effects of the Internet.” In Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research, edited by Jennings Bryant and Mary Beth Oliver, 3rd ed., 567 – 91. Communication Series. Communication Theory and Methodology. New York: Routledge, 2009.
  • Stoycheff, Elizabeth. “Under Surveillance: Examining Facebook’s Spiral of Silence Effects in the Wake of NSA Internet Monitoring.” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 93, no. 2 (June 2016): 296 – 311. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077699016630255.
  • Vox. Why Every Social Media Site Is a Dumpster Fire, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZSRxfHMr5s.
  • Ward, Stephen J. A. “Journalism Ethics.” In The Handbook of Journalism Studies, edited by Karin Wahl-Jorgensen and Thomas Hanitzsch, 295 – 310. New York, NY: Routledge, 2009. https://www.supportuw.org/wp-content/uploads/wwa_2010_ward_journalism.pdf.
  • Ward, Stephen J. A., and Stephen Ward. The Invention of Journalism Ethics, Second Edition: The Path to Objectivity and Beyond. Montreal, CANADA: MQUP, 2015. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uh/detail.action?docID=4396130.
  • Yang, Fan, and Fuyuan Shen. “Effects of Web Interactivity: A Meta-Analysis.” Communication Research 45, no. 5 (July 2018): 635 – 58. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093650217700748.

Cultivation, a theory for TV that explains media effects on worldview

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For all the times that Cultivation theory has come up thus far, Morgan et al. (2009) finally lay out the breadth and nuance of the perspective. These discussions on the effects of television and of cultivation intrigue me far more than the results of any one experiment exactly because of the breadth and nuance that can be brought forward.

I was a teenager during the rise of violent video games, and many of my first forays into news and politics were through the lens of someone on the receiving end of a moral panic. Don’t take away my violent video games, Senator; I can tell the difference between fantasy and reality. I didn’t understand why video games were always being bullied in the traditional media, when TV, movies, and books had as much violence. I blamed political scapegoating and an entrenched media that feared and distrusted an emerging artform. It is good to revisit these thoughts from a nuanced understanding, and to be fair to my younger self, the portrayal of these topics in the media always takes on a simplistic framing. Morgan et al. suggests that violence comes up again and again in media effects research because it is easy to study, gets funding, and makes the work of researcher more accessible to the general public through a concrete topic. Violent media and its effects lend themselves to being easily conceptualized and discussed. They, as well as Jacobs et al. (2017), suggest that the clearest effects of violent media are on a person’s worldview, not necessarily on their likelihood to commit violent acts themselves.

My love of video games is likely what led to my unchecked optimism for technology. Televisions were getting bigger and cheaper, with high-definition on the horizon, while video games, computing, and graphics technologies were rapidly advancing, and I thought this was great — it was great for everyone and everything, always. Current events have tempered this feeling — current events or that, oh no, I’m getting older. For my youth, I was steeped in online video game forums, gaming-industry and technology magazines, television shows about science-and-technology, and technology-and-business related news. Without realizing it, I’d been pushed toward a worldview that normalized a perspective on technology that was extreme in optimism, trusting both industry-leaders and start-ups implicitly, and one that expected and demanded a high degree of morally, economically, and environmentally unsustainable obsolescence. New, new, new; the next big thing always meant something better.

From these new understandings, it’s easy to see how my media selection and exposure cultivated a specific outlook. The realities of growing up before the end of Moore’s Law, and being an end-user to the industries driven by it, gave me heuristic models for understanding the world that privileged the newest things as the best things. Even just a few years ago, my thoughts on technology were somewhat nuanced but still firmly in the tech-enthusiast camp. The criticism of technology always seems to be framed around “Millennials,” and I see this as a trope. Cries that a current generation is ruining civilization are as old as civilizations themselves while the voracity of undue criticism can mask actual social issues — for everyone. I still believe this last bit, but at the time I also thought that there was a certain xenophobia around the new forms of cultural expression that devices like cellphones permit. Like emojis; it’s probably not worse, just different. At the time, I made the argument that, yes, while everyone is walking through public with their faces glued to their devices and ignoring the people near them, those same devices permit them to be, not anti-social, but hyper-social. Internet-connected devices permit choosing quality over proximity in social interactions. Today, however, these thoughts are overtaken by just how different the current environment is from anything that came before, and the effects that emerge as the new media environment has matured. As I go next into the media effects literature addressing new media, I’m curious to see how my current positions are informed or changed by the research.

Literature reviewed
  • Jacobs, Laura, Marc Hooghe, and Thomas de Vroome. “Television and Anti-Immigrant Sentiments: The Mediating Role of Fear of Crime and Perceived Ethnic Diversity.” European Societies 19, no. 3 (May 27, 2017): 243 – 67. https://doi.org/10.1080/14616696.2017.1290264.
  • Morgan, M., J. Shanahan, and N. Signorielli. “Growing up with Television: Cultivation Processes.” In Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research, edited by Jennings Bryant and Mary Beth Oliver, 3rd ed., 34 – 49. Communication Series. Communication Theory and Methodology. New York: Routledge, 2009
  • Riddle, Karyn, W. James Potter, Miriam J. Metzger, Robin L. Nabi, and Daniel G. Linz. “Beyond Cultivation: Exploring the Effects of Frequency, Recency, and Vivid Autobiographical Memories for Violent Media.” Media Psychology 14, no. 2 (May 31, 2011): 168 – 91. https://doi.org/10.1080/15213269.2011.573464.

Designer’s perspective on health communication research

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This week I watched some conveniently relevant news reports on health and advertising (perhaps this could be considered a priming effect?) while reading on health information effects. The videos, special reports put out by Vox, covered the effects of today’s advertising on public health — specifically the use of nicotine by minors and young adults, which had been nearing zero until e-cigarettes started being marketed and framed separately from smoking cessation (Vox, 2018, “How Juul made nicotine go viral”), as well as prescription drug ads (Vox, 2016, “How Americans got stuck with endless drug ads”).

Initially, these reports interested me because they touch on what effect the interpretive aspects of an ad’s visual vernacular have on the audience — like model ages, gestures/poses, scenery, facial expressions, and other visual connotations or cues that build “expectancy.” These reports and the media effects literature on health follow-up on areas of my interest that were last influenced by Jean Kilbourne and Sut Jhally. They also provide some scholarly sources that I can add to a growing selection of literature I’ve been collecting — searching for a perspective to address “graphic design effects.”

But, back to health. Messages related to health and medicine are particularly worrisome for the fatal implications of being misinformed and worrisome for the realities of medical research: null results are not published while news reporting exaggerate and misconstrue the underlying medical literature.

The media effects perspectives on internet health resources are particularly interesting, for both their positive and negative outcomes. This makes me wonder to what extent media effects researchers can investigate historical periods. I want to know if the spread of public libraries (“Carnegie libraries”) in towns across the US had similar consequences for public health as digitally democratized sources.

Randolph and Viswanath’s treatment on public health effects (2004) was slightly bizarre to read. It is the first paper that I’ve read to directly discuss practical, goal-directed applications of media effects research — applying the models and research toward achieving some specific outcome. Even though the discussion is directed toward theory-based campaigns for the public good, I nevertheless found it alarming. This reaction is somewhat hypocritical, of course, because that process — create an intervention, evaluate the resulting behaviors, then revise and repeat — is a design process by the most fundamental definitions of design.

Message design is also discussed by Anket et al. (2016), though there is a misunderstanding behind their discussion of Noar (2006b) and of message design. Noar can’t be specific related to message design because that’s not how design solutions work — they are nearly always one-offs. This is true of all design, but is especially true of communication design. You’re working with people; messy, complicated, and intensely irrational in one moment then intensely rational in the next. Worse, your only tool is language, which is both imprecise and endlessly descriptive. Even that word, language, makes my point for me because it is so ubiquitous and abstract that how I use it here may call up unintended understandings in a reader. All of this is to say that repeating campaigns and messages can ignore hidden contexts that allowed the initial ones to be successful, and it risks the message becoming stale, or worse, subverted with each use. There is nothing inherently wrong with the three message elements that they lay out (use of celebrity, community members, and audience participation), but there is nothing inherently right, either. The biggest factor ignored by their meta-analysis is novelty, which I argue was a major contributor to the success of The Truth tobacco cessation campaign.

To the authors, or anyone hoping to evaluate such public health campaigns, I would offer this advice: Anker et al.’s three “inclusion criteria” are a good starting point for a design brief, but if you are searching for replicability between campaigns then I’m sorry, but communication design is not a social science. Design by committee, by formula, and by template will fail you, and there are so many confounding variables to deal with that you will have to rely on intuition. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t be informed, but establish your intent, research prior campaigns, research unrelated (even commercial) campaigns, and above all else work to gain an understanding of your target audience — their social, media, health, and internal contexts — and then try to do something different than what other people are targeting these people with. Your message will stand out by contrast. From this mindset, craft many, divergent versions of your message and then test and iterate on them. Helen Armstrong’s book, Participate, offers valuable insight on the practicalities of user testing. But also take inspiration from unexpected places. Paul Bennett, a partner in the design firm IDEO which has a prolific history of design within health contexts, discusses the mindsets necessary for this in his talk, “Design is in the Details.” Stanford’s Design program hosts a resource that might be helpful in creating better models for the design of public health campaigns (see “A Virtual Crash Course in Design Thinking”).

This week I watched some conveniently relevant news reports on health and advertising (perhaps this could be considered a priming effect?) while reading on health information effects. The videos, special reports put out by Vox, covered the effects of today’s advertising on public health — specifically the use of nicotine by minors and young adults, which had been nearing zero until e-cigarettes started being marketed and framed separately from smoking cessation (Vox, 2018, “How Juul made nicotine go viral”), as well as prescription drug ads (Vox, 2016, “How Americans got stuck with endless drug ads”).

Initially, these reports interested me because they touch on what effect the interpretive aspects of an ad’s visual vernacular have on the audience — like model ages, gestures/poses, scenery, facial expressions, and other visual connotations or cues that build “expectancy.” These reports and the media effects literature on health follow-up on areas of my interest that were last influenced by Jean Kilbourne and Sut Jhally. They also provide some scholarly sources that I can add to a growing selection of literature I’ve been collecting — searching for a perspective to address “graphic design effects.”

But, back to health. Messages related to health and medicine are particularly worrisome for the fatal implications of being misinformed and worrisome for the realities of medical research: null results are not published while news reporting exaggerate and misconstrue the underlying medical literature.

The media effects perspectives on internet health resources are particularly interesting, for both their positive and negative outcomes. This makes me wonder to what extent media effects researchers can investigate historical periods. I want to know if the spread of public libraries (“Carnegie libraries”) in towns across the US had similar consequences for public health as digitally democratized sources.

Randolph and Viswanath’s treatment on public health effects (2004) was slightly bizarre to read. It is the first paper that I’ve read to directly discuss practical, goal-directed applications of media effects research — applying the models and research toward achieving some specific outcome. Even though the discussion is directed toward theory-based campaigns for the public good, I nevertheless found it alarming. This reaction is somewhat hypocritical, of course, because that process — create an intervention, evaluate the resulting behaviors, then revise and repeat — is a design process by the most fundamental definitions of design.

Message design is also discussed by Anket et al. (2016), though there is a misunderstanding behind their discussion of Noar (2006b) and of message design. Noar can’t be specific related to message design because that’s not how design solutions work — they are nearly always one-offs. This is true of all design, but is especially true of communication design. You’re working with people; messy, complicated, and intensely irrational in one moment then intensely rational in the next. Worse, your only tool is language, which is both imprecise and endlessly descriptive. Even that word, language, makes my point for me because it is so ubiquitous and abstract that how I use it here may call up unintended understandings in a reader. All of this is to say that repeating campaigns and messages can ignore hidden contexts that allowed the initial ones to be successful, and it risks the message becoming stale, or worse, subverted with each use. There is nothing inherently wrong with the three message elements that they lay out (use of celebrity, community members, and audience participation), but there is nothing inherently right, either. The biggest factor ignored by their meta-analysis is novelty, which I argue was a major contributor to the success of The Truth tobacco cessation campaign.

To the authors, or anyone hoping to evaluate such public health campaigns, I would offer this advice: Anker et al.’s three “inclusion criteria” are a good starting point for a design brief, but if you are searching for replicability between campaigns then I’m sorry, but communication design is not a social science. Design by committee, by formula, and by template will fail you, and there are so many confounding variables to deal with that you will have to rely on intuition. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t be informed, but establish your intent, research prior campaigns, research unrelated (even commercial) campaigns, and above all else work to gain an understanding of your target audience — their social, media, health, and internal contexts — and then try to do something different than what other people are targeting these people with. Your message will stand out by contrast. From this mindset, craft many, divergent versions of your message and then test and iterate on them. Helen Armstrong’s book, Participate, offers valuable insight on the practicalities of user testing. But also take inspiration from unexpected places. Paul Bennett, a partner in the design firm IDEO which has a prolific history of design within health contexts, discusses the mindsets necessary for this in his talk, “Design is in the Details.” Stanford’s Design program hosts a resource that might be helpful in creating better models for the design of public health campaigns (see “A Virtual Crash Course in Design Thinking”).

Literature reviewed

Connecting media priming theories to graphic design and gay rights

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This week’s readings, in light of previous weeks, has given me an appreciation of the process behind social science and the challenges that media effects researchers and scholars face--the scope of the current models allow for an expanded breadth and specificity for investigating media effects, but significant limitations persist. The field fully admits that the models for understanding and explaining media effects are myopic. But, it seems that this is as much a feature of social science as it is a criticism of media effects literature. Addressing overly narrow and ungeneralizable models has to be done slowly, through incremental gains over decades, because each addition to a model is a complication that must be proven. The design process has something similar: iteration. It’s an important process for improving work, but it has a blind spot. You can slowly walk yourself down a dead-end. So, early on in the ideation process, designers will inject chaos into their process and play with the results--this trial-and-error experimentation relies heavily on intuition.

I’ve been thinking about intuition a lot lately. In social science, intuition can obviously be a dangerous trap for researchers, leading to biases and unfounded assumptions that have to be mete out. Designer’s, however, rely on intuition to guide their work. The “effects” of graphic design can’t be reliably produced without it--formulaic design fails. This semester I’m teaching a freshmen-level design class where students learn to identify and create gestalt “effects” with principles like closure, contrast, hierarchy, and implied movement. By creating a large set of studies using very basic shapes to elicit these principles, they begin to intuit how to do this.

Sometimes intuition, inspiration, and other creative things are couched in airs of mysticism, and this is unfortunate. Even if we, as individuals, can’t articulate or be fully aware of how and why we have certain perceptions and feelings, intuition can be externally understood and explained. Intuition is a type of heuristic thinking. Gaining access to that terminology was important in my professional development because a perceived mysticism originally pushed me away from art and design.

Rosko-Ewoldsen et al. have expanded my lexicon further. The general affective aggression model qualifies intuition as primary appraisal based on mental models or schema. So, to rephrase, this Bauhaus-style of design pedagogy helps students build good, versatile mental models for interpreting visual information. Then, over the course of their education, these mental models are developed into more abstract--and thus, more widely applicable--schema that they can use to apply their craft to cross- and interdisciplinary means.

This leads me to wonder how we generate and train our own mental models at the causal level. Rosko-Ewoldsen et al. state that our mental models are under some amount of self-control. We can direct changes to them, swap out and test different ones, and apply them to information at will. They can be viewed as fast and efficient or as quick and dirty. While this fails to explain the role of circumstance, rather than intention, in the formation of mental constructs, it explains an area of filmic studies that I’ve been fascinated with since my undergraduate studies, which is the gay read.

Before the papers themselves primed my rants and tangents on intuition, I was looking forward to digging into the topic of media stereotyping because I wanted to talk about one thing: The relationship between film and the Gay Rights movement. First, these were people who did not have characters that they could identify with, but that didn’t stop them. Gay affections and cross-dressing are frequently played for laughs, and today we could (perhaps should) condemn such stereotypical portrayals, but at the time characters and scenes with these elements gave the only mirrors from which an LGBT person could see themselves. They also gave heteronormative films a “gay read,” which is applying the constructs and mental models from their personal and romantic lives to films in order to understand the characters differently and gain further mirrors for their self-identity. The best, however, were campy movies.

Campy is a term that’s hard to pin down, but it’s used to describe movies that are over-the-top in a way that’s appealing. Think, so bad it’s good. For LGBT persons in the 70s through the 90s, campy movies provided the only portrayals of gay and lesbian characters. They were usually low-budget, which gave creators some freedom to include (what were then) subversive topics. This was crucial not just for their individual identities, but also for their group identities. Communities centered around viewing these films, they gave rise to cult fandoms like that of Rocky Horror, but they also gave much more than entertainment. These communities gave a sense of normalcy, defined what it meant to be something other than straight, and were a source of the collective courage needed to come out and to pursue the political action necessary to secure a better future at a point in history when admitting this meant risking your job, your family, and your safety.

​How is that for the power of media effects? Or, for the monumental importance of fair and diverse portrayals of societal groups?

Literature reviewed
  • Mastro, Dana. 2009. “Effects of Racial and Ethnic Stereotyping.” In Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research, edited by Jennings Bryant and Mary Beth Oliver, 3rd ed. Communication Series. Communication Theory and Methodology. New York: Routledge.
  • — —  — . n.d. “Effects of Racial and Ethnic Stereotyping,” 13.
  • Rosko-Ewoldsen, D. R., B. Rosko-Ewoldsen, and F. D. Carpentier. 2009. “Media Priming: An Updated Synthesis.” In Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research, edited by Jennings Bryant and Mary Beth Oliver, 3rd ed, 74 – 93. Communication Series. Communication Theory and Methodology. New York: Routledge.
  • Skinner, Allison L., and Jacob E. Cheadle. 2016. “The ‘Obama Effect’? Priming Contemporary Racial Milestones Increases Implicit Racial Bias among Whites.” Social Cognition 34 (6): 544 – 58. https://doi.org/10.1521/soco.2016.34.6.544.
  • Tukachinsky, Riva, Dana Mastro, and Moran Yarchi. 2015. “Documenting Portrayals of Race/Ethnicity on Primetime Television over a 20-Year Span and Their Association with National-Level Racial/Ethnic Attitudes: TV Portrayals and National-Level Attitudes.” Journal of Social Issues 71 (1): 17 – 38. https://doi.org/10.1111/josi.12094.

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. 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.
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.

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. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444817696242.
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. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-2466.2011.01586.x.
— —  — . 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. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcom.12024.

Review: Andres Serrana, Torture

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Andres Serrana, Torture (2017)
Station Contemporary Art Museum
Houston, TX
June – November 19, 2017

Serrana’s Torture is socially responsible and responsive artwork that, one may hope, can provoke people into being civically engaged. Serrana’s work depicts the victims and places of torture through enormous photographs. He presents them alongside its history and cultural contexts in Christian theology, Medieval Europe, WWII, and its contemporaneous use under the guise of “enhanced interrogation.”

I recognized the journalistic overtones to Serrana’s exhibit immediately, and decided just as quickly to call my wife and tell her to come to the gallery. We walked around the gallery separately, then again together. Her first question was why I asked her to come. She was upset by the topic; Serrana’s photographs are presented at such an extreme scale that their impact is inescapable. But the show was meant to be upsetting, and that was the reason I asked her to join me. We gawked, and with nervous smiles, we tried not to cry. Even in the photographs of empty rooms, Serrana makes us feel a portion of the pain of those who went through those places and may never have justice. He gives us glimpses of context through politics and place, and a distinct lack of all context but the emotional and physical abuse in suffered by those in his portraits. We decompressed on a long walk, deciding that it was worth seeing and seeing together. My wife and I are both steeped in journalism — her, still an active participant in the profession while I use it to direct and resolve my art and critical studies.

Telling upsetting stories, especially as Serrana has, isn’t just a necessary discomfort for us. It is an ethical responsibility. Serrana is a journalist in the truest sense. He isn’t taking advantage of the excitement of a crime story, or participating in the media circus around a tragedy, his photography forces us to empathize with people who have had atrocities meted out against them. To reflect and understand a portion of their experiences. To look at its context, pseudo-justification and contrast in war and in religion.

And this is upsetting. But it is also worth being upset.