Surveillance, correlation, and transmission functions are basic to the role of mass media in society. Surveillance means locating and disseminating news and information. Correlation deals with interpreting and editorializing about this information. Transmission is the socialization of norms, attitudes, and values between groups and generations (Lasswell 1948). Socialization research, for example, has compared the effectiveness of different agencies of socialization, such as the family, peers, teachers, and the media, for fostering information gain or molding attitudes about groups and society.
When performing their several functions, media can have positive or negative consequences. For example, reporting about societal threats can provide instrumental information and needed warnings for a society, but also may induce panic and anxiety. Watching more news- and public-affairs-type programs may be instrumental for gaining information about societal and political structures, but watching greater amounts of television, in general, may be dysfunctional for acquiring such specific information (Rubin 1978).
In their analysis of coverage of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US, Li and Izard confirmed the functions of the media during a crisis to “inform, explain and interpret the news event” (2003, 215), and observed that newspapers and television framed the event differently. The media also help set the political agenda for the public . Such an agenda, of course, may or may not reflect societal needs and priorities. In addition, television has altered the conduct of electoral politics, including party functions and structures, campaigns, conventions, and voting, sometimes for the better, and sometimes not (Patterson 1994).
In an early study of how television coverage can structure and distort perceptions of public events, Lang and Lang (1953) compared reactions of spectators to the arrival of General Douglas MacArthur in Chicago, Illinois, with those watching the event on television. They observed that, owing to the media build-up, those at the event expected to see a spectacle. Many in the spectator sample were disappointed by the sparse and subdued crowds at the event. The television viewers, though, watched with others, and were not disappointed, as the telecast was produced to conform to their expectations. The telecast gave a distorted image of the event, but provided a perspective not available to the spectators at the scene. The selectivity of the camera shots and the television commentary added excitement and a personal nature to the event for the television viewers, who could see MacArthur better than the spectators. The study is still applicable to coverage of news events such as public rallies and political campaigns, and to the presentation of sports and other media fare.
Effects Of The Media
For many years, media effects research has been guided by models that emphasize individual, group, and societal characteristics. These characteristics may discourage or attenuate media effects when performing surveillance, correlation, transmission, or other functions, such as entertaining audiences and promoting or selling products and services. In other words, when performing these functions, the media do not operate in a vacuum. Instead, they operate amid a host of individual differences and group and societal structures.
Researchers have considered such factors that might impede or encourage cognitive, affective, and behavioral effects of the media performing these social functions. Among cognitive effects are acquiring information, creating or reducing awareness and ambiguity, producing knowledge gaps, defining societal needs and issues, agenda setting, and socialization. Among affective effects are promoting attitudes, values, and beliefs such as political support and trust, efficacy or apathy, cynicism and alienation, promulgating positive or negative stereotypes of ethnic groups, cultivating beliefs, desensitization, and promoting fear and anxiety. Behavioral effects consist of a variety of influences including activation or deactivation, engagement or disengagement, cooperation or aggression, violence, conducting campaigns, voting behavior, government operations, and social and power imbalances in society.
The media contribute to these effects for individuals, groups, and society. Media coverage and entertainment programs offer occasions to talk to people and provide information to support one’s own opinions (Kepplinger & Martin 1986). Talk radio and the Internet provide communication outlets for those who feel face-to-face interactants do not value their opinions (Papacharissi & Rubin 2000). The news media help frame and construct emotional meaning about sub-groups in society (Rodgers et al. 2007). Television portrayals can affect people’s impressions of other races, especially when direct information is restricted (Fujioka 1999). The media may trigger violence against minorities and terrorist acts (Brosius & Esser 1995; Weimann & Winn 1994). The media stimulate the purchase of new products and enable political participation. Newer and nontraditional media, such as the Internet and television talk shows, play expanded roles in voter learning and involving the citizenry in politics and elections (Drew & Weaver 2006). The media also can mobilize people, as television, radio, and cable networks did in a US$117 million collaborative fundraising effort for victims and families of the September 11, 2001, US terrorist attacks (Gilbert 2002).
Such effects, though, may not be that direct. Individual, group, and societal characteristics function to deter or to enhance these effects. For example, Kim and Rubin (1997) examined several individual characteristics that might impede or encourage three media effects: satisfaction, parasocial interaction, and cultivation. Specifically, they expected (1) instrumental media motivation, selectivity, attention, and involvement to enhance these effects, and (2) avoidance, distraction, and skepticism to deter these effects. Mostly supporting these expectations, they suggested such individual differences help explain why people respond differently to media messages.
Models Of Indirect Media Effects
Media Influence And Personal Influence
Incorporating psychological and sociological models in media research was initially a response to views that depicted the media as direct causes of mechanistic and uniform effects among isolated audience members. When examining the influence of media in the 1940 US presidential election, for example, Lazarsfeld et al. (1944) identified several factors affecting people’s responses to the campaign: social indicators that affected interest in the campaign, attitudinal predispositions to behave or vote in a certain manner, and opinion leadership within a two-step or multi-step flow of communication. On the basis of these factors, election materials were more likely to activate and reinforce certain predispositions rather than to change people’s minds or actions. Lazarsfeld and his colleagues observed that not all people have direct links to media messages, but influence often follows a path from the media to opinion leaders and then to less active segments of the population.
Consequently, media messages and influence are often disseminated interpersonally, within and across social groups in which people share certain interests, beliefs, and norms. These groups serve as a means of social support for existing attitudes and opinions. In addition, opinion leaders within diffusion networks spread information and exert influence within a social system over time. Messages can be amplified, distorted, or otherwise altered as they pass along the interpersonal networks.
Studies of opinion leadership and the diffusion of innovation also found that such sociometric and gatekeeping patterns of communication influence operate in many realms, such as marketing, fashion, public issues, entertainment, health, agriculture, and politics (Katz & Lazarsfeld 1955). Katz & Lazarsfeld found that personal influence was more frequent and more effective than mass media influence in political, marketing fashion, and movie-going decisions.
Group and interpersonal influences were also apparent when Coleman et al. (1957) found that profession-oriented physicians and those better integrated within the medical community of local physicians were more likely than their counterparts to prescribe a new drug sooner for their patients. These researchers suggested the better-integrated physicians were more in touch and up to date and felt more secure when facing the risks of innovation. By somewhat of a contrast, when looking at the diffusion of news, Deutschmann and Danielson (1960) observed the interpersonal relay function of opinion leaders was less operative for salient news stories of important events, except for subsequent discussions of those stories. In other words, the electronic media were the first sources of information for salient news stories. Similarly, Kanhian and Gale (2003) found that 97 percent of their sample were aware of the event within 3 hours of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York. Television and radio were the primary sources for those who learned of the attacks early in the diffusion process, but interpersonal channels were important for those who learned later.
Sociological And Psychological Models
The sociological model challenges the notion of a uniform, mass audience and emphasizes the role of selective influences in the media effects process, in which effects are mediated (1) by the social categories in which people live, as evidenced by such indicators as age, gender, ethnicity, religion, and socioeconomic status, and (2) by the social relations people maintain, as evidenced by homophily, social networks, interpersonal dissemination of messages, and interpersonal mediation by opinion leaders. As noted in several interpersonal mediation and diffusion studies, opinion leaders are very much like the people they influence. DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach (1989) concluded the redefinition of the media–audience relationship emphasizes that people typically encounter media not as passive, isolated, and disconnected beings, but rather as groupings of people connected in social contexts. Those who share a social category might be expected to select similar communication content and to respond to it in a consistent manner. Social relations place an emphasis on the interpersonal dissemination of messages within social networks.
The psychological model adds the important role of individual differences to the media– audience relationship (DeFleur & Ball-Rokeach 1989). A psychological perspective focuses on the individual, and on perception and information processing. Differences in individual characteristics and predispositions lead to variations in media choice and selectivity (i.e., selective exposure, perception, attention, and retention). These individual characteristics include personality traits (e.g., locus of control, neuroticism), motivation (e.g., information seeking, arousal, diversion), attitudes (e.g., perceived realism, affinity, skepticism), beliefs and values (e.g., honesty, respect), learning ability, and environment (e.g., family, rural vs urban living). The variations in media choice and selectivity lead to differences in interpreting and reacting to media content.
Beside micro-level media effects studies focusing on media influences on individuals, macro-level effects studies consider media influences on groups, communities, organizations, and social structures. For example, according to Lazarsfeld and Merton (1948), media perform certain social functions: (1) conferring status by bringing prestige to those who are informed, and (2) enforcing social norms by calling public attention to deviant behavior. The media also have a narcotizing dysfunction when people spend too much time with them, so that they fail to take action themselves. Lazarsfeld and Merton argued that, in performing such social functions and dysfunctions, the structure and ownership of the media work toward maintaining rather than changing existing social and cultural structures. But that is not always the case.
Examples Of Media Effects On Social Behavior
An early example of the application of psychological and sociological models to media effects is a study of why some people panicked when listening to the War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938. Cantril (1940) concluded that several conditions created suggestibility to fear and panic from listening: (1) a perception of realism from the program’s dramatic excellence; (2) a perception of expert testimony by some characters; (3) reliance of some audience members on radio instead of print for news, especially lower-income and less-educated listeners; (4) feelings of resignation and hopelessness, especially owing to some listeners’ levels of religiosity and fear; (5) selective attention and selective perception, leading to a sense of personal involvement with the program by some listeners; and (6) the insecurity of the times due to economic unrest from the Depression and from turmoil in the world. These factors illustrate the mediating role of individual characteristics (e.g., attitudinal predispositions) and social indicators. The realistic media content, the turbulent environment, and differences in fear, control, and perceived veracity contributed to the fear and panic experienced by some in the radio audience. The study illustrates that people differ in their personality, attitudes, and social makeup and these differences influence their perceptions of and responses to media messages.
Social uses of media are important in various communication settings. Katz and Foulkes (1962) observed that media can be used to strengthen one’s position in a social relationship. They found that children who are attached to their parents use television to draw themselves closer to their family. Like more contemporary studies of talk radio and of the Internet, they also observed that media can be used to compensate for ineffective social relationships (e.g., Papacharissi & Rubin 2000). Lull (1980) also suggested several social uses of television. Besides using television for structural purposes (e.g., as background noise or to punctuate the time), people use television (1) to facilitate communication (e.g., entering conversations or reducing anxiety), (2) to affiliate with or avoid others (e.g., reducing conflict or maintaining relationships), (3) for social learning (e.g., problem-solving or information dissemination), and (4) to demonstrate competence or dominance (e.g., gatekeeping or exercising authority). Different social uses contribute to different media effects.
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