The term “indirect effects” denotes the consequences of direct effects on individuals who are not exposed to media content. According to Seymour-Ure (1974, 22), “a primary [=direct] effect takes place when the person affected has himself been involved directly in the communication process. A secondary [= indirect] effect takes place when individuals or groups not involved in the communication process are affected by changes in individuals who are.” The concept of indirect effects extends the effect of the mass media beyond the users and to nonusers in two ways. Individuals exposed to media content spread information and opinion provided by the mass media, as far as they transmit them unchanged. Such individuals may also transform the information and opinion provided by the mass media into action, as far as their action is predictable on the basis of media coverage.
Three types of indirect effects can be distinguished. First, there are administrative reactions, i.e., direct effects on a large number of recipients of media content affect the behavior of a small number of decision-makers. For example, the negative tone of coverage about a politician’s plan decreases support for him or her (direct effect), which stimulates the politician to give up the plan (indirect effect). Second, there are public effects, i.e., direct effects on a small number of decision-makers who are the subject of media coverage lead them to make decisions that affect a large number of people. For example, media coverage about the potential side-effects of pharmaceuticals cause the producer to take it off the market (direct effect), which has positive and/or negative consequences for a large number of patients (indirect effects). Third, there are snowball effects, i.e., direct effects on a large number of recipients of media content affect a large number of people not exposed to the relevant media content. For example, a new TV show has impressed a large number of viewers (direct effect) who stimulate their friends to watch the next episode (indirect effect).
For several reasons, the concept of indirect effects denies the adequacy of the axiom that there is “no effect without contact.” People’s attitudes have no significant influence on their use of TV news and only a moderate influence on their use of national quality newspapers (Kepplinger et al. 1991). The selective use of media does not exclude the use (Donsbach 1991) and transmission (Deutschmann & Danielson 1960) of dissonant information. Therefore, people exposed to the mass media may play two roles. As far as they transmit exclusively consonant information, they act as filters. As far as they transmit dissonant information, they act as amplifiers of media effects.
Because of the axiom mentioned above, indirect effects of mass media have not been a major topic of research. Nevertheless, several quantitative and qualitative studies document a broad variety of indirect effects. Pre-trial publicity may bias jurors against defendants (direct effect) and thus might disadvantage them (indirect effect; Bruschke & Loges 1999). Intensive coverage of terrorism (Weimann & Winn 1994) may stimulate additional violence (direct effect) and cause additional victims (indirect effect). The dominant tone of media coverage may discourage recipients from speaking out in public (direct effect), which may push others into falling silent (indirect effect; Noelle-Neumann 1993). Media reports indicating a lack of supply may increase demand (direct effect), causing a shortage that harms other people (indirect effect I) and stimulating political activity (indirect effect II; Kepplinger & Roth 1979). Media coverage of the availability of pornography or violence might stimulate concern about antisocial effects on others (direct effect I), increase support for censorship (direct effect II); and bring into office politicians planning to change the law (indirect effect; Shah et al. 1999). Before World War II the pro-German coverage in The Times most likely had an impact on the British and German politicians who negotiated the Munich Treaty (direct effect), which had far-reaching consequences for people living in Czechoslovakia (indirect effect; Seymour-Ure 1974; Holbert & Stephenson 2003).
Direct effects of media reports can be identified using survey or observational data. One can relatively easily identify direct effects of media reports. By comparison, indirect effects – i.e., the consequences for the behavior of subjects who are influenced by media coverage – are more difficult to identify and more difficult still to link to media coverage directly. First, one has to establish a direct effect upon the relevant subjects. In doing so, one has to take into consideration the decisions that have been taken and those that have been avoided because of the mass media. Second, one has to demonstrate that the event under investigation is in fact a consequence of a direct effect. Here, the concepts of necessary and sufficient causes of effects are useful. In many cases, the media might be a necessary but not a sufficient cause of indirect effects (Seymour-Ure 1974).
- Bruschke, J., & Loges, W. E. (1999). Relationship between pretrial publicity and trial outcomes. Journal of Communication, 49, 104 –120.
- Deutschmann, P., & Danielson, W. (1960). Diffusion of knowledge of the major news story. Journalism Quarterly, 37, 345 –355.
- Donsbach, W. (1991). Exposure to political content in newspapers: The impact of cognitive dissonance on readers’ selectivity. European Journal of Communication, 6, 155 –186.
- Holbert, R. L., & Stephenson, M. T. (2003). The importance of indirect effects in media effects research: Testing for mediation in structural equation modeling. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 47(4), 556 –572.
- Kepplinger, H. M., & Roth, H. (1979). Creating a crisis: German mass media and oil supply in 1973/ Public Opinion Quarterly, 43, 285 –296.
- Kepplinger, H. M., Brosius, H-B., & Staab, J. F. (1991). Opinion formation in mediated conflicts and crises: A theory of cognitive-affective media effects. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 3, 132 –156.
- Noelle-Neumann, E. (1993). The spiral of silence: Public opinion – our social skin, 2nd edn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Seymour-Ure, C. (1974). The political impact of mass media. London and Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Shah, D. V., Faber, R. J., & Youn, S. (1999). Susceptibility and severity: Perceptual dimensions underlying the third-person effect. Communication Research, 26, 240 –267.
- Weimann, G., & Winn, C. (1994). The theater of terror: Mass media and international terrorism. New York and London: Longman.