The study of media effects has driven mass communication research for most of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Scholars have developed, tested, and supported various theories of media effects. The key to this research is uncovering the explanation for the way mass media exposure translates into effects. Over the history of our field, the study of media effects has been driven by generalized views about how media effects occur. These general views serve the field as models, or simplified representations of the media effects process. Different models about media effects place different weight on either media content or the audience in providing the central explanation of media effects. Moreover, different models focus on different variables as central to understanding media effects.
The first model of media effects emerged in the early twentieth century. This model was grounded in sociological views of the mass society and psychological interests in stimulus–response models. This first model has been termed the “hypodermic needle” or direct effects model, because mass communication was seen as an effective stimulus to evoke predictable responses from isolated and helpless audiences.
A second model developed around 1940. This model, limited effects, reflected researchers’ beliefs that media’s dominant effect was reinforcement. According to this model, because of the audience’s tendency toward selective exposure, attention, perception, and recall, most media messages were filtered and rejected unless they supported pre-existing beliefs and attitudes (e.g., Hovland et al. 1949; Katz & Lazarsfeld 1955).
A third model grew out of the rapid adoption of television in the 1960s. Television viewing grew steadily and content analyses revealed that there were few thematic differences in the content of the three dominant channels. Scholars began to believe that television could overcome selectivity processes. That is, exposure to television insured exposure to particular themes and images. This model is characterized as a return to the era of powerful effects.
The widespread adoption of cable television, remote control devices, and the broadband world wide web have shifted media use away from a static, time-and-space-bound delivery mode to one that allows the audience to select what media to use whenever they choose. Now, media researchers accept that audiences can be powerful and dominant in the media effects process. Effects, however, are not viewed as limited. Instead, they are enhanced when media content intersects with audiences’ interests and personal characteristics.
Four General Models Of Media Effects
Our field is now marked by four dominant models of media effects: direct effects, conditional effects, cumulative effects, and cognitive automatic effects.
The direct effects model focuses on the impact of media content variables to stimulate fairly automatic and predictable responses in the audience. The audience is viewed as reacting involuntarily and automatically to certain features of media content. This model is not to be confused with the outdated hypodermic needle model of the early part of the twentieth century. People are not necessarily viewed as helpless, as in the early years of the hypodermic needle model, but they are seen as unable to resist the attentional “pulls” of some aspects of media content. The direct effects model focuses research attention on aspects of media content that impact audiences’ perceptions and feelings.
Most research focuses on the impact of structural features of media content that stimulate automatic responses, such as the orienting response (involuntary attention), visual attention to the screen, sounds that stimulate attention and evoke automatic responses, and media content that evokes fear. Other research has focused on aspects of media content that increase automatic arousal, or physiological energizing responses. Still other research considers how the degree of realism depicted in the media can lead to audience effects.
Theoretical approaches that fall under this model of media effects include the limited capacity model of message processing (e.g., Lang 2000), which focuses on structural and content aspects of media that elicit automatic motivational and cognitive responses; salience theory, which focuses on how location and placement of promotional messages affect attention (e.g., Eastman & Newton 1998); research on attention to and memory for “bad” news (e.g., Newhagen & Reeves 1992); and research on “presence” (e.g., Lee 2004), which focuses on how the sensory and personal realism of media content can evoke a sense of “being in” an environment or “being with” another.
The conditional effects model places emphasis on the audience as the location of understanding media effects. Like the limit effects model of the mid-twentieth century, this model focuses on audience selectivity (selective exposure, attention, perception, and recall), social influence, and individual differences. This model differs from the limited effects model in that it recognizes that media effects are common, but conditional on aspects of the audience. That is, audience characteristics can determine whether and how media content will have an impact. Media effects are not uniform; different people can be affected quite differently by the same media content.
This model is audience-centered, so important variables all relate to aspects of the audience. Traditional variables, such as demographics and social categories (e.g., sex, age, education), are important because they represent common frames of reference, common experiences, and common interests of similar groups of people that can facilitate or moderate media effects. Social relationship variables (e.g., group membership, audience makeup) are useful in this model because they represent the social connections and interpersonal interactions that can facilitate or mediate media effects. Individual difference variables (e.g., personality, prior experiences, mood) allow researchers to uncover how unique attributes and experiences can be conditional forces in media effects. Theories of media effects that fall under this model include knowledge gap (Tichenor et al. 1970, in its focus on socio-economic status), social learning theory (e.g., Bandura 2002, in its focus on observer attributes), and uses-and-gratifications approaches to media effects (e.g., Rubin 2002).
The cumulative effects model focuses on consonance and repetition of some themes, images, and frames across media content that override the ability of the audience to avoid exposure. This model grows out of the third model in the history of media effects research, which recognized the power of television to overcome selective exposure. Cumulative effects are not based on a single exposure; instead effects emerge over time, on the basis of repeated exposure to consistent messages across channels or across media. Effects are typically cognitive; i.e., cumulative exposure leads people to develop beliefs based on the content they consume. These beliefs mirror media content.
Media content’s presentation is central to this model. Cumulative effects are based on consistently presented images, themes, and frames that are presented over time and across media channels. Two theories exemplify the cumulative effects model. Agenda setting (e.g., McCombs & Shaw 1972) holds that news media have the power to set the audience agenda because of the consistency of news coverage across different channels. Cultivation (e.g., Gerbner & Gross 1976) is based on the evidence of content analysis that some of television’s content presents a world quite different from the real one. As a result, heavy viewers of television begin to believe that the real world is similar to the television world. This model’s assumption that some media content is so ubiquitous that it cannot be avoided needs to be tested in new media environments of increased channels and media outlets and the greater content control afforded audiences.
Cognitive Automatic Effects
This model applies the notion of priming to the media effects process. Priming refers to the activation of mental concepts as a result of exposure to media content. This model recognizes that much media use grows out of desires for relaxation and entertainment, which suggest that the audience is less mentally active during exposure. The less active audience tends to engage in more automatic and effortless mental processing. Media content can serve as a potent prime to activate thoughts that affect interpretation and reaction to related environmental stimuli. The cognitive automatic model encompasses the several theoretical approaches used to explain priming effects: spreading activation, schema activation, and mental models (RoskosEwoldsen et al. 2002) as well as heuristic or peripheral processing (Petty et al. 2002). This model has been used to explain short-term effects of media violence, effects of a media agenda on presidential approval ratings, short-term effects of stereotypical media content, and cultivation effects.
Variables important to this model are ones that increase the priming potential of media content. In general, more salient content is likely to prime. Salience is reflected in prominence, intensity, movement, repetition, realism, and emotion. Salient audio and visual content can both prime automatic processing. Audience variables are less important to this model, because the audience is viewed as less cognitively active.
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