Although today’s mixture of theories and approaches combining interpersonal and mass communication is a two-sided one (incorporating researchers with training in both fields), virtually all of the accessible research on media content in interpersonal communication has arisen from researchers primarily trained in the effects tradition of mass communication research, rather than from interpersonal communication researchers studying the content of conversation.
Early in the history of media research, scholars investigating the effects of motion pictures through the Payne Fund studies (Blumer 1933) and even earlier (Phelan 1919) found that there was a great deal of interpersonal discussion about the content before, during, and after viewing. While the primary research objective was to understand how media were affecting individuals, it was clear that there was a social component to the process of media attendance and enjoyment. Over its history, research on media content in interpersonal communication has led to four major ideas: (1) interpersonal discussion has an impact on selection of media content, (2) media content provides material for interpersonal discussion, (3) interpersonal communication alters a number of the effects of media by amplifying or dampening them, and (4) interpersonal discussion affects the enjoyment of the media experience.
Selection Of Media Content
Herbert Blumer found evidence for all four of the aspects of interpersonal discussion of media content listed above. Similar results were found for various media research efforts through the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. During and after World War II, the notion of selective exposure became an important one for researchers studying persuasive properties of the media. Notable research in the 1940s and 1950s echoed Blumer in noting the impact of interpersonal discussion of media content on content selection (Riley & Flowerman 1951; Friedson 1953; Zimmerman & Bauer 1956). McCombs (1972) also noted that the interpersonal exchange of information typically precedes media content selection in a political campaign.
Current research on selective exposure has focused more on psychological aspects of the audience member than on interpersonal discussion, either assuming or neglecting the role of interpersonal discussion in the selection process. However, research only tangentially related to selective exposure continues to document the impact of interpersonal discussion in selection of media content (Mohr 1979; McLeod et al. 1982; Nathanson 2001).
Material For Interpersonal Discussion
While interpersonal communication can serve as a mechanism influencing the choice of media content, media content can also be the topic of discussion before or after a viewing experience. Riley and Riley (1951) provided a label – social utility – for the idea that media content served a function in everyday interpersonal interaction. What was watched or listened to in the media could become the topic of conversation later. That label was continued and adopted by uses and gratifications researchers during the 1970s and continues today. In a political campaign context, Chaffee and colleagues noted that voters were more likely to ask for campaign information (brochures) if they expected to talk about the election with friends (Chaffee et al. 1971). They described this as the “communicatory utility” of mass communication content, and saw it as a motivator for media use. While Chaffee (1972) saw this as evidence that media information enables one to talk with others at the level of peers, Bernard Berelson (1949) saw something else. Berelson had recognized the same phenomenon but described it as a “social prestige” factor because reading newspapers enabled people to appear more informed than others in social gatherings. Berelson noted that it was not that the content is good in itself, but that it is good for something – to impress those with whom we talk. The term “social prestige” for this idea was also provided by Lazarsfeld and Merton (1948).
Leo Bogart (1955) suggested that media content provided impersonal material that helped develop bonds between people. Dervin and Greenberg (1972) found that television content provided a major topic of conversation for the urban poor, with more than half indicating that they talked about TV content two or more times per week. At that time, Dervin and Greenberg indicated that plenty of data was available related to the frequency of interpersonal interactions about television, but no data was available related to how talk about TV is used in social interactions. Only a handful of relevant studies have been published since that time. Most involve children talking about media, and nearly all of those are analyses of responses to interviewers’ questions rather than observations of interpersonal conversations between children or between children and adults.
Altering The Effects Of Mass Media
A notable exception to the lack of research studying media content as used in interpersonal interaction can be seen in the literature on parental mediation of children’s viewing and co-viewing. Although early research indicated that the mere presence of others in a viewing situation was enough to alter the effects of TV content on children, by 1982 McLeod and his colleagues had concluded that conversation was required to mediate the effects of TV on children. By the late 1990s, this area of research had led to mixed results in terms of whether adults’ co-viewing leads to positive or negative outcomes for children, although Nathanson concluded that there is increasing evidence that co-viewing suggests to the child that the parent approves of the content, even if that content is violent (Nathanson 2001). If Nathanson is correct, then that interpretation helps to explain a number of both negative and positive effects attributed to co-viewing of TV content (McLeod et al. 1982; Nathanson 2001).
Katz and Lazarsfeld (1955) also focused on the idea that interpersonal communication could dampen or amplify media effects. In their “two-step flow” hypothesis, they noted that an individual’s response to a media campaign cannot be understood without understanding his or her social environment and interpersonal relationships. They suggested that interpersonal communication is the key link in a chain of intervening variables that promised to promote the convergence of mass communication and social relations. Research in the intervening years has not been overly kind to the two-step flow analysis. As Chaffee (1972) noted, it is probably more useful to think of the two-step flow as a factor that should not be overlooked than as the powerful hypothesis it claims to be. In his review, Chaffee suggested that the bulk of the evidence indicates that direct flow from the media is the rule for most people, rather than the exception. He notes that, even in the original Katz and Lazarsfeld study, 58 percent of reported opinion changes came about without involving other people. Following from Katz and Lazarsfeld and extending into today, others have noted the effects-altering aspects of interpersonal communication, especially in the area of political communication. Considerable thought has turned to understanding how conversation about political topics alters the effects of media presentations.
As noted above, in the selection of media content for interpersonal discussion, the focus is on the media experience. Interpersonal communication leads to selecting content that will be enjoyable, educational, and stimulating, or that will supply any of a number of gratifications which the communicators share as a motive for attending to the content. In providing material for interpersonal discussion, the focus is on reacting to or anticipating a media experience that produces a shared gratification.
With political communication, however, researchers typically focus on a content that exists independently of the medium or the ongoing discussion – content related to the evaluations of candidates or factual information about candidates’ positions – rather than on discussion of candidates’ appearance in the media (Scheufele 2002; Eveland 2004). Political communication researchers typically focus on the discussion of specific political topics – local government, presidential debates, current events, etc. – rather than specific media topics (actions portrayed, motivations of major actors, etc.), and the frequency of occurrence of interpersonal discussion rather than the gratifications or motivations for such discussion. These are subtle distinctions, but are responsible for major differences because research in political communication is often about decision-making related to the content – i.e., choice of a candidate. Choice in regard to selection of media content might be seen as comparable at first glance, but selection of media content typically does not involve exclusion of other choices, as does political decision-making. Nor does political knowledge necessarily lead to increased prestige in social groups, as those supporting a different candidate can fairly easily discount such knowledge, knowing which candidate the speaker supports.
Enjoyment Of The Media Experience
An unspoken assumption for much of the research on mass communication is that selection and use of media content in interpersonal discussion lead to increased enjoyment of the media experience, either by content that provides increased gratification being selected or by the experience being relived and enhanced through discussion afterward. Similarly, an unspoken assumption of much interpersonal discussion research is that enjoyment is the motivating factor. A handful of early studies considered the impact of others on enjoyment of mediated content (e.g., Hylton 1971; Hocking 1982), but only recently has enjoyment as a result of media use (Vorderer et al. 2004) or interpersonal discussion (Step & Finucane 2002) been studied. Within the few recent studies of media enjoyment, some are beginning to focus on the enjoyment that arises from the social situation of using media in groups (Denham 2004; Raghunathan & Corfman 2006). However, and somewhat surprisingly, most current studies including both media enjoyment and interpersonal communication tend to assume interpersonal discussion rather than measure it. The Raghunathan and Corfman research stands out as one study focusing on the role of congruent or incongruent comments about media content, and the effect of those comments on enjoyment. Their study generally confirms that positive comments made about ongoing media increase enjoyment of that content, but that it is the perception of shared opinions about the content that enhances enjoyment, while perception of differing opinions detracts from enjoyment.
Although Raghunathan and Corfman’s study involved adults’ perceptions of TV ads, it ties nicely with Nathanson’s (2001) contentions regarding parental mediation. Coming from a long history of media research on the use of media content in interpersonal discussion, much of what was assumed to be the case might be questioned. If nothing else, recent research has demonstrated that our understanding of media effects must take into account the social context of media consumption. Future research on media effects will need to deal not only with the frequency of interaction about content but also with the nature of the conversation if we are to be able to predict the effects of media.
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