Society and the Media

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The relationship between society and the mass media in the United States has been at the center of attention for media theorists and researchers ever since the end of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth. Several forms of new media—mass circulation newspapers and magazines, movies, sound films, and radio—came on the scene at the same time that industrialization and urbanization, great population shifts within the country, and heavy immigration wrought profound change in the nature of U.S. society. The traditional rural character of America was slipping further into history, replaced by a boiling brew of new and different people with strange and different habits crowded into rapidly growing cities. Crime rose. Social and political unrest spread. Workers agitated for greater rights, safety, and security. Magazine muckrakers used their popular publications to challenge the abuses of business and the privileged.

Many cultural, political, educational, and religious leaders saw a connection between the new forms of communication and the social upheaval that threatened their positions in the status quo. Events overseas offered additional proof of the media's might, as powerful European nation-states made effective use of propaganda to mobilize their people for World War I. The elites recognized the need to understand better the effect of the media on society, and they recognized the necessity to control it.

The result was a macroscopic theory (it presumed to explain society-wide effects of the media) that came to be called mass society theory. Mass society theory viewed the media as corrupting influences that undermined the social order. The media wielded this pernicious power simply because "average" people (that is, those who did not share the supposed superior tastes and values of the elites) were psychologically, socially, and morally defenseless against their corrupting influence. Mass society theory was often expressed as the hypodermic needle or magic bullet theory. That is, the media are a dangerous drug or a killing force that directly and immediately penetrated a person's system.

Despite the worst fears of the threatened elites, not all "average" people were defenselessly influenced by the corrupting mass media. People selected, consumed, and interpreted media content, often in personally important and interesting ways. The media did have effects, but these were beneficial as well as problematic. Since mass society theory could not explain this variety of media use and effects, it eventually collapsed under its own weight.

The Limited Effects of the Media

Paradigm shifts (movement from one overar-ching theoretical perspective to another) usually occur slowly, and this is true of the move away from mass society theory. However, media researchers traditionally mark the beginning of the end for this perspective as Halloween Eve 1938, when actor and director Orson Welles broadcast a dramatized version of H. G. Wells's science fiction classic The War of the Worlds on the CBS radio network. This realistically presented radio play, in which the Earth came under deadly Martian attack, frightened thousands of people who fled their homes in panic.

Elite media critics argued that this event was proof of mass society theory. However, researchers from Princeton University demonstrated that, yes, one million people had been frightened enough by the broadcast to take some action, but the other five million people who heard the show had not, despite what might have been predicted by mass society theory. More important, these scientists discovered that there were different factors that led some people to be influenced and others not.

If not all "average" people were helplessly influenced by the mass media, new media theories were needed to explain the media and society relationship, theories that could identify those individual and social characteristics that did or did not lead to effects. What emerged was the view that the influence of the media was limited by individual differences (e.g., intelligence and education), social categories (e.g., religious and political affiliation), and personal relationships (e.g., the influence of friends and family). The theories that were developed were the first systematic and scientific study of media effects. Taken together they are called limited effects theory. This paradigm shift represented more than a move from mass society to limited effects theory. There was also a shift from interest in macroscopic theory to microscopic theory, that is, theory that focuses on the media-individual relationship rather than the media-society, relationship. This was in part the natural product of the research methods that were then being developed and applied to media studies, because empirically based, objective research methods such as surveys and experiments focus on media use by individuals and the effect of the media on individuals.

Typical of ideas that gained support under the limited effects rubric is two-step flow theory of mass media and personal influence. Research on the 1940 presidential election in the United States indicated that the influence of the media on the voting behavior of people was limited by opinion leaders—people who initially consumed media content on topics of particular interest to them, interpreted it in light of their own values and beliefs, and then passed it on to opinion followers.

During and after World War II, the limited effects paradigm and several theories that it supported became entrenched, dominating research and thinking about the media until well into the 1960s. It was the war itself that was crucial to the development of mass communication theory during this era.

At the beginning of World War II, media theorists were challenged by important barriers as they sought to develop public information campaigns. Memories of World War I were still very much alive, and many Americans were unenthused about entering another distant world conflict. Those who joined or were drafted into the armed forces knew little about their comrades-in-arms from different regions of the country and from different backgrounds. The Office of War Information (OWI), therefore, set out to change public opinion about the wisdom of entering the war and to educate military people about their fellow soldiers and sailors. Speeches, lectures, and pamphlets failed. The OWI then turned to filmmakers such as Frank Capra and radio personalities such as Kate Smith for their audience appeal and looked to social scientists to measure the effectiveness of these new media campaigns.

The U.S. Army established the Experimental Section inside its Information and Education Division, staffing it with psychologists who were expert in issues of attitude change. Led by Carl Hovland, this group of researchers tested the effectiveness of the government's media campaigns. Continuing its work at Yale University after the war, it produced some of the most influential communication research of the twentieth century, which led to the development of attitude change theory, explaining how people's attitudes are formed, shaped, and changed through communication, and how those attitudes influence behavior.

Among the most important attitude change theories are the related ideas of dissonance and selective processes. Dissonance theory argues that, when confronted by new information, people experience a mental discomfort, a dissonance. As a result, they consciously and subconsciously work to limit or reduce that discomfort through three interrelated processes that help them "select" what information they consume, remember, and interpret in personally important and idiosyncratic ways. Selective exposure is the process by which people expose themselves to or attend to only those messages that are consistent with their preexisting attitudes and beliefs. Selective retention assumes that people remember best and longest those messages that are consistent with their preexisting attitudes and beliefs. Selective perception predicts that people will interpret messages in a manner consistent with their preexisting attitudes and beliefs.

Because limited effects theory was the dominant paradigm at the time of the development of dissonance theory, the selective processes were seen as limiting the effect of the media because content is selectively filtered to produce as little attitude change as possible. More important, however, the selective processes formed the core of the influential book The Effects of Mass Communication (1960). In it, Joseph Klapper, an eminent scientist and the head of social research for CBS broadcasting, articulated firmly and clearly the core of the limited effects paradigm:

  1. Mass communication ordinarily does not serve as a necessary and sufficient cause of audience effects, but rather functions among and through a nexus (a web) of mediating factors and influences.
  2. These mediating factors are such that they typically render mass communication as a contributory agent, but not the sole cause, in the process of reinforcing existing conditions [p. 8].

Klapper's theory, based on social science evidence developed prior to 1960, is often called reinforcement theory. It was very persuasive at a time when the nation's social fabric had yet to feel the full effect of the change brought about by the war. In addition, the public, flush with enthusiasm and optimism for the technology and science that had helped the United States defeat the Axis powers, could see little but good coming from the media technologies, and they trusted the work of Klapper and other scientists. If the media had little effect other than reinforcement on individuals, they could have little effect on society as a whole.

The Paradigm Begins to Shift

In retrospect, the value of reinforcement theory may have passed with its 1960 publication date. With rapid postwar urbanization, industrialization, and the entry of women into the work-place, Klapper's "nexus of mediating factors and influences"—church, family, and school—began to lose its traditional socializing role for many people. During the 1960s, a decade of profound social and cultural change, it became increasingly difficult to ignore the effect of the media. Most important, however, the research that Klapper studied in preparation for his book had been conducted before 1960, the year in which it is generally accepted that television became a mass medium. Almost none of the science that he examined in developing his reinforcement theory examined television.

During the era of limited effects, a number of important ideas were developed that began to question the assumption of limited media influence on people and cultures. They are still respected and examined. Among the most influential is agenda setting, a theory that argues that the media may not tell people what to think, but through specific journalistic practices, they tell people what to think about. The agenda-setting power of the media resides not only in factors such as the amount of space or time devoted to a story and its placement in the broadcast or on the page. Also lending strength to the agenda-setting power of the media is the fact that there is great consistency between media sources across all media in the choice and type of coverage they give an issue or event. This consistency and repetition signal to people the importance of an issue or event.

In their 1975 book Theories of Mass Communication, Melvin DeFleur and Sandra Ball-Rokeach offered another view of potentially powerful mass media, tying that power to the dependency of audience members on the media and their content. This media systems dependency theory is composed of several assertions:

  • The basis of the influence of the media resides in the "relationship between the larger social system, the media's role in that system, and audience relationships to the media."
  • The degree of people's dependence on the media and their content is the "key variable in understanding when and why media messages alter audience beliefs, feelings, or behavior."
  • In the modern industrial society, people are increasingly dependent on the media (a) to understand the social world, (b) to act meaningfully and effectively in society, and (c) to find fantasy and escape or diversion.
  • People's level of dependency is related to (a) "the number and centrality (importance) of the specific information-delivery functions served by a medium" and (b) the degree of change and conflict present in society.

It is clear that limited effects theory is being left behind here. Dependency theory argues that, especially in a complex and changing society, people become increasingly dependent on the media and media content to understand what is going on around them, to learn how to behave meaningfully, and to escape.

At the same time that some media researchers were challenging the limited effects paradigm with ideas such as agenda setting and dependency theory, psychologists were expanding on their social cognitive theory—the idea that people learn through observation—and applying it to mass media, especially television.

Social cognitive theory argues that people model (copy) the behaviors they see and that modeling happens in two ways. The first is imitation, the direct replication of an observed behavior. For example, a child might see a cartoon cat hit a cartoon mouse with a stick and then hit his sister with a stick. The second form of modeling is identification, a special form of imitation in which observers do not copy exactly what they see but make a more generalized, still-related response. For example, the child might still be aggressive to his sister, but dump water on her head rather than hit her.

The idea of identification was of particular value to mass communication theorists. Obviously, people can imitate what they see on television, but not all do. When imitation does occur in dramatic instances—for example, when someone hijacks a plane after seeing it done on television— it is so outrageous that it is considered an aberration. Identification however, although harder to see and study, is the more likely way that television influences behavior.

Return to Macroscopic Theory

Some of the obvious and observable effects that television has on society include increased sophistication of the media industries and media consumers, entrenched social problems such as racial strife, the apparent cheapening of the political process, and the emergence of calls for controls on new technologies such as cable, satellites, and computer networks. These are only a few of the many factors that forced mass communication theorists to rethink the influence of media—and to attempt once again to understand the media-society relationship in macroscopic terms.

The theories that have gained the most support among media researchers and theorists are those that accept the potential for powerful media effects, a potential that is either enhanced or thwarted by the involvement of audience members in the mass communication process. One such theory is symbolic interaction. This is the idea that the meaning of symbols is learned through interaction and then mediates that interaction. In other words, people give things meaning, and that meaning controls their behavior. The American flag is an example. Americans have decided that an array of red, white, and blue cloth, assembled in a particular way, represents not only the nation but its values and beliefs. The flag has meaning because Americans have given it meaning, and now that meaning governs certain behavior. For example, Americans are not free to remain seated when a color guard carries the flag into a room. Symbolic interaction is frequently used when studying the influence of advertising, because advertisers often succeed by encouraging consumers to perceive products as symbols that have meaning beyond their actual function. This is called product positioning.

Another macroscopic view of the societal role of the media is social construction of reality, developed by sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. Their 1966 book, The Social Construction of Reality, although never mentioning mass communication, offered an explanation of how, using signs and symbols, societies construct and maintain the realities that allow them to function.

Social construction of reality theory argues that people who live in a society share "an ongoing correspondence" of meaning. Things generally mean the same to all members. A stop sign, for example, has just about the same meaning for everyone. Things that have "objective" meaning are symbols—people routinely interpret them in the usual way. However, there are other things in the environment to which people assign "subjective" meaning. These things are signs. In social construction of reality, then, a car is a symbol of mobility, but a Cadillac is a sign of wealth or success. In either case, the meaning is negotiated, but for signs the negotiation is a bit more complex.

Through interaction in and with the culture of a given society over time, people bring together what they have learned about their society's signs and symbols to form typification schemes—collections of meanings assigned to some phenomenon or situation. These typification schemes form a natural backdrop for people's interpretation of— and therefore the way they behave in—"the major routines of everyday life, not only the typification of others… but typifications of all sorts of events and experiences" (Berger and Luckmann, 1966, p. 43). When people enter a room, they automatically recall the meaning they have given to its elements—desks in rows, chalkboard, and lectern. They recognize this as a classroom and automatically impose their "classroom typification scheme." They know automatically how to behave—to address the person standing at the front of the room with courtesy, to raise their hands when asking a question, to talk to neighbors in whispers. These "rules of behavior" are not published on the classroom door.

Social construction of reality is widely applied to the study of how the media, especially news, shape people's political realities. Crime offers one example. What do politicians mean when they say they are "tough on crime"? What is their (and people's) reality of crime? It is likely that "crime" signifies (is a sign for) gangs, drugs, and violence. The statistical, rather than the socially constructed, reality of crime is that there is ten times more white-collar crime in the United States than there is violent crime. Social construction theorists argue that the "building blocks" for the construction of this "reality" come primarily from the mass media.

Symbolic interaction and social construction of reality provide a strong foundation for another macroscopic theory of the relationship between society and the media. Cultivation analysis says that television "cultivates" or constructs a reality of the world that, although possibly inaccurate, becomes the accepted reality simply because people believe it to be true. They then base their judgments about and their actions in the world on this television-cultivated reality.

Although cultivation analysis was developed by George Gerbner out of concern over the effects of television violence, it has been applied to countless other television-cultivated realities, such as beauty, sex roles, religion, the judicial and political processes, and marriage. In all cases, its assumptions are the same—television cultivates its own realities, especially for heavy viewers.

Cultivation analysis is based on five assumptions:

  1. Television is essentially and fundamentally different from the other mass media. Unlike books, newspapers, and magazines, viewing requires no reading ability. Unlike the movies, it requires no mobility or money; it is in the home and it is free. Unlike radio, it combines pictures and sound. It is the first and only medium that can be consumed from people's very earliest to their last years of life.
  2. Television is the "central cultural arm" of U.S. society. Gerbner and his colleagues (1978, p. 178)) wrote that television, as culture's primary storyteller, is "the chief creator of synthetic cultural patterns (entertainment and information) for the most heterogeneous mass publics in history, including large groups that have never shared in any common public message systems." The product of this sharing of messages is the mainstreaming of reality, moving people toward a shared, television-created understanding of how things are.
  3. The realities cultivated by television are not necessarily specific attitudes and opinions but rather more basic assumptions about the "facts" of life. By the choices the producers make, television news and entertainment programs present a broad picture of "reality" with little regard for how their "reality" matches that of their audiences.
  4. The major cultural function of television is to stabilize social patterns, that is, maintain the existing power relationships of the society. Because the media industries have a stake in the political, social, and economic structures as they exist, their stories rarely challenge the system that has enriched them.
  5. The observable, measurable, independent contributions of television to the culture are relatively small. This is not a restatement of limited effect theory. Instead, Gerbner explained its meaning with his Ice-Age analogy, arguing that just as a change in temperature of just a few degrees over centuries brought about the Ice Age, a relatively small but pervasive degree of media influence can produce important social change. In other words, the size of the media's influence on society is not as important as its steady direction.

Critical Cultural Theory

A major influence on contemporary understanding of the relationship between the media and society comes from European scholarship on media effects. Critical cultural theory—the idea that the media operate primarily to justify and support the status quo at the expense of ordinary people—is rooted in neo-Marxism. Traditional Marxists believed that people were oppressed by those who owned the means of production—the base—that is, the factories and the land. Modern neo-Marxist theorists believe that people are oppressed by those who control the culture—the superstructure—in other words, the mass media.

Modern critical cultural theory encompasses a number of different conceptions of the relationship between the media and society, but all share a number of identifying characteristics. They are macroscopic in scope. They are openly and specifically political. Based in neo-Marxism, their orientation is from the political left. Their goal is at the least to instigate change in the media policies of governments; at the most, their goal is to effect wholesale change in the media and societal systems. Critical cultural theories assume that the superstructure, which favors those in power, must be altered. Finally, they investigate and explain how elites use the media to maintain their positions of privilege and power. Issues such as media ownership, government-media relations, and corporate media representations of labor and disenfranchised groups are typical topics of study for critical cultural theory.

The critical cultural perspective arrived in the United States during the 1930s, when media scholars Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno of the University of Frankfurt escaped Adolf Hitler's Germany. Their approach valued serious art—literature, symphonic music, theater—and saw its consumption as a means to elevate people toward a better life. Typical media fare—popular music, slapstick radio and movie comedies, newspapers full of soft-news—pacified ordinary people while assisting in their repression.

The influence of Horkheimer and Adorno on U.S. media theory was minimal during their lifetimes. The limited effects paradigm was about to blossom, neo-Marxism was not well received in the United States, and their ideas echoed claims by the mass society theory of a debasing popular media. More recently, though, the Frankfurt School has been "rediscovered," and its influence can be seen, for example, in the British cultural theory.

There was significant class tension in England after World War II. During the 1950s and 1960s, working-class people who had fought for their country were unwilling to return to England's traditional notions of nobility and privilege. Many saw the British media supporting long-standing class distinctions and divisions. This environment of class conflict produced theorists such as Stuart Hall, who first developed the idea of the media as a public forum where various forces fight to shape perceptions of everyday reality. Hall trusted that the media could serve all people, but that the forum was dominated by the reigning elite because of factors such as ownership patterns, the commercial orientation of the media, and sympathetic government policies toward the media. In other words, the loudest voice in the cultural forum's give-and-take belonged to those who were already well entrenched in the power structure. British cultural studies theory provides a home for much feminist research, as well as on popular culture both in Europe and in the United States.

Contemporary Theories

Modern theories of the relationship between the media and society have to contend with a mass-mediated world, which was not a factor in the creation of the perspectives discussed above. Digitalization, especially in the form of the Internet and the World Wide Web, poses a significant challenge to much of what is known and understood about the relationship between the media and society. For example, many theorists go as far as to reject the term "mass communication," preferring instead the term "mediated communication." They do this because not only are the "traditional" media prospering by serving smaller fragments of what was once a mass audience, but the Internet can make a single individual a mass communicator or allow a giant media company to reach individuals one person at a time. Clearly, new conceptions of how the media and society interact will be called for. Communication science and the media literacy movement are two such examples.

Many empirical media researchers concluded that the constant debate about competing ideas and research methods was impeding the development of a meaningful understanding of how the media and society interact. They proposed communication science, a perspective that integrates approaches grounded in quantitative, empirical, behavioral research methods. It unites limited effects research with some of the beliefs of culture theory in a potentially active audience, and with research on interpersonal communication. Communication science is as an effort to rebuild the empirical media research tradition by breaking its association with limited effects and broadening it to address a larger range of research questions and issues. It is an effort to be inclusive rather than exclusive, to reject many of the outdated assumptions of the limited effects paradigm while retaining the strong empirical focus of that approach— to unify under a single banner empirical researchers working in all areas of communication. In this way, communication scientists hope their microscopic research can lead to macroscopic theories about the relationship between the media and society.

Cultural and critical cultural theories, because of their assertion that meaning and, therefore, reality are mutually created by the participants in a culture or society, provide the impetus for the media literacy movement. The arguments are straightforward. If a society debates and defines itself in a forum provided by the mass media, the society (and the democracy that supports and sustains it) will benefit from greater numbers of people being able to function appropriately and effectively in that forum. If a society knows itself through the stories it tells about itself, people who understand how those stories are created, who can interpret them in personally important and relevant ways, or even who can create those stories themselves can best know and participate in that society. Media literacy, then, is the ability to use mass communication effectively and efficiently.

See also:Advertising Effects; Arousal Processes and Media Effects; Broadcasting, Government Regulation of; Cable Television, Regulation of; Catharsis Theory and Media Effects; Cultivation Theory and Media Effects; Cultural Studies; Culture and Communication; Culture Industries, Media as; Cumulative Media Effects; Desensitization and Media Effects; Election Campaigns and Media Effects; Internet and the World Wide Web; Mead, George Herbert; News Effects; News Production theories; Parental Mediation of Media Effects; Political Economy; Propaganda; Schramm, Wilbur; Social Change and the Media; Social Cognitive Theory and Media Effects; Social Goals and the Media; Symbols; Welles, Orson.


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Stanley J. Baran

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Society and the Media

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Society and the Media