Media Effects On The Individual And Society

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Media Effects on the Individual and Society


Communications research, or media studies, is about effect. It might have been otherwise—consider the study of art, for example—but it is not. However, the field is subdivided—audience measurement, content analysis, production process, reception studies—the underlying aim, not always acknowledged, is to account for the power of the media.

From Plato's admonition that the written word might corrupt unintended audiences to Postman's admonition that television would corrupt rational discourse, there has been continuous speculation— both scholarly and popular—about the effects of media.

The questions, however, are much better than the answers. How effective was the use of radio for propaganda in World War I? What role did radio play in Hitler's rise to power? Did Roosevelt's 'fireside chats' persuade Americans to join the allies in World War II? Did the televised pictures from Vietnam and Bosnia hasten American withdrawal in the one case and engagement in the other? Is television responsible for the personalization of politics? Do television debates affect the outcome of presidential elections? Are the media simply salesmen of the status quo? Does cinematic glorification of violence induce real-world violence? Why is it taking so long for the media to get people to quit smoking? How does representation of minorities on television affect intergroup relations? Will global media homogenize or exacerbate cultural differences?


From about 1940 to 1960, research on media effects focused on the study of persuasion, that is, on whether the media can tell us 'what to think' or what to do. More formally, the question is whether the media are able to induce (a) change (b) in the opinions, attitudes, and actions (c) of individuals (d) in the short-run (e) by means of campaigns of persuasive appeals.

This work centered on Carl Hovland at Yale and Paul Lazarsfeld at Columbia, but the paradigm also applies to studies of advertising's wartime propaganda and, somewhat circuitously, to studies of the effect on children of media portrayals of violence. Hovland's group were experimentalists (McGuire 1996) who varied the rhetoric of persuasive messages- fear appeals, repetition, one-sided vs. two-sided arguments— in order to assess their impact on attitude change both in the laboratory and in the real-life orientation of American soldiers during World War II. Horland (1959) gave much thought to the problem of why change is more likely in the laboratory than in the field.


Having identified interpersonal networks and selectivity as keys to persuasion, researchers invoked these processes to explore two additional paradigms; one is called 'diffusion' and the other 'uses and gratifications.' Diffusion research is an effort to trace the adoption of an idea or innovation as it spreads, over time, among a community of potential adopters exposed both to the media and to each other.

It reaches out to the many disciplines that are interested in how things get from here to there, such as the spread of religion, stylistic change in fashion and the arts, change in language and naming, or the epidemiology of disease. It builds on the finding of campaign research that interpersonal relations ...
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