The term “social capital” has become a popular way for academics, activists, politicians, and the public to describe how an individual’s location in a structure of relationships, and the sense of trust and reciprocity that accompanies this social position, can provide the means for citizens to cooperate on problems requiring collective effort (Coleman 1990). It is defined as the resources of information, shared norms, and social relations embedded in communities that enable people to learn and to coordinate action. As such, social capital concerns contextual, relational, and individual factors that are not overtly political yet have implications for the health of civil society. Of particular relevance to communication research focused on civic and political participation is the considerable attention paid to the mass media’s role in the production and destruction of social capital.
Robert Putnam (2000), who has led the examination of the roots of the decline in Americans’ community engagement and its implications for democratic functioning, sees the answer in the connection between television use and the erosion of social capital. Available evidence indicates that while contributions to charitable groups are at all-time highs, face-to-face encounters with other community members and involvement in political activities have slid dramatically over the last 50 years, the same period that witnessed the rise of television. And although attendance at public events has remained high, or even increased, it cannot match the sharp rise in privatized entertainment in the form of in-home media use.
These downward trends appear to be based on generational differences and individual changes; that is, members of generation X are not only less participatory and trusting than their baby-boomer parents, but they are less connected, engaged, and involved than the boomers were when they were young adults. Likewise, baby-boomers have typically been less connected and involved than members of the preceding generation. Changes in patterns of media use over time – i.e., rising rate of television usage and decline in newspaper readership – have been identified as some of the main causes of the decline of civic culture.
Work by Jack McLeod and his colleagues (1996) has found that newspapers, with their informative content and focus on news and community events, produce pro-civic consequences; newspaper readers, especially those who pay close attention to local news content, are more politically knowledgeable and participatory than nonreaders. Conversely, television has been blamed for civic disengagement. The issue of whether television viewing actually erodes social capital and reduces civic participation has spurred a lively debate on the relationships between media use and civic life (see Shah 1998).
Media And Civic Engagement
Many of the factors found to enhance community participation – age and education, employment, church attendance, psychological ties to the community, and general sociability – arguably represent the unmeasured concepts of social trust, civic skills, and social networks that come with social standing and community belonging. Conversely, media use, typically defined as hours of TV use, is viewed as a barrier to civic participation.
The arguments offered for the expectation of adverse media effects are intuitively appealing. Time spent with media supposedly privatizes leisure time and therefore displaces other activities that build the community. Further, the depiction of social reality in mass media, particularly television, is thought to cultivate a perception of the world as a mean place, leading to social withdrawal. Thus, television’s inaccurate portrayal of society distorts social reality judgments such that television’s frequent presentation of violence is thought to lead heavy television viewers to believe that the real world is a more dangerous place than it actually is (Eveland 2002). Consequently, overall television viewing is criticized, often with scant evidence, as the main culprit in the erosion of social capital by fostering anti-civic sentiments.
Research formally testing time displacement and cultivation effects of mass media on social trust and civic engagement has found only limited support for the view that television use undercuts social capital. Nonetheless, these arguments, initially advanced for television, have recently been extended to Internet use, with research relating time spent online with the erosion of psychological well-being, declines in social trust, the loss of real-world ties, and community disengagement (Nie 2001; Kraut et al. 1998).
Although these perspectives are provocative, communication scholars have questioned their merits, arguing that these critiques of the media are grounded on the assumption that media use is one-dimensional and that there is only one type of audience when in fact media consumption is a product of varied motives and different types of users. Thus, research on the topic of media use and civic engagement has taken the position that scholars must be attentive to patterns of use, not simply hours of use (Shah et al. 2001). This is critical when considering the effects of the Internet, a medium that many have argued contains the potential to increase knowledge, tighten relations, and ease coordination and cooperation.
Using Media For Information And Surveillance
Information and surveillance motives for media use have received considerable scholarly attention because they promise increased political knowledge and awareness of civic opportunities and objectives. The general conclusion of this work: informational uses of mass media – i.e., reading newspapers, watching news programs, and gathering and exchanging information over the Internet – have pro-civic consequences, such as increase in levels of campaign and community participation (Shah et al. 2007). News media, then, do more than educate; they provide the basis for political discussion and deliberation that can lead to civic action.
Non-news content also has the potential to provide information and foster increased reflection about civic life. In particular, social dramas that depict contemporary controversies, often ones that are “ripped from the headlines,” allow for unique representations of various sides of socio-political issues. These programs are emotionally engaging, base claims on experiential rather than factual knowledge, and treat the audience as being physically present within the program, as opposed to the detached and objective approach of most news reports. These programs not only allow viewers to understand community problems in more complex and personal terms, but suggest avenues for involvement that are modeled by fictional characters. Indeed, news programs have increasingly capitalized on the storylines of programs such as ER and NYPD Blue by developing reports linking community events to the fictional narratives.
Research also suggests that informational and communicative uses of the Internet encourage community involvement and foster civic participation, that is, individuals who use the Internet to explore interests, gather data, and send and receive email have been found to be more socially and politically engaged (Wellman et al. 2001). The Internet may promote civic engagement because it allows users to gain knowledge, reinforce social linkages, and coordinate their actions to address joint concerns. The associative features of email may amplify the effects of more traditional forms of social interaction since email allows individuals to coordinate their actions with great efficiency and permits the politically active to present opportunities for civic participation to likely prospects in their social circle (Shah et al. 2007).
This suggests that media use and social networks work together to produce civic engagement, reinforcing the need to be attentive to the social context in which traditional and new media are used. In particular, scholars have theorized a communication mediation model in which socio-economic factors, particularly income and education, work through news consumption and interpersonal communication to shape civic engagement. News media use is thought to encourage citizen engagement through its effects on political discussion. Through these communicative actions, people become better informed, develop more complex conceptions of community issues, acquire psychological resources, and build social trust. Thus, informational media use works with conventional and online citizen communication to mediate the effects of background factors on public-mindedness and civic participation.
Using Media For Entertainment And Diversion
The relationship between entertainment/diversion uses of media and involvement in community life has been of increasing research interest. Situation comedies and reality programs have been of particular interest, both because of their prevalence and their expected connections to trust and participation. There is evidence that upbeat sitcoms such as Friends run counter to Putnam’s expectations about television, yielding positive relationships with interpersonal trust. Watching programs that depict social reality in a light-hearted manner may be related to a more hopeful worldview of which interpersonal trust is one component.
Reality programs such as Cops, Survivor, and Apprentice present a very different social world, one that is full of deception, betrayal, and finger-pointing. If there is any merit to arguments about “mean-world effects” of media consumption, reality program viewing should be related to social mistrust and civic disengagement. The conventional wisdom concerning this genre asserts that it fosters fear and a more dangerous view of societal interaction, encouraging withdrawal from community life. There is some support for this perspective.
Like sitcoms and reality programs, the use of the Internet for entertainment and escape may also have adverse civic consequences. Research indicates that individuals who use the Internet for recreation and anonymous socialization may not experience many civic benefits. Such uses of the Internet privatize social recreation; chat-rooms and other means of interacting anonymously in online environments provide the illusion of face-to-face social belonging without the benefits. As such, recreational uses of the Internet may erode the individual-level production of social capital since these activities weaken social networks. Of course, the nature of this relationship is at least partly a function of the content of the exchange.
General Differences In Media Effects
In addition to conclusions concerning the connection between Internet use and civic life, past research by Shah and colleagues has found substantial generational differences in the relationship between Internet use and civic engagement. The positive and negative associations observed between patterns of Internet use and trust and participation were concentrated among the youngest American adults. Indeed, across the generational groups examined, the predictive power of Internet use became weaker as analysis moved from younger to older groups. These findings, along with findings on generational differences in newspaper use, clearly suggest a generational difference in levels of media use and patterns of media effects.
However, the differential influence of media across generational groups may not simply reflect variation in levels in use; rather, generational contrasts may be a function of an affinity toward certain types of media. Research on media reliance has found that effects of media consumption tend to be concentrated among individuals who have learned to depend on a given medium, whether that medium is newspapers, television, or the Internet. In contrast to the Internet, research suggests that older people are more reliant on print media, the medium they developed a connection with in their youth. These generational differences may also provide important clues about how media may be used to build social capital.
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- Shah, D. V., Cho, J., Nah, S., Gotlieb, M. R., Hwang, H., Lee, N.-J., Scholl, R. M., & McLeod, D. M. (2007). Campaign ads, online messaging, and participation: Extending the communication mediation model. Journal of Communication.
- Wellman, B., Haase, A., Witte, J., & Hampton, K. (2001). Does the Internet increase, decrease, or supplement social capital? American Behavioral Scientist, 45, 436–455.