News Effects

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According to Harold Lasswell (1948), communication in society serves three essential functions:(1) the surveillance of the environment, (2) the correlation of adaptive responses to the environment, and (3) the transmission of social inheritance. The institution of the news certainly serves these functions, although it does each to different degrees. Surveying the physical and social environment for threats and opportunities would have to be considered the primary function of news. Citizens are informed of happenings; but as a rule, actions toward these happenings are not suggested. The news may also, however, aim at instigating and coordinating civic action when such action can be considered, with some degree of consensus, to serve the welfare of the citizenry. Finally, the transmission of cultural information is obviously another component of the news.

In the interest of survival, humans have, no doubt, monitored their environments throughout the ages, looking for both perils and opportunities. For thousands of years, individuals had to rely on personal observation and the observations of a limited number of other people. This condition was dramatically changed, of course, with the coming of message distribution by the mass media via print, radio, television, and computer. Countless others now share, through these media, their experiences, observations, and beliefs quasi-instantaneously with massive audiences. Lasswell characterized this development as an extension and an overcoming of the limited capacity of people to survey their environment. The surveyed environment is now truly global. News organizations gather enormous amounts of information from around the world, reduce it to what, according to some agreed-upon criteria, is deemed news-worthy, and present it to the public for further selective sampling. It is this multitude of available information that defines the context for the exploration of news effects.

News Reception and Interpretation

Whatever the format of presentation, news must be perceived and interpreted. Whether the informational displays that convey the news are manifest in printed language, spoken language, or language that is supplemented by drawings and photographs or by motion-picture sequences, recipients must pay attention to these displays in order to obtain information from them. The interpretative extraction of meaning is necessary, in turn, for news to have the effects that news is designed to bring about—first and foremost, to inform the citizenry of pertinent environmental and social developments (in terms of both threats to the well-being of citizens and opportunities for improving their wellness), and, according to writers such as Davis Merritt (1995), to inspire or instigate social action in the interest of communal or societal welfare.

Before these ends can be served, it is obviously necessary for recipients to comprehend the news. The mediation of comprehension is commonly considered in the context of schema theory. Doris Graber (1988), among others, has employed this theory to elucidate the information processing and information elaboration that is entailed in making sense of the news. Schemata are conceived of as discrete yet interconnected active memory structures that consolidate related past experiences and that foster expectations and interpretations that are based on these experiences. According to Graber, schemata control all relevant processes in news reception and interpretation. Specifically, they are thought to determine what recipients notice, process, and store during exposure to the news; to help recipients to evaluate and structure information in accordance with established beliefs; to facilitate the interpretation of information about unfamiliar, novel situations; and to aid in the construction of coping strategies. Essentially, then, the reception and interpretation of news is seen as a result of sequential filtering by the subjectively defined schemata of the recipients.

An experimental investigation conducted by Mary Beth Oliver (1999) of stereotypical interpretation illustrates the suggested filtering. White viewers were exposed to a news broadcast that included a wanted poster of a murder suspect. The race of the suspect was indicated solely by the poster, which featured either a white or a black person. A person identification test was administered immediately after exposure and again three months later. The findings revealed that, especially with the passage of time, white respondents tended to misidentify white suspects as being black. Additionally, negative attitudes toward blacks led over time to fewer misidentifications of white suspects and more frequent misidentifications of black suspects. Such findings could be interpreted as a result of stereotypes manifest in "race filters," stereotypes that appear to have been particularly pronounced in the filters of recipients with negative attitudes toward blacks.

It should be clear from this illustration that schema theory can be profitably applied, post facto, to shed light on the subjectification of the news. It should also be apparent, however, that the theory lacks predictive power in that specific interpretations of the news cannot be forecast, as the mediating schemata are typically presumed rather than empirically ascertained.

Information Acquisition and Retention

Much is known about the acquisition of information from the news and about its retention. It has been shown, for example, that when news items are presented in sequence, as is typical for radio and television broadcasts, items that are placed at the beginning or toward the end of a sequence are better recalled than items in the middle of the sequence (Gunter, Furnham, and Gietson, 1984). It is also apparent that attention to, and recall of, news items can be influenced by the contents of preceding and following items. It has been shown, among other things, that emotion-arousing news items foster extended cognitive preoccupation after exposure and that, as a result, attention to subsequently presented items tends to be greatly impaired (Scott and Goff, 1988; Mundorf, Drew, Zillmann, and Weaver, 1990). It is further apparent that the presence of images generally improves the recall of information from news reports (Graber, 1990). Imagery that is consistent with and that highlights the verbally presented focal message of news reports has been found to be particularly effective in enhancing recall (Brosius, Donsbach, and Birk, 1996). Attention to specific content categories has also been examined. It has been observed, for example, that violence-laden news items, irrespective of their mode of presentation, are better recalled than nonviolent items and that men recall violent news items better than do women (Gunter, Furnham, and Gietson, 1984). Influences of other contents, of style, and of display variables on recall have also been examined. It has been demonstrated, for example, that image-evoking text can facilitate recall almost as much as actual images (David and Kang, 1998) and that actual images tend to facilitate the recall of accounts of concrete, perceivable situations more than that of abstract, difficult to visualize phenomena (David, 1998).

In research, news recall is commonly ascertained shortly after exposure to the news. Such assessment can be seen as tapping information extraction and comprehension. Research that focuses on longer-term retention of the acquired information has essentially shown that most of this information is soon lost (Gunter, 1987). The surprisingly poor retention of the news after days, weeks, or months has been deemed deplorable by some observers. It may also be seen as serving the public well, however, because retention of the specifics of news reports (which is what recall tests usually assess) tends to have little utility. Part of the subjectification of the news by filtering in schema-theoretical terms, as suggested by Graber (1988), allows recipients to select personally salient messages from the flood of news information, focus on them, and commit them to memory, while proficiently discarding the remainder.

It should be recognized that attention to, information acquisition from, and recall of the news does not constitute a meaningful end in itself. The object of the news, put simply, is to apprise the public of developments that affect their welfare. It is to provide a reliable overview of happenings in the immediate communal environment of citizens as well as in extended frames, such as state, nation, and the world at large. The purpose of the news, in other words, is to furnish the material for the construction of perceptions of, beliefs about, and dispositions toward relevant incidents and phenomena. As the mediators of individual and social actions, these perceptions, beliefs, and dispositions constitute the ultimate news effects that are worth examining. Receiving, interpreting, and comprehending the news, then, are necessary intermediate processes for news to serve its designated purpose.

News and Public Discourse

In contrast to the limited capacity of citizens to survey their extended environments by their own actions, news organizations can gather information about countless happenings around the globe and relay this wealth of information quasi-instantaneously to local, national, and worldwide audiences. Information is not gathered in random fashion, however. Editors and news directors give specific assignments to reporters and correspondents, and they further reduce the number of incoming reports by selecting only those that, according to prevailing news criteria, are considered newsworthy. Reports are thus judged, classified, and implicitly or explicitly ranked by importance. Those deemed important are included in the news, and those deemed especially important are featured more prominently than others.

The news, then, predetermines what the public will get to know (by implication, also what it will not get to know) and signals the degree of importance of individual reports. Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw (1972) explored this function of the news and labeled it "agenda setting." The influence focus of this approach is on the determination of issue salience. News is seen as bringing significant issues into public consciousness, as inviting reflection, and as providing the means for independent judgment rather than as influencing the public to adopt suggested positions on the issues.

The agenda-setting paradigm has generated much supportive research. It has been tested, essentially, in the correspondence between issues presented in the news and, usually after some passage of time, public awareness of these issues (McCombs, 1994). Additional demonstrations showed a correspondence between presentational prominence of items in the news and the perception of the importance of these items by the public. It has also been observed, however, that the news media are sensitive to public awareness of issues and respond to it with pertinent news reports (Brosius and Kepplinger, 1990). The news may thus set the public agenda while, on occasion, the public also sets the news agenda.

News and Issue Perception

News influence is not limited, however, to signaling the salience of presented issues and then letting the public render judgment. The news, by presenting events in particular ways, can narrow interpretational leeway and thereby guide recipients to adopt specific perceptions of relevant issues. By framing or contextualizing reports, aspects of secondary importance can be highlighted and given disproportional influence on the interpretation and perception of issues and, ultimately, on expectations and dispositions concerning the issues.

The contextualizing exemplification of phenomena of public interest (i.e., the presentation of selected cases to illustrate broader phenomena) has been found to have especially potent influence on the perception and evaluation of issues. Dolf Zillmann and Hans-Bernd Brosius (2000) examined exemplification in this context. They found exemplars to permeate all facets of the news. In the form of people who relate their experiences, exemplars are considered to humanize the news. If employed in impartial fashion, exemplars may be expected to aid recipients in forming appropriate perceptions and judgments. It appears, however, that exemplars are often arbitrarily, sometimes carelessly, and, on occasion, recklessly selected. When this occurs, the resulting selections are biased and likely to foster inappropriate, distorted perceptions and dispositions.

The influence of exemplification has been demonstrated, for example, in an experiment employing a news report on the crime of carjacking (Gibson and Zillmann, 1994). The report, presented as a news-magazine article, related facts about carjacking, including information about the risk of harm to its victims. Specifically, the report indicated, either verbally in "greater than" comparisons or numerically in percentages, the ratios that were associated with fatal outcomes, crippling injuries, minor injuries, and trivial injuries. Fatal outcomes were said to be extremely rare (or less than 1%), crippling injuries to be rather rare as well (or about 4%), minor injuries to be comparably frequent (or about 20%), and trivial injuries to be very frequent and typical (or about 75% of all cases). The report featured two exemplars (i.e., explicit and vivid descriptions of the carjackings, especially with regard to the outcome for the victims). The carjackings either resulted in the brutalization and death of the victims, led to crippling injuries, yielded only minor injuries, or were inconsequential for the health of the victims. Respondents indicated their perceptions of the danger of carjacking to the public either shortly after reading or one week after reading one of the eight article versions (i.e., they read an article in one of four outcome conditions with the incidence rate of the particular outcome indicated either by rather vague verbal description or in exact percentages).

The findings indicated that concrete and vividly detailed exemplars can profoundly influence the assessment of issues. They also suggest that, in contrast, the provision of abstract, pallid, quantitative information, although usually more reliable, tends to be of little moment. Specifically, on the basis of two exemplars of extremely violent but rare occurrences, the respondents grossly overestimated the incidence rate of fatal and crippling carjackings. At the same time, these respondents grossly underestimated the incidence rate of carjackings that resulted in minimal harm to its victims. This misperception of the danger of car-jacking to the public grew markedly over time (i.e., it was more pronounced after a week's time), and it materialized despite the presence of corrective quantitative information (i.e., verbal specifications or percentages). Numerous similar investigations (e.g., Brosius and Bathelt, 1994) have shown the same dominant effect of exemplars over abstract, quantitative information in the perception of social issues. Recipients were found to base their assessments of issues on the distribution of exemplars, even in cases where quantitative information suggested the opposite.

Experiments on the influence of exemplification in the news have also demonstrated that this influence extends to personal dispositions toward issues. Research on the effects of so-called gut-wrenching interviews with people who are suffering various misfortunes, as frequently featured in broadcast news, suggests that recipients not only perceive an increased risk of such misfortunes for the public, but for themselves as well. For example, respondents considered themselves at greater risk of salmonella poisoning from dining in fast-food establishments after seeing highly emotional footage of victims than after seeing nonemotional footage of the victims or no such exemplification at all.

A related investigation on the danger of contracting skin cancer from excessive sunbathing revealed that protective dispositions can also be created (Zillmann and Gan, 1996). An informative health newscast that urged the use of sun-block lotions was manipulated to show melanoma either in sanitized images or in explicit, shocking images. Two weeks after exposure to the program, respondents who had seen the version that contained shocking images considered the melanoma risk to the public and to themselves as being greater than did those who had seen the version with sanitized images. The former group also indicated greater commitment to using sun-block lotion than did the latter group. News influence, then, is not limited to the perception and interpretation of social issues. It is capable of affecting beliefs about dangers and opportunities, and these beliefs are capable, in turn, of affecting related dispositional changes.

The theoretical framework used to explain the indicated influence is that of cognitive heuristics (Higgins, 1996). Built-in automatisms of information processing are thought to yield efficient but often imprecise assessments of phenomena. Regarding news influence, the accessibility heuristic is of particular importance. It projects that memory access to information related to phenomena under consideration is a function of the frequency and recency of activation of this information. Novelty and perceptual vividness of the stored information are also known to facilitate access.

The effect on the assessment of the risk of contracting melanoma that was observed two weeks after exposure to the newscast that featured threatening images, for example, becomes explainable as the result of the vivid memory of these images (in contrast to the sanitized images) that imposes itself at the time when the risk is assessed or reassessed. Essentially, then, aspects of a phenomenon that enjoy superior chronic accessibility come to exert disproportionally strong influence on judgments that are rendered some time after exposure. The paradigm also applies, however, to immediate interpretational influences, such as those that are fostered by framing. It has been shown, for example, that directly quoting sources, as compared to paraphrasing their statements, shifts attention and emphasis, thereby facilitating access to the contents and enhancing influence on judgments that are rendered shortly after message reception (Gibson and Zillmann, 1998).

News and Emotions

An essential part of the news function is to apprise the public of immediate and impending threats and dangers. This assignment accounts for the preponderance of reports of the victimization of others only in part, however, as most of the reported ill fortunes, tragedies, disasters, and catastrophes are of no direct consequence to the news recipients. The well-documented dominance of so-called bad news appears to reflect a strong interest in reports of danger and mayhem on the part of the news audience, an interest that is commercially exploited.

The bad-news dominance has been amply criticized, mostly on grounds of the suggestion that it fosters bad moods and feelings of depression in the audience. The research evidence tends to support this contention. Tragic revelations, especially displays of the suffering of victims, are consistently found to evoke emotional distress, this distress being particularly intense in highly empathic recipients (Aust and Zillmann, 1996). To the extent that threats of reported victimizations are also directed at the news recipients, emotional reactivity is adaptively involved in the creation and maintenance of apprehensions and fear. Such fears may be warranted and inspire due caution. If reported dangers do not threaten the news recipients at all, however, the formation of apprehensions and fear can be maladaptive and unduly burden recipients emotionally.

The convention of placing an uplifting or amusing report at the end of television newscasts appears to have been instituted in an effort to counteract adverse emotional reactions to preceding distressing reports. There is an indication that these efforts are effective. In an experimental investigation that was conducted by Zillmann and his colleagues (1994), respondents were exposed to a broadcast of a series of reports that presented threatening, depressing national and international issues. The newscast was varied only in that it either ended with a threatening report or featured an added-on human-interest story. Respondents evaluated the threats upon conclusion of the entire newscast. It was found that the concluding addition of an entertaining and amusing report altered the retrospective assessment of the threats. Specifically, after being amused by the concluding report, respondents deemed the national and international threats that were presented earlier to be less severe and less depressing.

Reports of the misfortunes and suffering of others need not result in depressive emotions, however. They may evoke indignation and outrage or feelings of pity. These reactions, in turn, may instigate social action that is aimed at correcting the deplored conditions. A case in point is the news coverage of the famine in Somalia during the early 1990s. In particular, the barrage of images of starving and deformed Somali children is believed to have greatly upset American viewers and compelled them to action. In fact, the resulting public pressure on the government to intervene in Somalia in order to end starvation is believed to have driven, if not dictated, foreign policy (Sharkey, 1993).

Moreover, conditions exist under which news reports of the setbacks, misfortunes, and suffering of others evoke joyous rather than depressive reactions. It has been demonstrated that negative affective dispositions (i.e., disrespect, contempt, resentment, anger, and the like) toward publicly known people are commonly held and motivate pleasure in response to news revelations of the misfortunes of such people (Zillmann, Taylor, and Lewis, 1998). Some politicians, for example, may be disliked, even despised and hated, and these dispositions may foster euphoric reactions to news about their demise. Analogously, negative dispositions that are manifest in the news recipients' opposition to particular political causes and social objectives can foster reactions of joy upon learning of failure by, and the devastation of, the opposed parties.

The emotions of the public in response to news about the misfortunes and suffering of others thus should not be expected to be uniformly negative. Because emotional reactivity is mediated by affective dispositions toward the parties whose bad fortunes are reported in the news, reactions of either distress or delight may be expected as a result of the status and intensity of prevailing dispositions.

See also:Arousal Processes and Media Effects; Minorities and the Media; Mood Effects and MEDIA Exposure; NEWS Production Theories; Social Change and the Media; Social Goals and the Media; Society and the Media.


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Dolf Zillmann