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.
  • McCombs, M., & Reynolds, A. (2009). How the news shapes our civic agenda. In J. Bryant & M. B. Oliver (Eds.), Media effects: advances in theory and research (3rd ed, pp. 1 – 16). New York: Routledge.
  • Morgan, M., Shanahan, J., & Signorielli, N. (2009). Growing up with television: Cultivation processes. In J. Bryant & M. B. Oliver (Eds.), Media effects: advances in theory and research (3rd ed, pp. 34 – 49). New York: Routledge.
  • Morley, D. (1997). Theoretical Orthodoxies: Textualism, Constructivism and the “New Ethnography” in Cultural Studies. In M. Ferguson & P. Golding (Eds.), Cultural Studies in Question. Retrieved from
  • Plant, E. A., & Devine, P. G. (1998). Internal and external motivation to respond without prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(3), 811 – 832.
  • Scheufele, D. A., & Tewksbury, D. (2007). Framing, Agenda Setting, and Priming: The Evolution of Three Media Effects Models. Journal of Communication, 57(1), 9 – 20.
  • Shanahan, J., Morgan, M., & Morgan, M. (1999). Television and its Viewers: Cultivation Theory and Research. Retrieved from
  • Skinner, A. L., & Cheadle, J. E. (2016). The “Obama Effect”? Priming Contemporary Racial Milestones Increases Implicit Racial Bias among Whites. Social Cognition, 34(6), 544 – 558.
  • Sparks, G. G., Sparks, C. W., & Sparks, E. A. (2009). Media Violence. In J. Bryant & M. B. Oliver (Eds.), Media effects: advances in theory and research (3rd ed, pp. 269 – 286). New York: Routledge.

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.
  • 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.