The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.
This area of study focuses on an analysis of media influence. Students explore the complexity of the relationship between the media, its audiences and the wider community in terms of the nature and extent of the media’s influence. Students examine arguments and evidence arising from a range of historical and contemporary developments that offer a range of perspectives about the nature, characteristics and extent of media influence on individuals and society at large. Theories of media influence and communication models are underpinned by academic approaches, including the political economy model, the effects tradition and the cultural studies model. Over time these theories have become increasingly sophisticated as they seek to explain the complexities in the relationships between the media and its audiences.
Source: Study Design
Communication in its most basic form is the transmission of a message from a sender to receiver. Human beings have always been able to interact verbally and through gestures, but as technology has evolved, so too has been the way in which we communicate. The printing press ushered in the period of modernity by allowing publishers to transmit messages to a large group of people through movable type. This was one of the earliest forms of ‘mass media’ which is a term used to describe media forms that allow the same message to be transmitted to a large number of people at the same time. Today, much of every day life evolves around numerous forms of media communication such as television, radio and the internet. With the advancement of new technology, concerns are beginning to emerge over the potential impact the mass media could have on a particular audience.
Theories of Media Influence
Since the development of mass media in the twentieth century, researchers have attempted to gauge the effects mass media can have on audiences. This course examines several theories associated with media influence and the systems in place that aim to protect those that are more susceptible to being influenced.
On October 30th, 1938, actor and future filmmaker Orson Welles directed and narrated a radio drama entitled The War of the Worlds – an adaptation of H.G Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds (1898). The first two thirds of the 62 minute broadcast were presented as a series of simulated new broadcasts, which suggested to many listeners that an actual alien invasion by martians was currently in progress.
The famous War of the Worlds incident is often cited as an example of the hypodermic theory model and the subsequent reaction among its American mass audience. However, this incident actually sparked a research movement led by Paul Lazarsfeld and Herta Herzog – both of you would later disprove the simplistic Hypodermic Bullet model. Studies would show that audiences reactions to the broadcast were, in fact, diverse and were largely determined by situational and attitudinal attributes of the listeners.
Hand cites studies by unnamed historians who “calculate[d] that some 6 million heard the CBS broadcast; 1.7 million believed it to be true, and 1.2 million were ‘genuinely frightened'”. This response raised many questions about the impact of new mediums on their audiences, but it was clear that it had an influence.
Around this time, communication theories and models were devised by researchers and scholars to help understand the complex relationship between the media and audiences. Beliefs about media communication followed a very simple approach in the 1920’s and 1930’s, when it was thought that the message created by the producer was simply taken in whole and unquestionable. In other words, the intelligence, ideas and experiences of the audience members themselves were irrelevant. This perspective is reinforced in a theory called the ‘Hypodermic/Bullet Theory’
Media Communication Theories
Hypodermic Needle Theory:
- When: 1920s-1940s
- Theorists: Various
- Audience: Passive
This theory was developed in conjunction with the rise of wartime propaganda. The theory originated in the 1920s and was supported by studies from ‘The Payne Fund Studies Group’ and ‘The Frankfurt School.’ They proposed the audience were merely ‘sitting ducks’ when it came to media influence and that they were unable to distinguish fact from fantasy. It was believed that audience’s received messages like an injection without any interference or negotiated meaning. The theory wasn’t scientifically tested but merely observed. While it is considered out of date and not applicable, the theory was very important in the discussions of the effects of the media.
A real life application of this theory occurred in 1938 with the broadcast of ‘The War of the Worlds.’ This was a dramatization of the novel by Orson Welles that was broadcast on the radio one evening. The play was written so that it sounded like a news broadcast of aliens attacking America to heighten dramatic effect. As listeners tuned in to the simulated broadcast they were horrified and people hid in cellars, loaded guns and prepared for defence.
The strength of the theory is that it has a clear distinction between the audience and the media. The theory directly shows how audiences are affected. A weakness of the theory is that it assumes that everyone views the media in the same way; however it is obvious not everyone who listened to the broadcast was fooled and worried for their lives. The theory is out-dated as we now know that audiences are more active than this theory assumes.
Uses and Gratification Theory:
- When: 1974
- Theorists: Jay Blumler, Elihu Katz
- Audience: Active
The theory came out about to debunk the hypodermic needle theory and show that the audience has power in their consumption. The theory believes media has no power over their audiences and that audiences are highly active in their usage and create their own meaning. Through selection and omission audiences choose which media they consume based on their need for personal gratification, need to be informed or desire to escape from reality. The theory is based of Quantitave data such as television ratings.
The application of this theory is the soap opera genre of TV shows. The target audience for these shows tends to be those working/living at home. By broadcasting these shows during the middle of the day audiences are given the chance to escape from their reality, being domestic and mundane in many cases. Soap operas provide a connection to the world that many homebound individuals can’t achieve anywhere else.
The theory’s strength is that it addresses the notion of a target audience and how different shows impact on different audiences. This strength is exemplified as it views audiences as different individuals who establish their own meaning from the texts they consume. A weakness however is that it doesn’t detail the potential negative effects the media can have on individuals. Furthermore audiences don’t always choose what they consume and often they don’t pay attention.
- When: 1960
- Who: Joseph Klapper
- Audience: Active
The reinforcement theory was revolutionary as it did not pit the media or the audience on extreme ends of a spectrum. Klapper hypothesised that while audiences are active; the media is used to reinforce pre-existing values and beliefs. Klapper believed ‘socialising agents’ such as family, friends, work, school and religion help form one’s personal beliefs. Klapper however believed the media had the power to influence an individual if it presented an issue that individuals had not experienced before.
The theory is often applied to political elections in which the media tries to persuade their audience to vote for one party or another. It was reported just a month before the US elections that only 20% of voting Americans were undecided on who they would vote for. Klapper also took a study in 1948 in which he concluded many voters were predisposed due to their parent’s political standpoints.
The strength of the theory is that it does not merely focus on the audience or media but rather views their interaction as a whole. The theory states the media as power (which it does) but also acknowledges the audience as active (which it is). One of the main criticisms is that often socialising agents are culturally grouped which means often similar views are held and the question is asked where do socialising agents get their views from?
Agenda-Setting Function Theory:
- When: 1972
- Who: Maxwell McCombs, Donald Shaw
- Audience: Passive
This theory suggests that the media has the power to the set the agenda or terms of reference for any social, political or economic issue. The media can thus make audiences think in certain ways about people, events and issues. The agenda the media presents revolves on such processes as selection and omission which changes what we see as the audience. The term ‘framing’ was coined by McCombs as the ability to draw the audience to certain part of a story hence telling them how to think about the issue.
The 1968 US election highlighted the main ideas brought up in the theory. Their research found that there was a distinct correlation between what viewers thought to be important and to what degree the media had covered that issue. This led to the beliefs that the placement and emphasis of various issues in media platforms influences the way they are received.
The strength of the theory is that it references terms such as ‘selection’ and ‘omission’ as the media does create an altered perception of reality. The weakness however is that due to the rise of new media in the 21st century, individuals are consuming media in various different ways hence changing the ability to set the agenda.
A laboratory study entails individuals in a controlled environment. Experiments often have an experimenter monitoring in an artificial environment. Participants are usually split into groups to measure the effects of the study on those against the control group.
A strength of this method is that it is easy to observe participants and any changed that may occur thus making it is easy to measure the effects of the study. A weakness is that it is taken out in an artificial environment which may lead to participants acting differently.
Psychologist Albert Bandura undertook a laboratory study to measure the effects of modelling and the representation of violence on aggressive behaviours. Bandura exposed some children to the aggressive behaviour in a controlled environment.
Longitudinal studies are those research studies which are carried out over a lengthy period of time. Often this means individuals are studied at regular intervals to help obtain accurate results. These studies usually take place in a natural environment. It can measure results across ages and time gaps.
The strength of the method is that by using the same people, changes can be observed over length periods of time. A weakness is that often society and the media evolve over time thus creating extraneous variables for the study.
Tannis Macbeth Williams undertook a longitudinal study which aimed to discover the effects of the media on a small town which had not been exposed to TV. Williams introduced TV and then monitored the behaviour in the town; noting a rise in aggressive behaviour.
Quantitative research is where Quantitave data is collected. This data is numerical and can be measured easily. Statistical data can include results from surveys, polls and questionnaires. Often questions are posed to individuals who are given categorical options. These results can be collated and create a numeric gauge
A strength of the method is that the researcher can end up with standardised results. However in doing this the researcher is susceptible to misinterpretation of the questions and different meanings for all participants.
George Gerbner gathered various Quantitave data to help establish his ‘cultivation theory.’ His study was done on the effects of TV and he used the data to find the rate of representations and traumatic events on TV.
Qualitative research is regarded as the most popular and reliable form of data collection to gauge effects of media. Strategies to gain qualitative data include in-depth interviews which include detailed questions being asked. These responses are subjective and can’t be measured, but provide insight which can be expanded on and further researched.
The strength of using this method is that it is reliable as each individuals will give their own personal opinions and answers that are not subject to categories. The weakness is that by collecting subjective data it is hard to draw conclusions over media influence.
David Buckingham uses in-depth interviews to measure data on media influence. His results thus represent the opinions and views of many individuals.
Each audience member is meant to view media in a different way depending on age, culture or level of knowledge. One of the big users of media is children, especially those under the age of 15. Children are considered to have ‘vulnerable minds’ and studies such as Bandura’s have led to conclusion being draw on the media’s impact. Children are considered to mimic behaviour shown to them and are often unable to distinguish fact from fantasy. A lot of studies however are criticised for taking part in a lab as they don’t reflect the real life interaction with media that children have. There is research that shows the media can have both positive and negative effects on children. Society worries about the negatives as the media can lead to children being socially isolated and develop bad attitudes and behaviours.
A positive effect in the media was shown in 1987 with the ‘Grim Reaper’ advertisement being shown around Australia. The advertisement gave rise to knowledge of the HIV virus and encouraged the practice of safe sex. The rate of HIV infections annually dropped from 2,400 to 718 with the ad showing that anyone could get the virus. Only 0.1% of Australians have the virus unlike the 0.6% of Americans who didn’t advertise the issue until 1991.
There are many negative effects of the media especially in terms of violence in video games. In a 2010 study conducted by Craig Anderson and his associates on behalf of the government found that media violence had a direct correlation to aggression. This include included a longitudinal study of children which found the younger the kids the more likely they are to be influenced.