Originally, the term “reciprocal effects” was used by Kurt Lang and Gladys Engel Lang (1953) to describe the behavior of people in front of TV cameras. Here it is used in a broader sense. It denotes all the effects of the mass media on actual and potential subjects of media coverage. Included are the effects of media coverage that mentions subjects personally or explicitly deals with individuals and topics closely related to them. Subjects are distinguished from bystanders who are not directly or indirectly addressed by media coverage. With respect to the time when reciprocal effects occur, anticipatory, immediate, and corrective reactions are distinguished. Anticipatory reactions intend to avoid or seek to bring about media coverage. Immediate reactions are instantaneous consequences of interactions between media people (reporters, camera men, etc.) and the protagonists of media reports. Corrective reactions are produced by existing news coverage. When we look at reciprocal effects, there is no given distinction between cause and effect, because every element can be seen as both cause and effect. For example, a report might be seen as an effect of a subject’s prior behavior while also being the cause of his subsequent emotions. Thus, the traditionally linear model of media effects becomes a feedback model of media relations: the personality or behavior of subjects stimulates media reports that, in turn, directly influence the cognitions, appraisals, emotions, and behavior of subjects.
Causes And Types Of Effects
We can distinguish seven different causes and types of reciprocal effects.
- Awareness of reports: because the subjects of news reports are highly involved in the issue at hand, they are motivated to hear and see considerably more reports than are bystanders. As a result, subjects are subjected to an unusually strong dose of media information.
- Appraisals of reports: according to attribution theory, actors tend to attribute their misbehavior to circumstances whereas observers tend to attribute it to the actors’ personality (Jones & Nisbett 1972). Journalists are professional observers; therefore they tend to attribute behavior to the actors’ personality and describe it correspondingly. As a consequence, the subjects of negative news reports often see themselves as victims of circumstances and believe they would be misrepresented if reported as independent actors who are fully responsible for their mistakes. Because most subjects are not aware of perception differences between actors and observers, they tend to blame reporters for unfair coverage, which in turn might be perceived by reporters and editors as unfair criticism.
- Assumptions about effect upon others: most people attribute stronger negative effects of media messages to others than to themselves. People who are highly involved in an issue tend to estimate the effect of news reports as stronger than neutral people do. Because the subjects of news reports are more involved in the issues reported, are more aware of the coverage, and have more background information than bystanders, they overestimate the effect of media on others even more.
- Estimating public opinion: the subjects of media reports can use four types of data to estimate the reports’ effect on the population in general – opinion polls, media reports, expert analysis, and their own impressions drawn from discussions with people. Opinion polls are not always at hand, for example, in the immediate outbreak of a crisis. Therefore, subjects might draw their own conclusions about public opinion from media reports, partly by assuming certain effects of the mass media on the general population, partly by assuming that media coverage represents or reflects public opinion. Subjects who generally mistrust the validity of opinion polls, those without regular access to opinion polls, and those facing the beginning of a crisis rely first and foremost on media coverage to estimate public opinion (Herbst 1998).
- Observing behavioral changes: people who are associated with the subjects of media reports are generally more acutely aware of these reports than are average bystanders, in part because these people know the individuals depicted but also because usually they react on a personal level to the reports. Therefore, media reports have a remarkable influence upon the cognitions, appraisals, and behavior of those associated with the subjects. In the case of negative reports, these people may question the accuracy of coverage or turn away from the subjects. In the case of positive reporting, these people may applaud it and turn their attention more closely to the subjects. The subjects of reports will observe these behavioral changes. In addition, they will attribute such changes to themselves by misinterpreting them. For example, subjects will interpret an unusually short greeting, actually caused by time pressure, as an attempt to avoid them.
- Emotions evoked by reports: emotions are reactions to psychological arousal and cognition. Cognitions include the perceived causes of positive and negative events. Negative events that are perceived as being caused by given circumstances stimulate sadness, while the same events perceived as being caused by individual behavior stimulate anger (Nerb & Spada 2001). Because the subjects of negative reports attribute their depiction to the personal motives and agendas of journalists and editors, the subjects develop feelings of anger or similar emotions, such as annoyance. Because the subjects know that they cannot rectify every reader’s, listener’s, or viewer’s image of them, they develop feelings of powerlessness. In contrast, positive reports will stimulate strong positive emotions such as happiness, hope, and pride.
- Interactions of emotions and observations: generally, people develop consistent emotions and observations. For example, if the subjects of media reports believe others are avoiding them, they will feel abandoned. Subjects’ observations might very well reflect real changes in the behavior of people around them. It might also be that the subjects are imagining behavioral changes. Emotions and perceived behavioral changes (real or attributed) reinforce each other, which, in turn, leads to the creation of an insular emotional state where subjects stay stuck in emotional patterns and thereby modify their own behavior (Kepplinger & Glaab 2005).
Time Of Reactions
Concerning the time and pattern of reaction to media reports, we can distinguish between four types.
Anticipatory reactions are due to the fact that the increasing availability of media information to the general public has changed the balance of power between politicians and political institutions on the one hand, and journalists on the other. Because of the increasing dependency of politicians, business people, artists, etc. on media coverage, they adapt their public behavior to the needs of the media, even when this is counter-productive to their original mission. Here, two strategies have to be distinguished – agenda building to establish favorable coverage and policy cutting to avoid unfavorable coverage. Expecting favorable coverage, these people frame information given to the media according to their policy (Linsky 1986; Hutcheson et al. 2004), they shape events to fit media coverage, and they stage events that would not occur if it wasn’t for the expectation of media coverage. Fearing unfavorable media coverage, politicians, business people, and other public actors avoid making unpopular decisions.
Immediate reactions occur when decision-makers and journalists interact and exert a mutual influence. Professionals are aware of this influence and behave accordingly. Decision-makers and journalists play roles according to social expectations. Furthermore, the personal and ideological distance between journalists and subjects also has an impact on their verbal and nonverbal behavior. It is relatively strong in more polarized societies and in contexts where the media is more partisan. The subjects of TV coverage are also influenced by the presence of cameras, lights, and staff. Some are stimulated by these circumstances; others feel insecure or even frightened. The ability to handle this medium effectively has an impact on career prospects.
Corrective reactions are behavioral changes due to the anticipation of the positive or negative effects of media coverage on others. There are two major reasons why subjects respond to media reports. Because subjects are so aware of positive reports and sensitive to issues related to themselves, they are strongly influenced by those reports. They therefore also tend to overestimate the impact of reports upon the wider public more than bystanders do. In the aftermath of positive reports, their subjects will seek to take action to capitalize on their popularity and, for example, will make certain decisions that they know will benefit from added media coverage. These decisions might have consequences that otherwise would not have occurred. In the aftermath of negative reports, the situation is more complex. Because subjects are convinced that their actions have been misrepresented, they are confronted with a critical choice. They can do nothing, hoping the coverage will end quickly; or they can react in order to minimize the anticipated effects on the general public and their customers and/ or clients. Both choices are risky because both can ultimately stimulate more negative coverage than otherwise.
Finally, feedback loops can occur. Thus far, journalists’ behavior and news reports have been interpreted as causes, and the behavior of politicians and other decision-makers as effects. This is insufficient for three reasons. First, the behavior of subjects can also be regarded as the cause of journalists’ behavior and of news reports. Second, subjects’ expectations of the motives, goals, and behavior of journalists, as well as journalists’ expectations of the motives, goals, and behavior of subjects, can influence the subjects’ own behavior, which in turn can influence the journalists’ behavior. For example, preparing for an interview, politicians as well as journalists may expect a sharp controversy, which from the outset will influence their behavior toward each other. To put this more formally: the expectations and behavior of each actor influence the other and immediately interact with the expectations and behavior of the interlocutor. Third, the direct and indirect effects of news reports can themselves cause new news reports. Again, to put this more formally: the effects of former media coverage on subjects’ behavior can cause subsequent media coverage dealing with the behavior stimulated (Fishman 1980) or with the former media coverage.
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