Mass Media and Demographic Behavior

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In the decades following World War II, radio and television broadcasting expanded rapidly throughout the developing world, and by the end of the century a substantial proportion of the world's population had routine access to them and to the information and entertainment they purvey. Plausibly, the spread of broadcast media, and mass media in general, in a society has some influence on both values and behaviors. This article is concerned with possible media influences in the areas of health and fertility.

According to International Telecommunication Union figures, among the population of low and middle income countries, in the year 2000 there were 265 radios and 185 television sets per 1,000 population. Television sets were more widely distributed in the countries of Europe and Central Asia (448 per 1,000), Latin America and the Caribbean (269 per 1,000), and East Asia and the Pacific (252 per 1,000) than in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (172 per 1,000), South Asia (75 per1.000), and Sub-Saharan Africa (59 per 1,000).

Intended and Unintended Effects

In thinking about the ways that the mass media may have influenced fertility and health, it is useful to distinguish between intended and unintended effects. Television, radio, and print media have frequently been mobilized to promote family planning, immunization, and a number of other services and behaviors ranging from safe sex to quitting smoking. These efforts have included both short-term and long-term information, education, and communication (IEC) campaigns, social marketing, as well as entertainment-cum-education programs that have used the appeal of entertainment in an attempt to show individuals how they can live safer, healthier, and happier lives. However, there is also reason to believe that the reception of regular commercial or public programming may have an unintended influence on ideas, values, and behaviors. The unintended effects of television viewing on fertility might include an influence on consumption aspirations as well as on norms and values regarding family life, sexuality and reproduction, and on the efficacy of modern medicine. The eventual influence is likely to be the result of continued, repetitive exposure over a long period of time.

Researchers, from both the communications field and the demography field, face difficult conceptual and methodological issues in identifying media effects. With respect to the general, unintended effects of mass media on demographic behavior, there is the familiar gap between empirical association and causal interpretation. Television ownership is highly correlated with many relevant indicators such as income, electrification, and other types of infrastructure. Those that choose to purchase televisions may have views that are different from those who do not. At higher levels of aggregation, there is the perennial question regarding content: Do the values and ideas conveyed on television lead or lag those of the audience?

In the case of commercial television programming in developing countries, the values conveyed in program content are likely to differ appreciably from the values of the audience. In some countries, much of the programming is imported. In others, it is locally produced but is tailored to relatively affluent metropolitan viewers–the target audience for advertisers–whose values may differ greatly from those of other, numerically more significant segments of the audience.

Evaluation of educational or motivational campaigns and of other programming intended to influence demographic behavior also presents substantial challenges. While they might be expected to be more effective, larger, longer, and more complex interventions are more difficult to evaluate than more limited IEC efforts for which it may be possible to establish a control group. A second difficulty is that recall of specific messages may well be affected by the salience of the message to the respondent, thus introducing a selection effect to recall in retrospective surveys.

The Evidence

With regard to the general, unintended effects of mass media on demographic behavior, strong empirical associations have been found in census and survey data between exposure to broadcast media and demographic variables such as the total fertility rate or level of contraceptive practice. Such associations have been demonstrated at various levels–across individuals, municipalities, and countries, after adjusting for the effects of possible confounding variables. Interpretations of such correlations have usually been cautious, even when based on longitudinal data. The threats to inference do not all run in the same direction, however, and it is possible that such associations may either under-or over-estimate the true underlying influence.

A second source of evidence on unintended effects comes from qualitative studies of audiences, and their reception of radio and television programming. Several such studies in Brazil suggest, at the very least, that audiences engage with narratives about nontraditional roles for women, strains in intergenerational relations, and sensitive topics related to sexuality, infidelity, and abortion. In this context, such ideas provoked further discussion, comparison with local customs and values, and application to viewer's lives.

The interpretation of the evidence from evaluation studies on intended effects is controversial, with the advocates of purposeful communication claiming substantial influences, and others arguing that such effects are often overstated. In a 2001 review, Robert Hornik and Emile McAnany, both specialists in development communication, concluded that evaluation studies have shown that campaigns and entertainment—education programs have been effective in increasing the demand for services at family planning and health clinics, but only rarely have they shown much influence on population-level behavior. Moreover, when data are available over a longer period, it is observed that the program effects do not always outlast the programs. The second kind of evidence regarding intended effects comes from the association found in surveys between self-reports of exposure to messages and contraceptive practice and reproductive intentions. Although such correlations are often very strong, their interpretation must allow for the type of selection bias noted above.

It appears probable that there are both intended and unintended media effects on health and reproductive behavior, but their magnitude is uncertain. The relationship merits further study. As the role of values, ideas, and information in affecting demographic change is given more prominence, scholars are likely to pay increasing attention to the various and burgeoning means by which they are spread.

See also: Culture and Population; Diffusion in Population Theory; Family Planning Programs; Fertility Transition, Socioeconomic Determinants of; Values and Demographic Behavior.


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Hornik, Robert, and Emile McAnany. 2001. "Mass Media and Fertility Change." In Diffusion Processes and Fertility Transition: Selected Perspectives, ed. John B. Casterline. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

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Joseph E. Potter