The effects of social media

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I feel tremendous guilt,” are the words Chamath Palihapitiya used in 2017 when discussing the consequences of the social media tools that he helped to realize while working at Facebook (Palihapitiya, 2017). Like many contemporary critics, Palihapitiya has found that the promises of “futurists” and “technophiles” — and some he made himself — have arrived with an unforeseen weight of consequences. He says, in no uncertain terms, that social technologies are destroying the social fabric, ruining public discourse, and pushing us into shallow and extreme versions of ourselves. Does the media effects literature agree? Though it is too soon to say with any degree of validity (Lin, 2009, p. 584), Palihapitiya expresses concerns that are repeated throughout the history of mass media. Indeed, anytime the media environment changes, it is soon followed by changes in the public discourse (Gerbner, 1969, 1998). Therefore, it may be possible to find generalizability between existing research and the effects of new media — or, if nothing else, to take stock of the difficulty in studying mass communication.

On the effects of social media — herein, understood as a distinct class of media in both form and content, resulting from a combination of technological capabilities (like Web 2.0, mobile internet, and the advent of push-notifications) and social networking platforms, which together serve a unique role in contemporary life compared to other internet-based media — it would be naive to state that they are harmless or unextraordinary, and it would be equally shortsighted to see them as cultural juggernauts unreconcilable with existing media effects literature. This apparent dissonance is best resolved with a look to early cultivation theory. The field finds itself in a moment like that of George Gerbner in 1969, needing to restore clarity to the effects of mass communication in a changed media environment (Morgan, Shanahan, & Signorielli, 2009). In the words of Gerbner:

A change in the social bases and economic goals of message mass-production leads, sooner or later, to a transformation of the common symbolic environment that gives public meaning and sense of direction to human activity.” (1969, p. 138)

Because of a need for new theorizing and because of a changed media environment that threatens to up-end the media effects literature (Bennett & Iyengar, 2008; Witucki, 2019), it would be premature to ascribe moral and ethical value to any facet or mechanism behind social media. However, there are specific effects with clear positive and negative consequences (Lin, 2009, p. 584). With the same impetus as what drove the early research of violent media, and despite being opened to the same criticisms, an emphasis on the negative consequences is warranted here because of the significance in understanding them. Media effects scholars must, again, follow the lead of public concerns and risk entering the public discussion in order to inform both the public and policymakers during a critical point that will determine the shape of policy to come — a point also made by Stoycheff (2016, pp. 307 – 308) whose words form a cogent call-to-action in light of their finding’s implications on honest and open public discourse.

The negative effects of internet-based media can include things like new forms of propaganda and warfare; however, those that are most concerning are long-term social effects that impinge on the lives of individuals, manifesting into isolation and loneliness. One such effect is sacrificing in-person social contact, but this is a rudimentary look at social factors that can take many forms and attributes (Lin, 2009, p. 571). Social media permits contact with an extended social group, across prior social and geographic barriers — that is, a person can use social media to augment their relationships through contact with far-away friends (Lin, 2009, p. 572) and by establishing new relationships within, for example, likeminded groups (Lin, 2009, p. 571). Unfortunately, the overwhelming social good of these outcomes must be tempered against dependence. When digital social contact supplants physical social contact, the repercussions can undermine a person’s wellbeing across physical and mental health, career and finances, and in the social contexts of their home, work, and local community (Lin, 2009, pp. 573 – 574).

In stark contrast to contemporary criticism, the effects literature on social media is cautious but optimistic. While this may be due to the rate of technological change hampering study or the general public taking alarmist and reactionary positions, the lessons of cultivation also apply. Even relatively small negative effects can have significant long-term consequences for the individual and act as an aggregate force across the culture (Morgan et al., 2009, pp. 38 – 39) — and the public cannot be trusted to interpret research on their own. Camaj and Santana (2015) suggest an additional perspective for understanding discrepancies (p. 338). Their behavioral findings on political and apolitical Facebook groups adds to a growing body of literature implying that social media users are adapting constructs of social behavior for physical spaces and applying them to these new contexts. Social media, then, is like an agora, and in mimicking such conceptions it comes with some of the same social behaviors. Such a metaphor may explain how social media can serve all manner of intended and unintended purposes. That, for example, apolitical sites can house quality political discussion, or that the nature of discussions will exhibit different qualities as group size, member transience, and structured social expectations shift.

In the 1850s, British journalism scholars were at a significant moment — and they knew it. In the journals of the era, they penned essays evaluating the significance and cultural power of the press. Of those people, one K. Hunt writing in the Edinburgh Review (1850), examined the Fourth Estate — “unquestionably the most grave, noticeable, formidable phenomenon; the greatest fact of our times” — tracing its growth from pamphlet to the earliest conceptions of news and factual discourse. Still another figure, Alexander Andrews (1859), chronicled the full history “of this mighty Mind-Engine — of this tremendous Moral Power.” We find ourselves today in another significant moment, at a point when the environment of mass communication has changed. We owe it to each other to study all that we can about this moment because, in the words of Andrews, “if but one half of what has been said of it were true, it should have chroniclers innumerable, for where could a grander theme be found?”

Literature reviewed
  • Andrews, A. (1859). 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). Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.c024315313
  • Bennett, W. L., & Iyengar, S. (2008). A New Era of Minimal Effects? The Changing Foundations of Political Communication. Journal of Communication, 58(4), 707 – 731. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-2466.2008.00410.x
  • Camaj, L., & Santana, A. D. (2015). Political Deliberation on Facebook during Electoral Campaigns: Exploring the Relevance of Moderator’s Technical Role and Political Ideology. Journal of Information Technology & Politics, 12(4), 325 – 341. https://doi.org/10.1080/19331681.2015.1100224
  • Gerbner, G. (1969). Toward “Cultural Indicators”: The Analysis of Mass Mediated Public Message Systems. AV Communication Review, 17(2), 137 – 148. Retrieved from JSTOR.
  • Gerbner, G. (1998). Telling Stories, or How Do We Know What We Know? The Story of Cultural Indicators and the Cultural Environment Movement. Wide Angle, 20(2), 116 – 131. https://doi.org/10.1353/wan.1998.0017
  • Hunt, F. K., Massey, M.P., W., & Blakey, R. (1855). The Newspaper Press. In The Edinburgh Review. A. and C. Black.
  • Lin, C. A. (2009). The effects of the Internet. In J. Bryant & M. B. Oliver (Eds.), Media effects: advances in theory and research (3rd ed, pp. 567 – 591). 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.
  • Palihapitiya, C. (2017). View From The Top: Chamath Palihapitiya [Talk]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/PMotykw0SIk?t=1281
  • Stoycheff, E. (2016). Under Surveillance: Examining Facebook’s Spiral of Silence Effects in the Wake of NSA Internet Monitoring. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 93(2), 296 – 311. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077699016630255
  • Witucki, D. (2019, February 27). Media Effects in Aggregate: Confluences and limitations. Retrieved March 31, 2019, from Derek Witucki website: https://derekwitucki.com/blog/media-effects-in-aggregate-confluences-and-limitations

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

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 our mental models at the casual 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.

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
  • 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.
  • Busse, Christian, Andrew P. Kach, and Stephan M. Wagner. 2017. “Boundary Conditions: What They Are, How to Explore Them, Why We Need Them, and When to Consider Them.” Organizational Research Methods 20 (4): 574 – 609. https://doi.org/10.1177/1094428116641191.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.