Our perceptions of reality may often rely on mass mediated images. Walter Lippmann’s classical work, Public Opinion, first published in 1922, highlighted the possibility that factual features of the world often have little relation to the perception and beliefs that people entertain about the world. Lippmann (1922) argued that the press’s depiction of events was often spurious; the images it created were misleading, distorted, and shaped false “pictures in our heads” of the “world outside.” Although Lippmann never formulated his ideas in terms of a model or theory of reconstructed realities, his notion of the reliance of the public on the often distorted presentation of reality in the media should be acknowledged as such. Lippmann made the important distinction between the real environment and the pseudo-environment, sketched and delivered by the mass media. However, although Lippmann had vision concerning the differences between reality and perceptions of reality, he could not anticipate the emergence of the electronic media and the ever-growing role of the new media in shaping “the pictures in our heads.” As radio, and then television, cable, and satellite technologies, and then the Internet, appeared, the world shrank to a global village, exposed to the flow of mass-produced news and entertainment, and the notion of a mediated world became more realistic and powerful. Consequently, a common focus of communication research has been the public’s perceptions of reality as based on mass mediated contents and images (Eveland 2002). Social reality perceptions, or the “pictures in our head,” are best defined as individuals’ conceptions of the world. They include perceptions of others’ opinions and behavior, social indicators such as crime, wealth, careers, professions, sex roles and more.
Integrating News And Entertainment
The modern electronic forms of mass communication have only strengthened the power of the media in mediating reconstructed realities. The boundaries between news and entertainment are blurred: journalism is mostly storytelling, thus providing a structured account of the environment, and like all stories, these articles structure events and experiences for us, filtering out many of the complexities of reality. An important element of the mass-mediated world is the integration of news and entertainment, facts and fiction, events and stories into a symbolic environment in which reality and fiction are almost inseparable. Thus, the news becomes storytelling while soap operas become news. They present to us realities from other cultures, other social strata – and despite their fictional nature – are seen and interpreted as realities: “The dominant stylistic convention of Western narrative art – novels, plays, films, TV dramas – is that of representational realism. However contrived television plots are, viewers assume that they take place against a backdrop of the real world. The basic ‘reality’ of the world of television drama is highly informative. Television offers to the unsuspecting viewer a continuous stream of ‘facts’ and impressions about the way of the world, about the constancies and vagaries of human nature, and about the consequences of actions. The premise of realism is a Trojan horse which carries within it a highly selective, synthetic, and purposeful image of the facts of life” (Gerbner & Gross 1976, 178). Moreover, the nature of news “stories” (note the storytelling nature of reporting news) is a reconstructed format of presenting events. The importance of the narrative presentation in the reconstruction of reality was noted by Schudson (1982, 18), who argued that “the power of media lies not only (and not even primarily) in its power to declare things to be true, but in the power to provide the form in which the declaration appears. News in a newspaper or on television has a relationship to the “real world”, not only in content but in form; that is, in the way the world is incorporated into unquestionable and unnoticed conventions of narration, and then transfigured, no longer for discussion, but as a premise of any convention at all.”
The so-called “infotainment” narrative of the modern media affects us all. How can one make the distinction between fictional representation and factual “real world” information when both are so well integrated into our mediated environments? Living in a mass-mediated world is the result of several processes: our reliance on media sources to know and interpret the “world out there,” the distorting effect of the selection process in the media and the practice of writing news as “storytelling,” and the mixture of information and fiction where real and fictional worlds become a homogeneous, synthetic reality.
Many scholars suggested that when we study media impact on perceptions of reality we should step beyond a singular focus on news. Gamson (1999) distinguished between various categories of television content and contended that prime-time entertainment television may be particularly influential in constructing and maintaining political attitudes. The presentation of what Gamson defined as “life-world” content engages the audience on an emotional level, bases truth claims on experiential knowledge, and treats the audience as being physically present within the program. Each of these unique characteristics of prime-time television dramas allows for the creation of a unique set of effects relative to those found in the traditional study of news.
Cultivating Images Of Reality
The most important work on the impact of mass-mediated realities on audiences’ perceptions has been done within the tradition of cultivation theory. Cultivation theory (sometimes referred to as the cultivation hypothesis or cultivation analysis) was an approach developed by George Gerbner. Essentially, the theory states that heavy exposure to mass media, namely television, creates and cultivates perceptions of reality more consistent with a media-conjured version of reality than with what actual reality is. It began with the “Cultural Indicators” research project in the mid-1960s, aiming to study whether and how watching television may influence viewers’ ideas of what the everyday world is like. Cultivation theorists argue that television has long-term effects which are small, gradual, indirect, but cumulative and significant. Cultivation analysis generally begins with identifying and assessing the most recurrent and stable patterns in television content, emphasizing the consistent images, portrayals, and values that cut across most program genres. In the next step, cultivation analysis tries to ascertain if those who spend more time watching television are more likely to perceive the real world in ways that reflect the most common and repetitive messages and lessons of the television world, compared with people who watch less television but are otherwise comparable in important demographic characteristics.
One of the major constructs of cultivation theory is mainstreaming, the homogenization of people’s divergent perceptions of social reality into a convergent “mainstream”. This apparently happens through a process of construction, whereby viewers learn “facts” about the real world from observing the world of television. Memory traces from watching television are stored “relatively automatically.” We then use these stored images to formulate beliefs about the real world. When this constructed world and the real world have a high degree of consistency, resonance occurs, and the effect is even stronger. The notion of cultivation has been applied to various areas, including the amount and forms of violence and crime, depictions of women, elderly people, minorities, professions, sex roles, health and sickness, science, and scientists, to name only a few (Weimann 2000). But despite its popularity, the theory continues to be criticized, debated, and modified.
Some Limitations And Some Modifications
The notion of cultivating images of reality was often criticized for being oversimplified. Critics argue that the theory ignores the complexity of media consumption and its role in our lives today. Cultivation theorists tend to ignore the importance of numerous intervening factors such as developmental stages, viewing experience, general knowledge, gender, ethnicity, viewing contexts, family attitudes, and socio-economic background, which all contribute to shaping the ways in which television is interpreted by viewers. Moreover, when the viewer has some direct lived experience with the subject matter, this may tend to reduce the cultivation effect. Most criticisms of cultivation theory have focused on the validity of cultivation research, arguing that cultivation effects found in various studies are statistical artifacts of demographic differences in both TV viewing and perceptions. Another perceived shortcoming of the original cultivation research has been the treatment of TV viewing as a uniform activity, ignoring variations in viewers, in content to which viewers are exposed, and in the contexts in which they view (Shanahan & Morgan 1999). Several scholars noted that the cultivation effect may be programspecific rather than the result of total television viewing. Specific programs, such as crimerelated shows, would be most influential in affecting perceptions of crime.
The tradition of studying cultivation effects essentially concludes that some contents may have some effects on some people under some circumstances (Cohen & Weimann 2000). Several researchers attempted to refine the notion of cultivation by examining closely the cognitive processes involved. A key distinction suggested by these studies is that there are two stages of the cognitive process: “first order” effects (general beliefs about the everyday world, such as about the prevalence of violence) and “second order” effects (the resulting specific attitudes, such as fear of strangers or of walking alone). Other studies revealed the psychological processes involved in cultivation of reality perceptions. Thus, some argued that “source confusion” (the tendency of individuals to confuse events from news stories with those from fictional contents) is promoting stronger cultivation effects while others explained the cognitive mechanism of cultivation in terms of accessing information in the memory (e.g., Shrum 1996).
New Media And Virtual Realities
The concepts of cultivation and mainstreaming emerged with the age of television. Toward the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first centuries the age of the new media technologies–based computer-mediated communication (or CMC) began to increase in use and in prominence. The important assets of CMC are its “vividness” and speed, easy access to everywhere in cyberspace with no time or distance limits. What happens when virtual reality becomes more appealing than “real” reality? Will large numbers of us abandon socially relevant pursuits for virtual travel in the media world? As computers’ capabilities to develop increasingly complex and realistic images advance, the illusion of reality will become even more convincing. Shapiro and McDonald (1995) expressed concern about people being unable to distinguish virtual experiences from reality. Based on a survey of communication literature, they argue (1995, 331) that “mass media with elements of virtual reality are at least as likely to shape our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors as other forms of mass media. Those judgments are likely to be continuous, not dichotomous and, with experience, relatively sophisticated”. Moreover, Shapiro and McDonald argue that just as with other mass media, there is likely to be a media dependency effect. People are most likely to be influenced by media information when they have little other experience that enables them to evaluate the new information. When virtual realities in computer-mediated entertainment are the only source of information people can use to experience places, situations, and actions, one can expect a powerful impact. Williams (2006) applied a longitudinal, controlled experiment of a video game to the notion of cultivating perceptions of reality due to the use of the game. He found that participants in an online game changed their perceptions of real-world dangers. However, these dangers only corresponded to events and situations found in the game world, not to real-world crimes. Computer-mediated communication is giving new meaning to the idea of “mediated realities” and should be related to cultivation theory. Although the cultivation paradigm highlighted the role of television, the basic argument seems even more valid in the case of CMC.
It appears that the introduction and spread of modern communication technologies and applications such as computer-mediated communication will only enhance the necessity of studying the role of entertainment media in communicating and cultivating unrealities. Today’s technologies of communication, with their speed, vividness, interactivity, and multi-sensual totality, may provide a more powerful impact on our “virtual realities.”
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- Weimann, G. (2000). Communicating unreality: Mass media and reconstruction of realities. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
- Williams, D. (2006). Virtual cultivation: Online worlds, offline perceptions. Journal of Communication, 56, 69 – 87.