The Effects of the Media on Audience Groups
Media effect has always been a hot topic of communication study, and there have been a considerable number of theoretical achievements. However, in the new-media Era, the effects of both traditional and new media in practice deviate from the existing theories to some extent. My final paper will first introduce the four authoritative theories on media effects, including their arguments, examples, evidence, academic status, and criticisms they receive. Then I will analyze different theories to find their weaknesses and strong points. A comparison will be presented. In the end, I’ll discuss the change of media effect in the new-media Era by discussing some hot topics.
Communication Theory Effects Research Mass Media Audience Groups New-media
1. The History of Media Effect Research and Theory
The development of thinking about media effects is said to have a ‘natural history’, in a sense of its being strongly shaped by the circumstances of time and place and influenced in an interview way by several ‘environmental’ factors, including the interests of governments and law—makers, changing technology, the events of history, the activities of pressure groups and propagandists, the ongoing concerns of public opinion and even the findings and the fashions of social silence. The four phases are all-powerful media, theory of powerful media put to the test, powerful media rediscovered, negotiated media influence.
There is a surprisingly long tradition of effects-based audience research, and all have in some way sought to examine the effects of media output on their audiences, and all have admitted that the media influence their audience in some way. The deciding difference lies in how big the influence is. To explain the theory more clearly and add some of my own understandings, each one I would like to introduce a representative specifically.
A. All-Powerful Media
The first phase: from 1900 until the late 1930s,
The media, where they were well developed, were credited with considerate power to shape opinion and belief, to change habits of life and to mould behavior actively more or less according to the will of those who could control the media and their contents. Such views were based not on scientific investigation but on observation of the enormous popularity of the press and of the new media—film and radio which intruded into many aspects of everyday life as well as public affairs.
In Europe, the use of media by advertisers, by war propagandists and by dictatorial state in the inter-war years and by the new revolutionary regime in Russia all appeared to confirm what people were already inclined to believe—that the media could be immensely powerful.
Behaviorism: the Stimulus-Response Model
Before the father of behaviorism John B. Watson exhibited his genius, several researchers have made distinguishing contributions to the development of behaviorism. One of the pioneers, the Russian biologist Ivan Pavlov, has been famous for his experiments with dogs. He proposed the concept of conditioned response, which means creating a connection between conditioned stimulus and unconditioned response by studying. By the way, though Pavlov became known for his pioneering work on behaviorism and thus received the Nobel Prize in medicine, he refused to consider himself as a psychologist but a biologist. Watson developed Pavlov’s theory and argued that “all human action is merely a conditioned response to external, environmental stimuli”. After Watson, there were Thorndike’s Law of Effect and B.F Skinner’s Operant Conditioning. The three psychologists’ most famous experiments are respectively associated with Father Christmas, cats and doves. I acquire these from Professor Zhang Zhiyong’s course An Introduction to Psychology from Department of Psychology besides reading the reference,
Magic Bullet Theory
By the 1920s, the Freudianism and behaviorism were combined into a more simple theory. That is the Magic bullet theory. It thinks media penetrate people’s minds and instantly create effects. Magic bullet theory assumed what. People were viewed as powerless to consciously resist manipulation. No matter what their social status or how well educated people are, the magic bullet of propaganda penetrate their defense and transform their thoughts and actions. Lots of researchers, especially from the early 1900s through the 1950s, believe that mass media are so powerful that no audience can resist the propaganda.
The most frequently cited example is Orson Welles' notorious 1938 broadcast describing the invasion of New Jersey by Martians, which we have been familiar with in both journalism and communication classes. It was used as an evidence of how vulnerable and ignorant the audiences were, but critics of the magic bullet theory didn’t agree this event provided the conclusive proof about the power of media. That’s the Limited p
B. Theory of Powerful Media Put to the Test
The second phase: Its beginning is well exemplified in the research literature by the series of Payne Fund studies in the United States in the early 1930s until the early 1960s.
Over the course of time the nature of research changed, as methods developed and evidence and theory suggested new kinds of variable which should be taken into account. Initially, researchers began to differentiate possible effects according to social and psychological characteristics; subsequently they introduced variables relating to intervening effects from personal contacts and social environment, and latterly according to types of motive for attending to media.
It was not the media had been found to be without effects; rather, they were shown to operate within a pre-existing structure of social relationships and a particular social and cultural context. These factors took primacy in shaping the opinions, attitudes and behavior under study and also in shaping media choice, attention and response on the part of audiences.
Lazarsfeld’s Two-Step Flow Theory
After 1940, American empirical researchers began to challenge the previous theoretical work on media effect based on behaviorism. Several experiments were made, such as Lazarsfeld’s famous survey on Erie County, Ohio in 1940, interviewing more than 3000 people on the election in their homes. Nearly one out of every three households in the county was visited by an interviewer. The most persuasive evidence of this theory is that Lazarsfeld’s results directly contradicted mass society media.
In 1943 his research team did another interview on more than 700 housewives about their consumer decisions in Decatur, Illinois, He used a “snowball” sampling technique in order to finally “identify and study those who had been named by others as opinion leaders”.
More than ten years after the Decatur research, in 1955, Lazarsfeld’s work Personal Influence was published, by which Lazarsfeld formally advanced his two-step flow theory. The theory is the idea that messages pass from the media, through opinion leaders, to opinion followers. In two-step flow, people who screen media messages and pass on those messages that help others share their views. Lazarsfeld argued that the most important influence of mass media was to reinforce a choice that had already been made and there was little evidence that media converted people. In Lazarsfeld’s opinion, the heavy user/early deciders act as gate-keepers—screening information and only passing on items that would help others share their views. Lazarsfeld chose the item “opinion leaders” to refer to these individuals.
C. Powerful Media Rediscovered
The third phase: from 1980s to now.
In the theory, the ‘no effect’ myth was due to a combination of factors, most notably: it concentrates on a limited range of effects, especially short-term effects on individuals (for instance, during elections), instead of on broader social and institutional effects, and weight given to two publications—Katz and Lazarsfeld’ Personal Influence (1955) and Klapper’s The Effects of Mass Communication (1960). Nevertheless, they concede that the myth was influential enough to close off certain avenues of research temporarily.
There are two reasons why some researchers are reluctant to accept the ‘no (or minimal) effect’ theory. One is they think the theory gives no justification for an overall verdict of ‘media impotence’. The other reason for the reluctance is the arrival of television in the 1950s and 1960s as a new medium with even more power of attraction (if not necessarily of effect) than its predecessors and with seemingly major implications for social life. There, we must introduce the limited effects theory originated from Lazarsfeld.
Limited Effects Theory
The exact definition of limited effects theory is when media do seem to have an effect, that effect is “filtered” through other parts of the society, for example, through friends or social groups. Originated from Lazarsfeld’s work, the limited effects theory calls attention to key generalizations about the role of media in society. Some of the important are as follows, and these are also why the magic bullet theory didn’t agree this event provided the conclusive proof about the power of media.
a) Media rarely directly influence individuals. People are sheltered from direct propaganda manipulation by their family, friends, coworkers and social groups. This is very different from the magic bullet theory and behaviorism that viewed people as isolated atoms.
b) There is a two step flow of media influence.
c) By the time people become adults, they have developed strongly held group commitments such as political party and religious affiliations that individual media messages are powerless to overcome.
d) When media effects do occur, they will be modest and isolated.
D. Negotiated Media Influence
The fourth phase: begin in to late 1970s.
Work on media texts (especially news) and audiences, and also on media organizations, brought about a new approach to media effects which can best be termed ‘social constructivist’. In essence, this has been the development of a view of media as having their most significant effects by constructing meanings and offering these constructs in a systematic way to audience, where they are incorporated (or not), on the basis of some form of negotiation, into personal meaning structure, often shaped by prior collective identifications.
2. Comparison Between the Theories
We can divide the four theories into two groups by how they recognize the power of media. One is for the powerful mass society media, such as behaviorism, magic bullet theory, Lasswell’s political propaganda theory; the other is for limited effects of media, representative by Lazarsfeld. Because the magic bullet theory is a combination of Watson’s behaviorism and Freudianism, and the limited effect theory develops directly from Lazarsfeld’s work, so this section is going to discuss the strong points and weaknesses of Watson’s behaviorism and Lazarsfeld’s two-step flow theory as representatives.
As we can see from above, the most obvious weaknesses of behaviorism is its simplistic structure. It assumes “that other social structures, such as the opinions of family and peer group members, had no effect on audiences was naive.” Therefore, the criticism later also focused on the overly unmediated and direct relationship between the media and their audience.
Perhaps it was because the simple but obvious explanation provided by behaviorism that made behaviorism accepted in such a huge range and in fact, it laid the foundation of media theory in the age of propaganda. With the widespread of mass media, Watson’s theory in advertisements was inevitably used by political propagandists such as Nazi Joseph Goebbels, a master propagandist. One of his remarks is “It would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and psychological understanding of the people concerned that a square and a circle.” He stated, “What after all are a square and a circle? They are mere words and words can be molded until they clothe ideas in disguise”, quoted in Thomson. (1977, p.111) So here comes one the most important theories in effect study. It derived from Lasswell’s 5W model (Who said What to Whom through What Channel and has What Effect), and was highly developed by Nazi and Soviet.
Propaganda means no-holds-barred use of communication to propagate specific beliefs and expectations. For the amazingly great power of propaganda, it appeared likely that a Nazi or Communist leader would seize power before public education had a chance to succeed. So Western propaganda theorists abandoned idealism in favor of strategies they regarded as realistic and based on scientific face. Propaganda must be resisted by might be a silver lining to this cloud. If we could find a way to harness the power, then maybe we will have a tool that could help build a better social order. This was the promise of what came to be called white propaganda—a strategy that used benign propaganda techniques to fight “bad” propaganda and promote objectives those elites considered good. After WWII ended, these white propaganda techniques provided a basis for the development of promotional communication methods that are widely used today in advertising and public relations.
As U.S theorists studied propaganda, they came to differentiate black, white, and gray propaganda. Black propaganda involved deliberate and strategic transmission of lies—its use was well illustrated by the Nazis.
White Propaganda involves intentional suppression of potentially harmful information and ideas, combined with deliberate promotion of positive information or ideas to distract attention from problematic events.
Gray Propaganda means transmission of information or ideas that might or might not be false. No effort is made to determine their validity. The propagandist simply made no effort to determine their validity and actually avoided doing so—especially if dissemination of the content would serve his or her interest. Today we find the attribution of labels like “black” and “white” to the concepts of bad and good propaganda offensive.
Now it seems that the behaviorism and the propaganda theory are so naive while compared with Lazarsfeld’s two-step flow theory, but it did provide a scientific approach to both psychology and communication study: experiment. Many years later, behaviorism is still an unavoidable topic in the field of communication theory. The strengths of Lazarsfeld’s two-step flow theory are the focus on the environment, the stresses on opinion leaders. It’s based on inductive rather than deductive reasoning, and effective challenges the simplistic notion of direct effect.
Critics said that there were some variables that were not measured in Lazarsfeld’s model. First, surveys can’t measure how people actually use media on a day-to-day basis. That is how the later theory of gate-keeping and silence spiral came out Second, surveys are a very expensive and cumbersome way to study people’s use of specific media content such as their reading of certain news stories or their viewing of specific television programs. Third, the research design and data analysis procedures Lazarsfeld developed are inherently conservative in assessing the media’s power. Fourth, subsequent research on the two-step flow has produced highly contradictory findings.
3. View the Media Effects on Audience Groups in the New-Media Era
With the advance of opening up and the development of new media technology, we are lucky to observe the collapse (may be a little exaggerate) of many traditional media. In many controversial news events, as we have seen in Qian Yunhui Case happened in Zhejiang Province, Wukan Event in Guangdong Province, China’s orthodox media’s public trust is losing at a increasingly speed. It raised such questions: Why our people tend to doubt the state media? Did the magic bullet theory fail in nowadays China? Perhaps the limited effects theory can provide a convincing explanation.
First, with the help of modern social networks and Microblog, such as Facebook, Twitter, in China Weibo and Renren, citizens can get more information from the Internet other than traditional television and newspaper. There is no reason to enforce the audience to believe what the government propagandizes. Moreover, when the propaganda by the state media deviates from common sense too much, the changelessly brutal reality becomes bitter irony to the propaganda. The bullet is no longer magic, but a joke.
I remembered once in our class, one of my classmates said: “Our government cancelled the agricultural taxes and thus the farmers in fact lead a relatively good life. They believe the national media very much.” I can’t help refuting immediately and my words are somewhat extreme. But what I want to express is the reality remains difficult for our farmers. For example, one family owns five acres on average, while the rice price is lower than half yuan, adding the expense of seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the net revenue for the family is just 3000 yuan.
The situation turned better in recent years, but the gap between rural and city is widening in fact. When farmers get in touch with the Internet and found the whole revenue of their family is worthless than an iPhone4, how can the magic bullet still work?
Second, there is a two-step flow of media influence. It means the media will only be influential when the opinion leaders who guide others are influenced first. Because these opinion leaders are sophisticated, critical media users, they are not easily manipulated by media content. They act as an effective barrier to media influence.
The opinion leader Han, who owns the biggest readership in China, once wrote in his blog: “The psychological counseling is of no use. When I see the beauties cater to the rich, the rich to the officials, the officials to the big boss, and the boss has Lin Zhiling in his arms, how on the earth can the psychological counseling work? People envy workers in Foxconn with social welfare, the punctual wage, the arranging accommodation, and be paid for overworking. My classmates either rely on their family or their husband. There are even no real inspiring stories for hundreds of miles around. That’s the reality of many Chinese youngsters.” A netizen said: “when some news events happened, I would rather see how Han remarked.” This netizen unconsciously demonstrated the premise for media effect.
Third, by the time most people become adults, they have been belong to groups. Individual media messages are powerless to overcome them. Especially in the new-media era, the block of the opponents’ information is no longer effective.
4. Special Circumstances in China
All the communication theory we discussed above is the research of Western world, especially America. However, the situations are very different in China. This section is going to discuss the circumstances in China and test the theory we have already known. Let’s start with an interesting and confusing phenomenon we have raised before: why the citizens tend to doubt the credibility of government?
One popular explanation is that the government likes to lie and with time passing on, fewer and fewer citizens believe in it. That seems to be rather strong. But in the Qian Yunhui Case, the Huiqing government later accepted the investment by volunteer civil lawyers. In the end, investigation team recognized the government’s conclusion to be true. But to the officials’ surprise, the civil lawyers were immediately accused by netizens of taking bribes from the government. What happened recently in Wukan Event is somewhat the same. The secretary of Chaowei wanted to clear the event by holding a news conference, but it turned to worsen the situation. His speech was partly-quoted and be sent online intentionally, triggering more dissatisfactions. Block the news and the rumors will come into being; but when the official accept your inspection and if the conclusion agrees with the previous, the representatives will be doubted. Seeing from the government’s aspect, it is really a dilemma.
I think the problem lie on the freedom of speech.
As we know, we do not have complete freedom of speech China. One of the most typical examples is that when some bad events happen, the government will block the scene and no media is allowed to report. In the journalism class, we learnt that when the Wenchuan Earthquake happened, the Propaganda Department of the Central Committee of the CPC banned the concerning reports in a very short time. When they found it impossible to copy Tangshan’s report model, the Propaganda Department ordered news organizations to report on how wonderful the relief efforts are. When the news media is blocked, the citizens have no choice but to guess, so the rumors have the soil to grow. In the 7.23 Event, the news media are also forbidden to report the accident at the first time until the Microblog exhibited its power.
So the former communication theory failed in such events. The new model for media, audience and government has become:
Accident happens—Government blocks the scene
—Audience has no way to know the truth—Rumor emerges.
—Domestic media is forbidden to report—Foreigner media reports the event in their perspective and interests.
From above we can see the deciding step is the “Government blocks the scene”, this not only gives rise to rumor, but also hands over the voice on the problematic event.
I think the biggest consideration in our leaders on media is “what kind of news can the society hold”. But on one hand our audience’s capability of receiving news has already been enhanced through the new media, on the other hand, even if the block of news continues, the foreigner media will report it. In the new-media, we can safely guarantee that the block could only make the situation worst, as the Wukan has proved.
In the end, the theories of media effect on audience not only give us many exciting experiments and conclusions, but also have an inspiration on China today’s media reform.
Reference (including the footnotes)
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6. Xujing, An introduction to communication theory, Beijing: Tsinghua Press, 2007.