“Exposure to communication content” describes one of the most recent areas of specialization within the communication discipline. It is located at the intersection of media effects research and audience research, two academic traditions that have remained relatively separate. Over the past half a century, the well-established tradition of media effects research has revealed a rather complex and increasingly differentiated view of the individual and social processes that underlie and accompany notable changes in people’s thinking, feeling, and behavior, caused by exposure to media content. The more recent work in this area has considered not only psychological mechanisms that manifest themselves in people’s minds or behaviors some time after they have been exposed to communication content, but has also studied what happens while those individuals or groups are responding to media content or immediately after doing so. Book titles like Selective exposure to communication (Zillmann & Bryant 1985) or Responding to the screen (Bryant & Zillmann 1991) seem to indicate this trend and demonstrate that media effects research has become more involved with psychological processes rather than only with the end result. Conceptual and theoretical differentiations have also evolved, e.g., various attempts to distinguish between short and long-term effects, or between their cognitive, affective, and behavioral manifestations. But, despite multiple conceptual differentiations in this area of research, which also include distinctions between observations and explanations of effects at psychological (micro) versus sociological (macro) levels of analysis, media effects research maintains its focus on the consequences of exposure to media rather than on exposure itself. Meanwhile, the work focusing on “exposure” itself and on the individual and social processes that accompany exposure has outgrown the more traditional lines of research on media effects by simultaneously expanding its scope and differentiating its levels of analysis.
Development and Mapping of the Research Field
Audience research, the second tradition in this new study of “exposure to communication content,” originated in scientific disciplines other than communication, specifically psychology, but also in the humanities. In an attempt to not only describe and explain the final effects of communication but also to include the processes involved during and even before exposure, scholars have defined new concepts, models, and even theories from these different disciplines and academic backgrounds to better understand how all of these processes eventually may contribute to media effects. Scholars in psychology primarily have formed a more differentiated understanding of how and why different (groups of ) individuals approach specific media contents, whereas those with a humanistic background primarily have examined the media content (the “text”) itself and its (often social, socio-economic) context and potential to attract a “reader” (or in more general terms, a “user”). In doing so, humanist scholars complicated what social scientists have often oversimplified. Thus, the overall picture of what is believed to happen during exposure to media content has become rather complex.
Due to this complexity, many humanistic communication scholars have developed their own approach: the so-called “critical” or “cultural studies” approach, in which the criteria for scientific work are more similar to those in the humanities. At the same time, the more social scientifically oriented scholars have tried to incorporate theories from the other disciplines to explain the phenomena of interest according to their psychological and social scientific point of view. What scholars have called “audience research” sometimes has, at other times, been labeled “reception research” or even “media psychology.” This psychological and social scientific manifestation of audience research appears remarkably strong in communication departments in Europe (e.g., the success of establishing the term “media psychology” in Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland) compared to the “critical approach” still dominantly located in the humanities. In the US, however, both traditions focusing on “exposure” often coexist in one school or department.
Jensen and Rosengren (1990) called for an integration of these various traditions, which are all “in search of the audience.” But although some have supported this proposition and have tried to substantiate it (e.g., Vorderer & Groeben 1992), few have attempted this conceptual advancement. Nevertheless, in this new research area, “exposure to communication content,” we find research that follows Jensen and Rosengren’s initial request, probably without even being aware of it. This new perspective is primarily, but not exclusively, “psychological” in its theorizing; it focuses on micro-level analyses but also describes macro-structures in explaining what happens during exposure. It certainly looks at new technology as much as it looks at more “traditional” media, but most importantly, it studies what happens before people become exposed to media content, what happens while they are exposed, and finally what happens right after exposure, i.e., as immediate consequence of it, thereby reaching into the realm of media effects research.
Constructs and Processes
Most of the theoretical constructs that researchers have developed to describe the specific processes that precede and impact exposure to communication content have examined topics at the psychological level of analysis. Although media use by social variable has also been included and social variables like ethnicity and exposure to communication have been considered as well, the bulk of theoretical developments concern individual processes that lead to exposure. On a rather abstract level, attempts to explain individuals’ exposure to media content by referring to their personality and exposure to communication or to their intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and volition exist. But so do claims that attribute such exposure to very specific individual motives and interests, such as enjoyment/entertainment seeking, escapism, information seeking, sensation seeking, or mood management.
The main differences between these concepts lie in their theoretical complexity, their empirical usability, and also in their specificity. For example, the concept of escapism has a long history not only within the discipline of communication but also in related areas, such as the empirical study of literature, and it seems to have some prominence in lay persons’ explanations of their own media-related behavior as well. But it is not based on any well-defined theoretical assumptions, nor does the concept have any remarkable empirical support.
At the same time, constructs like mood management seem to reduce the complexity of a media user’s decision process to a single dimension (i.e., to decide on such a media product, which promises to enhance somebody’s mood), but its empirical support is overwhelming. The more inclusive concept “behind” mood management, selective exposure, claims that the selection of specific media content follows some psychological regularity, mood management being the most important one. To date, the selective exposure research seems to be the most differentiated, best specified, and most empirically supported in the entire field of exposure to communication content, and it developed from a truly interdisciplinary perspective (with communication and psychology as the host disciplines).
The research on automaticity is dominantly psychological in nature, and remarkably successful, particularly in social psychology, which has not yet been leveraged fully by scholars in communication. In contrast to these more psychological constructs, suspension of disbelief is one that clearly stems from the humanities and has only been incorporated, discussed, and questioned by communication scholars very recently (Zillmann 2006). Finally, within this intersection of constructs/products studied as antecedents to exposure, channel/program loyalty is a very applied concept that comes from neither a social scientific nor a humanistic background but from the applied research area, where knowing (i.e., being able to predict) what makes the audience stick to a program or channel is crucial.
Examining what has been thought to occur during exposure, again, ethnicity and media use by social variables are considered to affect how the audience deals with content. In addition to this, an international perspective on comparison of media use has also been applied, so that findings about exposure in one country can be related to those in other countries. We find, in fact, the highest level of differentiation and specification among the psychological processes studied here. Researchers in this area have been studying habituation as a form of media use that does not require the audience’s full attention when selecting or using a program. They have been looking at what is different when these users engage in co-viewing as opposed to an individual exposure situation. More specifically, they have been studying how individuals relate cognitively and – even more importantly – affectively to characters on the screen by engaging in so-called parasocial interactions and relationships with them, or by coming to terms with interactivity in reception.
Because much of the work in this context relates to new and rapidly evolving media and technology, it is no surprise that these various interactions with media content have been described and explained differently, not only over time but also depending on the specific theoretical background of the respective researchers. Within communication, involvement with media content has long been used to specify such a relation, whereas some researchers have incorporated a construct used more often outside of the social sciences, i.e., identification. Due to many new technologies emerging recently and a variety of possible applications of these new media, researchers have imported and applied additional constructs from technical disciplines, which is why presence is now often considered the best way to describe this relation in the context of new media.
This also holds true for studying computer–user interaction, and includes more cognitive processes such as fantasy/imagination, playing, or simulation, but to some extent also physiological processes like excitation and arousal. Some of these constructs are defined on the basis of what we know from psychology and from cognitive science about perception and, even more specifically, about selective perception and selective retention. Other entries refer to the affective quality of such experiences; the investigation of affects and media exposure has become very relevant to the study of exposure. More specifically, researchers have scrutinized and explicated suspense because it seems crucial in exposure to entertainment products. On a more behavioral level, navigation through the wide array of what is offered and available today, zapping and switching between different channels or products, and multitasking, reflecting the fact that some media products are used simultaneously, have moved to center stage.
Of course, we regard most of these processes as lasting throughout exposure, and hence can still identify and often measure them even after exposure. In fact, constructs like “habituation” describe the course or the process of exposure, i.e., the time period from before the actual exposure to some communication content through the moment that exposure is terminated. We consider other constructs, e.g., personality and exposure to communication, to impact each step in the process differentially, and to selectivity play out differently in terms of perception.
Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that compared to the many processes and constructs studied during and before exposure, only a few were considered to “belong” to this sub-category, probably because they have most often been linked to the area of media effects. In fact, only two will be outlined within this area of exposure, because they are so closely related to what happens while being exposed to communication content. One is entertainment education, which we can think of as a media effect but can only understand if we take into account the development of the effect during exposure. The other is addiction and exposure, which does not limit itself to any step in the process, from before to after exposure, but refers to an effect of exposure that leads someone to constantly reinitiate the process again and again and without much awareness of its coercive nature.
Theories and Models
Most attempts to describe and explain the aforementioned processes have been quite similar. The majority of available theories and approaches have tried to analyze exposure by referring to what precedes it, i.e., by linking exposure to the reasons media users may have for acting in a particular way. Those theories focus on either cognitive or affective processes. Most prominent among those examining cognitive processes are consistency theories. Such theories, which developed out of social psychology, use the social situation in which individuals live, interact, and think to derive specific hypotheses about the factors that contribute to or detract from cognitive coherence.
Among those theories, cognitive dissonance theory has been very specific and extremely successful. According to the theory, exposure to communication content is a function of whether a specific action, e.g., the selection of a newspaper article, agrees (is consistent) with a reader’s thinking (here: the political opinion). Thus, media users expose themselves to communication content that will not produce cognitive dissonance. Attempts to explain exposure by social comparison theory are somewhat similar. From this perspective, the presence or cognitive representation of others also impacts a media user’s decision in a specific act of exposure. In social identity theory as well, others and our group membership with others determine our behaviors regarding exposure to communication content. Finally, various expectancy value models focus on cognitive factors but differ from consistency theories. According to expectancy value theories, people (hence: media users) act (here: in their decisions for exposure) in a manner consistent with their values and beliefs.
Two families of theories that focus on the affective dimensions of exposure are affective disposition theories and empathy theory. The latter describes how media users feel about and toward protagonists in the media. However, affective disposition theories suggest that media users are primarily interested in witnessing protagonists succeed and antagonists fail, having developed affective dispositions toward them – which explains exposure to entertainment content. More generally, the uses and gratifications perspective asserts that media users choose content that promises to gratify their interests and needs. Thereby, it provides a theoretical framework for some theories that examine people’s interest in using the media, as well as the historical starting point for comparable research. Within communication, it certainly has been the most important paradigm that first explored media users’ interests and preferences, when much of the research was still focusing on the media’s potential and actual effects.
Two more recent theoretical developments also need to be considered: the recently developed media equation theory examines new technologies and acknowledges that people deal with and understand new technology differently compared to more traditional media. Therefore, new media require new theoretical approaches. In contrast, evolutionary theory is all but new, but has only very recently been applied to people’s exposure to media content, i.e., to the reasons users might want to be exposed to a specific content. It does not seek its explanation in the situation nor in the personality of the media user, but rather in the audience’s evolutionary history, which – according to this reasoning – makes individuals interested in specific types of content.
Whereas all of the aforementioned theories focus more or less explicitly on processes preceding the act of exposure, transactional models focus on what happens during exposure instead. They indicate most obviously how far the underlying theories of communication have moved away from traditional behaviorist approaches, which assume a rather passive media user. The same applies to transportation theory, which contemplates the media user moving away from the “here and now” and toward the place and time depicted by narrative. Since new media seem particularly able to “move” users to other places cognitively and emotionally, it is not surprising that several other and quite related constructs describe this phenomenon (e.g., “presence”). But only transportation theory seems to have adequately systematized some key constructs and propositions to justify calling it a theory.
Looking at the immediate consequences of exposure to communication content, two theories come to mind. Most importantly, social cognitive theory is arguably the most influential attempt to describe and explain why exposure to a specific content may lead to certain consequences. The theory has also triggered and directed a huge array of empirical studies in this domain. In contrast, the stages of change model is a rather recent and more specific model that nevertheless has impacted theorizing and research, particularly in health-related domains.
Another way of looking at what the discipline has achieved in terms of understanding and explaining exposure to communication content is to distinguish between various types of media and communication content. Note that some of the theoretical and empirical work done in this area is quite diverse, depending on which medium or what kind of content it considers. In that respect, research on exposure to news or exposure to print media, for example, follows a theoretical tradition that is well embedded in the discipline of communication.
In contrast, more recent lines of research, such as those that study exposure to the Internet, are more interdisciplinary in nature. This has not only to do with the fact that different media and different content provide different opportunities for users but also with the fact that users and audiences approach various media and content forms with different expectations. Although exposure to television and exposure to radio are most often daily activities and experiences for many users around the globe, what TV and radio have to offer is often hard to compare and so are the ways in which people use them. Hence, the users’ expectations, experiences, and gratifications with respect to these media are rather diverse and so is their scientific description and explanation by communication.
The final perspective that is taken here to systematize the various contributions to the field of exposure to communication content is one that distinguishes between the different agents who approach such content. Traditionally, the most important stakeholder for the field of communication has been the public, and some scholars still argue that it is this public that constitutes the discipline’s core. Much of the work in this domain has been advanced by theoretical conceptualization from sociology and political science.
Yet, psychological theories have had a greater impact on research about the audience (though clearly this topic has also been studied from a more applied and therefore less theoretical point of view). In fact, empirical research on the audience has not only grown in size but also diversified itself, so that today we can also identify more specific perspectives, like the one that focuses on the news audience.
While being studied, the audience itself has changed, and the constitution of the audience is highly relevant to those who try to provide the best, i.e., the most profitable, content. Thus, audience segmentation has attracted a lot of interest within the discipline as well.
Finally, and again this is due to the most recent developments in new media and technologies, we must consider not only the user or the audience, but also those entities created by the user, i.e., avatars and agents. They certainly represent content or forms of content, but the media no longer provide them (as, e.g., a TV show) but (at least in their specific appearance and constitution) the users themselves do. Some may argue that interacting with avatars and agents does not constitute exposure to media content because “exposure” implies user passivity (“reception” in some European countries), meaning that users of new technologies interact with but no longer are exposed to communication content. But this is a dispute that touches upon the self-understanding of the discipline and therefore will not be pursued here.
New Theoretical Developments
This leaves us with a comparatively new but already rather voluminous, almost exuberantly expanding field of research. Where will this development lead, and what may we expect? In a situation like this, scholars often suggest or even ask for the integration of loose ends, i.e., a synergistic approach to integrate various perspectives, if not paradigms. However, this expectation is probably unrealistic, at least for the next five to ten years. One can be skeptical because the various advancements we have seen lately in this area are moving in opposite directions. An example of this is the diverging yet simultaneous development of two movements within the area: the application of cognitive science or social cognition models to the study of exposure to communication content and the exertion of evolutionary theory in communication. Both have been successful within the field, yet they work on opposite ends.
As some psychologists and psychologically oriented communication scholars became more involved with various cognitive processes underlying or anteceding acts of media exposure and effects, they started to differentiate them more and more specifically and precisely, sometimes even using a language that modeled these processes after functions and algorithms of a computer. By doing so, they have been able to explain various phenomena that were widely accepted but not sufficiently understood in communication. One example of this is the process of “cultivation” through exposure to media messages, which has been prominently investigated by Gerbner and his collaborators (Gerbner et al. 1994) but never really well explained. The social cognition approach, mainly coming from social psychology, helped explain cultivation by addressing the question of why a specific content may demonstrate the cultivation effects in the minds of the viewers that were predicted in the first place (Shrum 2007). The important point here is that such an explanation was possible by referring to certain cognitive constructs and processes that were thought to be responsible for the overall effect. In this respect, the scientific inquiry went from using rather broad constructs (such as “cultivation”) to considering, including, and referring to much more specific and detailed micro-constructs (like “accessibility of cognitions”).
At the same time, attempts to explain, e.g., the motivation of media users to expose themselves to content went in the opposite direction. Whereas interest in such forms of content has primarily been explained by psychological constructs (e.g., moods) on a micro-level (e.g., affective disposition theories), most recently this problem has also been approached by evolutionary theory (Ohler & Nieding 2006) or by those concepts that have tried to combine evolutionary and psychological approaches (Vorderer et al. 2006b). Here, the idea is to explain a current interest someone has in media content and various motivations to expose themselves to this content by taking into account the evolutionary history, not of the individual, of course, but of the species. This development certainly indicates a tendency to produce rather abstract macro-phenomena, i.e., it utilizes such macro-phenomena as “explanans” in order to explain the “explanandum” and thereby proceeds in a direction opposite to the one mentioned before. It can be suggested that the area of exposure to communication content is developing rapidly, and it is doing so by expanding in different directions. A consequence of this observation may very well be that increased theoretical coherence and integration in the area is a rather long way off.
Changing Object Of Investigation
A more immediate question for the area of exposure to communication content might therefore rather have to do with another fact, i.e., that the very object under investigation is about to change dramatically. Researchers used to study exposure to a given content, which newspapers, television, or any other media provided. In addition, this content was both stable for the exposure’s duration and independent of what the user preferred and anticipated. Although research established that users do not simply “receive” messages – they select, process, and elaborate on them in a way that is specific to the person and the situation in which exposure takes place (thereby going beyond the initial information offered) – the message itself always remained the same.
In a media environment that includes online communication, playing video games, and human–computer interaction, however, this has become different. If somebody plays a video game, e.g., the narrative to which he or she is exposed to changes according to the player’s actions. In more general terms: the content changes. Strictly speaking, those users are no longer exposed to a given content. Rather, users create, modify, and manipulate content – one of the main reasons why they like to play such games so much (Vorderer et al. 2006a). Thus, it is likely that the way the user creates this content determines its impact on the user as well. Naturally, this change of perspective has several consequences for the study of exposure.
Again, an example might help to illustrate this point: affective disposition theories assert that a central requirement for a media user to experience entertainment is a strong (either positive or negative) affective disposition toward the narrative’s protagonists and/ or antagonists. With interactive media, however, these protagonists are often not only chosen but also manipulated by media users (cf., avatars and agents). We do not yet know what this may mean for the affective disposition. Not only is it unclear what kind of protagonists players will create (e.g., a representation of themselves, a character opposite to themselves, somebody unrelated to themselves, etc.), but most importantly, we do not know how such an affective disposition is impacted by the fact that someone is responsible for the target of this disposition. After all, it is “his or her” character that acts in a specific way and toward whom the user feels an affective disposition.
In other words, many of the problems that scholars have investigated in the context of this rather new research area will appear (or have appeared already) in a new light. Most of the questions will have to be addressed again and answered in a new way. It is not a given that the communication discipline will be able to answer all related questions by means of its established theoretical and methodological techniques. But if we consider the great number of challenges this relatively new area of research on exposure to communication content has identified and successfully dealt with already in a comparatively short time, one can only be optimistic for the problems that lie ahead.
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