Most people accept the idea that the media can influence people. But the degree of that influence, as well as who is most-impacted, when, how and why, have been the subjects of great debate among communication scholars for nearly a century. Media effects refers to the many ways individuals and society may be influenced by both news and entertainment mass media, including film, television, radio, newspapers, books, magazines, websites, video games, and music.
The limited-effects theory argues that because people generally choose what to watch or read based on what they already believe, media exerts a negligible influence. This theory originated and was tested in the 1940s and 1950s. Studies that examined the ability of media to influence voting found that well-informed people relied more on personal experience, prior knowledge, and their own reasoning. However, media “experts” more likely swayed those who were less informed. Critics point to two problems with this perspective. First, they claim that limited-effects theory ignores the media's role in framing and limiting the discussion and debate of issues. How media frames the debate and what questions members of the media ask change the outcome of the discussion and the possible conclusions people may draw. Second, this theory came into existence when the availability and dominance of media was far less widespread.
The class-dominant theory argues that the media reflects and projects the view of a minority elite, which controls it. Those people who own and control the corporations that produce media comprise this elite. Advocates of this view concern themselves particularly with massive corporate mergers of media organizations, which limit competition and put big business at the reins of media—especially news media. Their concern is that when ownership is restricted, a few people then have the ability to manipulate what people can see or hear. For example, owners can easily avoid or silence stories that expose unethical corporate behavior or hold corporations responsible for their actions.
The issue of sponsorship adds to this problem. Advertising dollars fund most media. Networks aim programming at the largest possible audience because the broader the appeal, the greater the potential purchasing audience and the easier selling air time to advertisers becomes. Thus, news organizations may shy away from negative stories about corporations (especially parent corporations) that finance large advertising campaigns in their newspaper or on their stations. Television networks receiving millions of dollars in advertising from companies like Nike and other textile manufacturers were slow to run stories on their news shows about possible human-rights violations by these companies in foreign countries. Media watchers identify the same problem at the local level where city newspapers will not give new cars poor reviews or run stories on selling a home without an agent because the majority of their funding comes from auto and real estate advertising. This influence also extends to programming. In the 1990s a network cancelled a short-run drama with clear religious sentiments, Christy, because, although highly popular and beloved in rural America, the program did not rate well among young city dwellers that advertisers were targeting in ads.
Critics of this theory counter these arguments by saying that local control of news media largely lies beyond the reach of large corporate offices elsewhere, and that the quality of news depends upon good journalists. They contend that those less powerful and not in control of media have often received full media coverage and subsequent support. As examples they name numerous environmental causes, the anti-nuclear movement, the anti-Vietnam movement, and the pro-Gulf War movement.
While most people argue that a corporate elite controls media, a variation on this approach argues that a politically “liberal” elite controls media. They point to the fact that journalists, being more highly educated than the general population, hold more liberal political views, consider themselves “left of center,” and are more likely to register as Democrats. They further point to examples from the media itself and the statistical reality that the media more often labels conservative commentators or politicians as “conservative” than liberals as “liberal.”
Media language can be revealing, too. Media uses the terms “arch” or “ultra” conservative, but rarely or never the terms “arch” or “ultra” liberal. Those who argue that a political elite controls media also point out that the movements that have gained media attention—the environment, anti-nuclear, and anti-Vietnam—generally support liberal political issues. Predominantly conservative political issues have yet to gain prominent media attention, or have been opposed by the media. Advocates of this view point to the Strategic Arms Initiative of the 1980s Reagan administration. Media quickly characterized the defense program as “Star Wars,” linking it to an expensive fantasy. The public failed to support it, and the program did not get funding or congressional support.
The culturalist theory, developed in the 1980s and 1990s, combines the other two theories and claims that people interact with media to create their own meanings out of the images and messages they receive. This theory sees audiences as playing an active rather than passive role in relation to mass media. One strand of research focuses on the audiences and how they interact with media; the other strand of research focuses on those who produce the media, particularly the news.
Theorists emphasize that audiences choose what to watch among a wide range of options, choose how much to watch, and may choose the mute button or the VCR remote over the programming selected by the network or cable station. Studies of mass media done by sociologists parallel text-reading and interpretation research completed by linguists (people who study language). Both groups of researchers find that when people approach material, whether written text or media images and messages, they interpret that material based on their own knowledge and experience. Thus, when researchers ask different groups to explain the meaning of a particular song or video, the groups produce widely divergent interpretations based on age, gender, race, ethnicity, and religious background. Therefore, culturalist theorists claim that, while a few elite in large corporations may exert significant control over what information media produces and distributes, personal perspective plays a more powerful role in how the audience members interpret those messages.
There are three major theories I would like to introduce…you to. They are:
- The two-step flow theory
- The gatekeeper theory
- The agenda-setting theory
Scholars for years have tried to find a single theory that explains how mass communication works. Some theories look good and receive a lot of attention for a while until a new one comes along. No one theory completely explains how it all works, but there is value to each in understanding the overall process.
Two-Step Flow Theory
The two-step flow theory of mass communication builds on the reality that it is not always possible to get your message directly toyour intended audience. Because of selectivity problems ,communication is facilitated by a filtering process.
Rather than seek out everyone you want to get your message to, you instead seek out opinion leaders in society. Get your message to them and they will filter it down to those who listen to them. Some of those listeners are opinion leaders for others and will filter the message down to their followers.
An example of an opinion leader in the mass media might be a movie critic. The message sender, in this case the movie team, shows the movie to the critic who then writes a review that others will read. The review will influence the readers, who will decide whether or not to go to the movie. Of course, it is well known that the best opinion leaders are people you personally know. How many of you know a movie critic? You will look to the opinion leaders you know for information. But where do they get their information and how do they form their opinions? One source is the movie critic. We can each be opinion leaders and followers/listeners in different situations. The trick for the mass media folks is in identifying opinion leaders and then reaching them.
Imagine that you are in charge of a flock of sheep. You've got the sheep in a fenced off field and they've eaten most of the grass. Next to your field is another field of luscious grass, but it is only half the size of the field your sheep currently are in. If you let all the sheep into the new field there will not be enough grass to go around. You've got to decide which sheep to allow into the new field. So you stand by the gate that joins the two fields and make decisions. Will you allow only the white sheep into the new field? Only the black sheep? The spotted sheep? The healthy sheep? The sickly sheep that need the grass the most? You are the gatekeeper and you decide the criteria.
Gatekeepers in the media are the same. They have many more messages --stories, ads, movies, television shows, songs, etc.-- to send than they can accommodate. So they decide which messages get through, which stories will appear in today's paper, which television shows will be broadcast, which songs to broadcast, etc. Newspaper editors, news directors, and others in the media are gatekeepers.
What's the newest must-see movie? What is the popular pharmaceutical? What's the latest on that war overseas? How do you know what I am talking about? It's because of the media, that' is why.We are all free to think what we want to think about the latest movie, but the fact that we are even talking about the movie is because the media have told us it is important. The idea behind the agenda-setting theory is that the media are good at telling us what to think about.
A plane crashes or there is a disaster in another country. We all have feelings about it even though it does not affect our lives at all. The media has set the agenda by the choices the gatekeepers have made. An interesting aspect of the agenda-setting function is that editors --gatekeepers-- are all making independent decisions all over the country every day. But if you were to pick up a copy of the Times of Indiaes, The Hindu, the Tribune, the Statesman,the NDTV, CNN-IBN ,Headlines Today,Times Now,etc. you would find some of the same stories on the front page of each. Further, you'd find those same stories leading the national, and perhaps local, television newscasts. The news media at times can be quite homogenous even though their decisions are all made independently. Do you suppose that even the gatekeepers have their opinion leaders?