Beyond one’s own direct experiences of the world, humans rely on communication to form impressions about the rest of reality. This fact makes communication a key to how people form their perceptions of reality. There is a rich literature grounded in communication dealing with the role of mass communication in forming individual-level judgments as well as public opinion about conditions in the world. This literature, which ranges over the areas of entertainment, news media, media effects, and various social indicators, is impressive in its breadth and depth (e.g., Bryant & Zillmann 2002).
The main models employed in research on perceived reality typically focus on inaccurate or misleading perceptions of social reality. Studies usually involve various attributions about the world that are known, relatively uncontroversial, and normatively useful for citizens to remember accurately, such as the proportion of people working in law enforcement, or the incidence of violent crime. People’s answers about these matters are then compared to media portrayals of these phenomena and the differences are calculated and explained, often with reference to media-use preferences and habits. Studies done in real-world settings will introduce various controls through multivariate equations in which the effects of demographics, education, and sometimes other variables are removed before the media variables of interest are considered. Experimental studies often rely on short-term changes in perceptions introduced by some manipulated media stimuli.
In the realm of nonfiction news and public affairs information, the basic approach is often similar, with dependent variables such as political or public affairs knowledge, perceptions of political figures or candidates for office, or perceptions of the importance or relevance of various public issues. Sometimes the studies involve the extent to which issue opinions are shown to have consistency with one another or with some elite construction of ideology (e.g., Converse 1964). Much of this work has been influenced by various normative theories of what is expected of citizens and of media (e.g., Donsbach 2004; McLeod et al. 1994). The bulk of work in the area has also been focused on the effects of media on citizens or society.
The most useful early mass communication process model was created by Westley and McLean (1957), who captured several essential elements of mass mediated information. The model focuses attention on information advocates such as politicians, advertisers, or other news sources. These sources help choose and subsidize information from the world and make it available to news organizations and individual journalists. News organizations communicate with the public directly, but are active in selecting and shaping messages that flow to audience members. The model is notable because of its emphasis on selectivity at various stages of the communication process, and also for its incorporation of various feedback loops. Various shortcomings have been voiced over the years, but the model has had tremendous heuristic value (McQuail & Windahl 1993).
Over the years a vast literature has been created regarding perceptions and mainly misperceptions of social reality. The spiral of silence is one model that tries to explain reactions to public opinion trends, which people receive from other people and from mass communication. Mass communication, according to Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, are consonant, ubiquitous, and cumulative, and so resistant to the effects of selective exposure and attention (Noelle-Neumann 1993). In the model, media convey information that includes the norms of society, various representations of the opinions of others, and clues about the extent to which these are acceptable or not.
Significant research interest has also been demonstrated in models that examine misperceptions of media content and their impact. One of the best known of these is the third-person effects model. As it is articulated by Davison (1983), people tend to perceive greater media impact on others than on themselves. The literature on public opinion has been a rich source, inspiring studies connecting media to perceptions of social reality for more than 100 years (Glynn 2005).
Pluralistic ignorance is a broad concept associated with general inaccuracy about the distributions of opinions in society. This can be shown to have a number of dimensions, including false consensus, social projection, and so-called “looking-glass perceptions.” It can also involve overestimates or even false estimates of the degree of consensus. Cultivation is another major perspective explaining media effects on perceptions of social reality. The model includes message systems analysis that examines the content of television and finds it full of violence. Institutional analysis examines the role of media corporations and their links to the power structures of society for clues about why television portrays reality as it does. Cultivation analysis links television content to public perceptions and distortions of social reality in a causal manner.
Framing has emerged in recent years as a major focus of research activity aimed at understanding how people construct reality. One advantage of this perspective is its focus on defining reality, not merely selecting some aspect of perceived reality and making it more salient in a given situation. Framing can be seen as providing causal explanations for events, as well as moral interpretations. It has been described as having two sides – internal structures of the mind and devices embedded in political discourse (Kinder & Sanders 1990; Pan & Kosicki 1993). Communication, whether conceived in terms of individual talk or in terms of the larger infrastructure of public deliberation, is central to the process of collective sense-making about public policy issues (Pan & Kosicki 2001).
- Bryant, J., & Zillmann, D. (2002). Media effects: Advances in theory and research. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Converse, P. E. (1964). On the nature of belief systems in mass publics. In D. E. Apter (ed.), Ideology and discontent. New York: Free Press, pp. 206–261.
- Davison, W. P. (1983). The third person effect in communication. Public Opinion Quarterly, 47, 7–14.
- Donsbach, W. (2004). Psychology of news decisions: Factors behind journalists’ professional behavior. Journalism, 5(2), 131–157.
- Glynn, C. J. (2005). Public opinion as a social process. In S. Dunwoody, L. B. Becker, D. M. McLeod, & G.M. Kosicki (eds.), The evaluation of key mass communication concepts. New York: Hampton Press, pp. 139–163.
- Kinder, D. R., & Sanders, L. (1990). Mimicking political debate with survey questions: The case of white opinion on affirmative action for blacks. Social Cognition, 8, 73–103.
- McLeod, J. M., Kosicki, G. M., & McLeod, D. M. (1994). The expanding boundaries of political communication effects. In J. Bryant & D. Zillmann (eds.), Media effects: Advances in theory and research. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 123–162.
- McQuail, D., & Windahl, S. (1993). Communication models for the study of mass communication. London and New York: Longman.
- Noelle-Neumann, E. (1993). The spiral of silence: Public opinion – our social skin, 2nd edn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Pan, Z., & Kosicki, G. M. (1993). Framing analysis: An approach to news discourse. Political Communication, 10(1), 55–75.
- Pan, Z., & Kosicki, G. M. (2001). Framing as a strategic action in public deliberation. In S. D. Reese, O. H. Gandy, & A. E. Grant (eds.), Framing public life: Perspectives on media and our understanding of the social world. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 35–65.
- Westley, B. H., & McLean Jr., M. S. (1957). A conceptual model for communication research. Journalism Quarterly, 34, 31–38.