The established history of media effects research is characterized by a series of phases marked by fundamental paradigm shifts (see McQuail 1977, 72 –74; 2005, 457– 462; Lowery & DeFleur 1983, 22 –29; Severin & Tankard 2001, 262 –268; Baran & Davis 2006, 8 –17). Each of these phases is associated with particular concepts, researchers, studies, and historical circumstances that influenced ideological development regarding media effects.
The Four Phases Of Media Effects Paradigms
The first phase, from World War I to the end of the 1930s, was characterized by the assumption that the effects of the media on the population would be exceedingly strong. The media were credited with an almost limitless omnipotence in their ability to shape opinion and belief, to change life habits, and to mold audience behavior more or less according to the will of their controllers (McQuail 2005, 458). The power of media messages over unsuspecting audiences was described in drastic terms: the mass media supposedly fired messages like dangerous bullets, or shot messages into the audience like strong drugs pushed through hypodermic needles. These descriptions gave rise to the “hypodermicneedle concept” (Berlo 1960, 27), the “magic bullet theory” (Schramm 1973, 243), and the “transmission belt theory” (DeFleur & Ball-Rokeach 1982, 161). Instinct psychology and the theory of mass society were interpreted to show that people in urbanized and industrialized society were rootless, alienated, and inherently susceptible to manipulation. As a result, they were defenseless against and at the mercy of the capricious stimuli of the media – particularly as early ideas maintained that the mass media were run primarily by people and organizations that were deliberately trying to exert a targeted influence upon recipients.
The second phase of the standard history lasted approximately from the end of the 1930s to the end of the 1960s and was distinguished by the assumption that the media were largely not influential. The research group of Paul F. Lazarsfeld ushered in the deconstruction of the bullet theory. The results of their empirical, social-scientific election study, The people’s choice (1944), moved interest away from what the media did to people and toward what people did with the media. Rather than seeing a society of fragmented individuals receiving all-powerful messages from the mass media, the view shifted to one of a society of individuals who interacted within groups and thus limited the effects of media messages. Early on, Lazarsfeld et al. (1944) defined all three key concepts that Joseph T. Klapper (1960) later united and used as the basis of his limited effects theory. These three concepts also characterized the second phase of effects research. They state that: (1) people use selective exposure and selective perception to protect themselves from media influences, accepting almost exclusively only such information as corresponds to their previously established attitudes; (2) opinion leaders initiate a two-step flow of communication by absorbing ideas and arguments from the mass media and then communicating these – transformed – ideas to less active individuals; (3) social group formation enhances the role that interpersonal communication plays in protecting an individual member from a change of opinion, as members do not wish to lose membership in their relational group.
The third phase, from the end of the 1960s through the end of the 1970s, was characterized by the rediscovery of strong media effects. According to standard media effects history, an essay by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann entitled “Return to the concept of powerful mass media” (1973) may be considered to have set the program for the movement into the third phase (see Severin & Tankard 2001, 264; McQuail 2005, 460). A number of highly regarded studies showed that it was possible for the media to overcome some selectivity processes in a television-saturated environment. Near the end of the 1940s Herbert Hyman and Paul Sheatsly (1947) published a study in Public Opinion Quarterly entitled “Some reasons why information campaigns fail”; then, a quarter of a century later, Harold Mendelsohn (1973) used the same forum to proclaim the exact opposite: “Some reasons why information campaigns can succeed.” Three distinct features are attributed to this phase: more sophisticated methods of analysis, more specific hypotheses, and more highly differentiated theoretical approaches. Thus, survey data and content analysis data could be combined long-term with the help of time-series analyses or panel design studies. In addition, effects research since that time has been less focused on crude changes in attitude or behavior, and more interested in subtle changes in our perception of the world.
The fourth phase of the standard media effects history extends through to the present time and is characterized by “negotiated” or “transactional” effects (McQuail 2005, 461). Now the central premise maintains that the media exert their greatest influence when they become involved in the process of constructing sense and meaning. Typical theories connected with this new approach are social constructivism, cultivation theory, framing, and information processing theories. McQuail considers research in this vein to be driven by two insights:
First, media “construct” social formations and even history itself by framing images of reality (in fiction as well as news) in predictable and patterned ways. Second, people in audiences construct for themselves their own view of social reality and their place in it, in interaction with the symbolic constructions offered by the media. The approach allows both for the power of media and for the power of people to choose, with a terrain of continuous negotiation in between, as it were. (McQuail 2005, 461)
Challenges To The Four-Phases Model
The oversimplified account of the received view of media effects history has been criticized harshly in recent times. Lang and Lang (1993, 93) called the alleged sequence of phases unrealistic “paradoxes” that feigned contradictions that had never existed. Instead, they maintained that “a considerable continuity” had been prevalent in the research community over the decades (Lang & Lang 1981, 662). Even proponents of the phase model felt forced to play down its heuristic value as time progressed (see McQuail 2005, 460). It seems that the model was able to establish itself so firmly because it offered a clear summary of a complex developmental process. However, current thought considers it evident that, in every period, studies could be identified that indicated limited or powerful effects – depending on what operationalizations, conceptualizations, definitions, measurements, designs, and variables were used.
Likewise, careful reanalyses of research literature from the first phase of effects studies show that “few, if any, reputable social scientists in the pre-World War II era . . . worked with what was later described as the hypodermic needle model” (Lang & Lang 1981, 655). Even the empirical findings from the second phase, upon closer inspection, show no justification for an overall verdict of media impotence (Lang & Lang 1981, 659). Instead, numerous studies from that time indicating the presence of media effects can be identified. Due to the prevailing opinions of the time, however, no notice was taken of these findings. Two main factors explain the successful run enjoyed by the “minimal effects myth”: first, there was an exaggerated concentration of a limited range of effect types (especially short-term attitude change during election campaigns); second, there was a one-sided and inappropriate interpretation of the results of three key studies, which further secondary literature adopted without additional review.
In the first of these key studies, Lazarsfeld et al.’s The people’s choice (1944), the data in no way unequivocally supported both central investigative findings – the importance of interpersonal communication (“two-step flow”) and of reinforcement instead of chance (“minimal effects”). In spite of the fact that 61 percent of the interviewees named newspaper (23 percent) and radio (38 percent) as their “most important sources” of information during the election, the authors alleged that it is not the media but people who can move other people (although less than one fourth cited a personal source as important). Moreover, in spite of the fact that 8 percent of those questioned did indeed alter their voting decision because of media influences, the authors interpreted this as evidence for a lack of effect (see Chaffee & Hochheimer 1985, 273, 279). Not only is 8 percent a considerable change, it should also be noted that the authors were concerned only with voting intention and ignored other possible political effects where media impact might have been even greater.
In the second key study, Personal influence (1955) by Katz and Lazarsfeld, an inappropriate claim was made to the effect that all previous effects research had been based on the following framework: “that of the omnipotent media, on the one hand, sending forth the message, and the atomized masses, on the other, waiting to receive it – and nothing in between” (1955, 20). In retrospect, Katz (1987, S35) admitted that early empirical communications research seems not to have based its efforts on the idea outlined in 1955, which propounded an omnipotent media and the stimulus–response model arising from this assumption. Nevertheless, Katz and Lazarsfeld’s book created a mythos that has definitively influenced the history of this field even up to today (see Delia 1987, 65 – 66).
Biased Perceptions Of Media Effects
From Klapper’s synopsis The effects of mass communication (1960), the third key work of that era, secondary literature adopted primarily those conclusions that pointed to minimal effects, failing to subject these inferences to review. However, Klapper did also clearly define conditions under which the media could develop strong effects. Even so, since he provided only very few pieces of evidence and examples for these in his one-sided presentation, they made no impression on the readers of the time or on later generations of research (see Perse 2001, 25). In addition, Klapper worked as director of social research for CBS, one of the largest media corporations in the United States, and media companies were uninterested in evidence supporting the strength of the media. Quite the contrary: they were interested in evidence proving the insignificance of media effects and used Klapper’s book to argue against regulation (Perse 2001, 28).
The apparent change of mind leading to the rediscovery of strong effects may also be better explained by factors outside of, rather than within, the research world. The rapid spread of television during the 1960s and 1970s lent a political dimension to the field of effects research. Influential commercial and political forces increasingly accused the media of failing to respect these entities’ interests and, consequently, of distortion. Such allegations drew heightened public attention to the effectiveness of the media.
Today, a growing number of scholars agree that the established standard history of the field is misleading because it tends to ignore those findings that do not fit neatly into the stage-by-stage scenario. Many authors (e.g., Lang & Lang 1981; Chaffee & Hochheimer 1985; McLeod et al. 1991; Wartella 1996; Bryant & Thompson 2002) have thus concluded that the development of mass media effects research did not move in pendulum swings from “all-powerful” to “limited” to “rediscovered powerful” to “negotiated” effects. Bryant and Thompson (2002, 42, 58) argue that the body of media effects research from the beginning showed overwhelming evidence for significant effects. Thus, the sum total of all these considerations yields the conclusion that the history of media effects research still waits to be written (see Wartella 1996, 179).
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