Mediating factors are the psychological and social conditions in the communication process that moderate the effects of persuasive mass communication. The concept was first introduced by Joseph T. Klapper in his influential book The effects of mass communication (1960). Sifting through empirical studies available in the late 1950s, Klapper identified five mediating factors that explain why media messages tend to reinforce rather than change existing attitudes. The consideration of moderating variables in media effects research marks a shift from the hypodermic needle or stimulus–response model to the stimulus–organism–response model.
Klapper developed the concept of mediating factors in his review of the state of the art in media effects research. According to the empirical evidence minor change, short of conversion, occurs far less frequently than reinforcement, and conversion is particularly rare. Klapper (1960) concluded that “mass communication ordinarily does not serve as a necessary and sufficient cause of audience effects, but rather functions among and through a nexus of mediating factors and influences.” Mediating factors were thus conceptualized as integral elements of this nexus that typically contribute to reinforcement rather than change or conversion of existing attitudes.
Klapper supported his claims with empirical evidence from a wide range of studies on attitude change covering two decades of research activity. Two studies, conducted by Paul F. Lazarsfeld (his academic teacher at the Columbia University) and his colleagues received particular attention and have ever since served as main evidence for the reinforcement thesis. The first study (Lazarsfeld et al. 1948) investigated the role of the media during the election campaign of 1940. Employing a panel technique, the research team found 5 percent of the respondents to definitely have been converted. They crossed party lines regarding their voting intentions. More than half of the respondents, however, after being exposed to several months of persuasive campaign messages, were found to have reinforced their previous attitudes. The second study (Berelson et al. 1954) examined the media’s role in the decision-making process of the residents of Elmira, NY in the 1948 campaign. Again, a panel design was employed, and the study found that 8 percent of the respondents had been converted.
Trying to explain why persuasive communication is more likely to reinforce than to change attitudes, Klapper focused on the factors external to the communication itself. He claimed that five factors mediate the mass media’s influence. The mediating factors are: (1) predispositions and related processes of selective exposure, perception and retention; (2) groups and their norms; (3) interpersonal dissemination of communication content; (4) opinion leadership; and (5) the nature of mass media in a free enterprise society. Drawing upon empirical findings, Klapper discussed how these factors might interfere with the process of media effects. Particular attention is directed on the findings regarding the predisposition of recipients.
Selection: People tend to expose themselves to content according to their existing attitudes and to avoid content inconsistent with their attitudes (selective exposure). Furthermore, even if they do use media content not consistent with their attitudes, they might find alternative cognitive processing strategies for inconsistent content (selective perception) or tend to forget it more easily (selective retention). It represents a threat to their existing opinions. New issues, however, present a better chance for direct media effects since no predispositions have yet been developed (Lazarsfeld et al. 1948).
Groups: Rather than being atomized, individuals forming the mass society people are embedded into social groups whose norms shape their opinions and behavior (Katz and Lazarsfeld 1955). The norms of groups to which an individual belongs or wants to belong have proved to be particularly resistant to change. Intragroup discussion appears to intensify or reinforce these attitudes and inhibit opinion change.
Interpersonal communication: Much of what is disseminated through the mass media does not reach the respondents directly but is transmitted by other media users. Since interpersonal communication about a certain topic is more likely to happen between individuals with shared opinions on that topic, it tends to have a reinforcing effect. This supplements the reinforcing quality of persuasive communication because it represents a secondary selection of attitude-consistent media messages.
Opinion leadership: Opinion leaders can be described as particularly representative members of a group. They stand for the group’s relevance assignments and attitudes. They are characterized by heavy media use. Mass communication is frequently mediated by the opinion leaders. They selectively transmit the media messages to the followers, interpret them in accordance to group norms and thereby reinforce the norms held by the group (Lazarsfeld et al. 1948).
Nature of mass media in free enterprise societies: In their attempt to maximize their audience, commercially competitive media try to refer to universally shared norms. Thus content that contradicts dominant social and political values is unlikely to be disseminated by media in free enterprise societies. The content is thus unthreatening to the audience members and supports existing opinions rather than promotes change. Even though this argument relates to fiction rather than political campaigns, it can be applied to information as well.
Klapper emphasized that the specific mediation through these factors all work in the direction of reinforcement. He pointed out that all five mediating factors are characteristics of normal communication situations, even though they might not always be active in the communication process. In his review of empirical evidence Klapper also found incidents of modifications of opinion, especially in laboratory studies, which were considered as minor change. He observed that minor change was not as affected by mediating factors as conversion because fluctuations of opinion do not constitute a psychological threat for the individual. He also conceded that at times and under specific conditions the mass media might provoke change. Several such conditions were discussed. Persuasive communication might promote attitude change if the selective process lacks perfection due to conflicting predispositions, cross pressures in the reference group of an individual, or if individuals chose a new reference group. Whether or not persuasive communication leads to change also depends on the degree of ego involvement of the attitudes. Ego-involved attitudes are attitudes that are particularly relevant for the individual. They were found to be particularly resistant to change. Direct media effects might also be observed in the case of attitudes regarding new issues where attitudes have not yet been developed.
Implications For The Development Of Media Effects Research
Klapper’s work had far-reaching consequences for the further development of media effects research in several ways. First, the formerly dominant stimulus–response model or hypodermic needle model of media effects was replaced by the stimulus–organism– response model. The consideration of mediating factors in communication research thus marks a crucial shift in the media effects paradigm. Second, the widespread assumption of strong media effects had to be modified with regard to the specific conditions under which media may or may not have effects. The reinforcement thesis became the dominating thesis regarding media effects.
Yet, Klapper’s work has hindered rather than promoted research and theoretical discourse on media effects. Although Klapper had not explicitly or implicitly ruled out media effects entirely – but only specified the conditions under which media produce either reinforcement or change – his publication was frequently taken as discouragement of further studies on media effects. Scholary attention tended to shift away from effects research in general, and from effects on attitudes in particular. It increasingly focused on media use and cognitive effects. This shift in attention, however, threatens to underestimate the power mass media may develop under particular conditions.
By and large Klapper is to be credited for two things in particular. He drew attention to the role of predispositions and the related mechanisms of selective exposure, and he emphasized the role of interpersonal communication and the idea of opinion leadership as two crucial dimensions in the communication process. Although media effects models have become increasingly complex, incorporating a vast number of variables, these two mediating factors have remained key concepts in media effects research. It may be expected that future research will contribute to a further specification of the exact way mediating factors moderate the effects of mass communication.
- Berelson, B. R., Lazarsfeld, P. F., & McPhee, W. N. (1954). Voting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Bryant, J., & Zillmann, D. (eds.) (2002). Media effects: Advances in theory and research, 2nd edn. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Katz, E., & Lazarsfeld, P. F. (1955). Personal influence: The part played by people in the flow of mass communication. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
- Klapper, J. T. (1960). The effects of mass communication. New York: Free Press.
- Lazarsfeld, P. F., Berelson, B. R., & Gaudet, H. (1948). The people’s choice: How the voter makes up his mind in a presidential campaign, 2nd edn. New York: Columbia University Press.