All of us live in a world of media-constructed images that presumably, significantly influence what we think and how we partition our attention, time, and other scarce resources
The interest in mass communication was stimulated by developments in technology allowing the reproduction and speedy transmission of messages. It began with the rise of the popular press, followed by the invention of film, sound broadcasting (or radio), and the audiovisual, including television and cable television. In the past decade, this interest has grown to embrace computer-influenced adaptations of these traditional mass media, the latest being the World Wide Web (www), which is part of the Internet, or the Information Superhighway.
All of us live in a world of media-constructed images that, presumably, significantly influence what we think and how we partition our attention, time, and other scarce resources. So pervasive has been the media presence that issues relating to these influences have also drawn the attention of researchers from various disciplines. It is to Harold Lasswell (1947), an empirically oriented political scientist that the social science community owes a succinct formula that lays out the major elements within the field of communication research: Who says what in which channel to whom and with what effects? Only some channels lend themselves to mass communication, which can be defined, in the terms of the above formula, as the transmission by professional communicators (who) of a continuous flow of a uniform content (what) by means of a complex apparatus (channel, or how) to a large, heterogeneous, and geographically dispersed audience (to whom), the members of which are usually anonymous to the communicator and to each other.
Not included in this definition of mass communication are its effects or, more broadly speaking, its consequences, toward which most of the research effort has been directed. The physical or electronic transmission of message content does not in itself suffice for communication. Communication is indisputably social, in that it consists of a meeting of minds between communicator and audience, in the sense of mutual accommodation. Yet the nature and extent of effects have been, over the years, the central problem of sociological interest in media research.
Effects, however, do not stand alone as a separate and independent dimension for research. More accurately, scholars have investigated the effects of each element in Lasswell’s formula. For example, there has been analysis of what effects the different kinds of communicator controls may have, whether the ‘who’ be defined by demographic characteristics and professional values of the communicator or as the growing big-business controls over mass media through concentration of ownership. In other research, the effects of different kinds and amounts of media content have been analyzed to determine what was likely to have influenced particular audience behavior, as has been what difference it makes whether news is obtained from radio, television, or newspapers.
Media effects have been studied on three levels: the atomistic, the aggregate, and the societal. Effects on the atomistic level involve the cognitive processes and behavioral responses of individuals who make up the various mass audiences. By contrast, aggregate measures take into account only distributions that produce changes in averages usually expressed as net effects. Consequences for society have more to do with the political, cultural, and other institutional changes that represent cumulative adaptations over time to the dominance of a particular mass medium. Inferences based on the observation of effects on one level when ascribed to effects on a different level have often turned out to be invalid.
Much of the media research effort has been a response to the operational needs of communicators and propagandists, or of those who wished to defend the public against what was perceived as the pernicious influence of the media. The basic problem has been that of precisely pinpointing effects: What were the characteristics of the potential audience? Who among them was susceptible? What were the determinants of their reactions? To answer these and similar questions, audience research has typically focused on the situations in which mass communications are received and on the habits and cognitive processes that underlie the responses of individuals either to specific media messages or to some significant part of the media fare. The responses under scrutiny have ranged from the arousal of interest, gains in knowledge, the recognition of dangers, changes of opinion, and other attitudinal measures to such behavioral indicators as consumer purchases, electoral decisions, and the ‘elevation’ of cultural taste.
Precisely because of its focus on the individual, this line of research tends to stress the diversity of ways in which individuals relate to media content. First of all, audiences are found to be stratified by education, interest, taste, habits, gender, and age. Taken together, education and age tend to account for considerable variance in media use. The observation that some content had only minimal audience penetration helped explain why some information campaigns failed. Consistent patterns of exposure to different kinds of content further suggested that members of the mass audience, by and large, found what suited their needs and interests. Second, even common exposure turns out to be a less strong predictor of response than expected. Not everyone understands or understands fully, and reactions are affected by the preconceptions, with which people approach the content, by preconceptions rooted in past socialization experience but also reflecting the perspective of groups with which they are associated or identify themselves.
Audiences are obstinate and people have options in how they orient themselves to any particular set of messages. They can ignore, misunderstand, accept, find fault with, or be entertained by the same content. In other words, there is no assurance that anyone other than those, for whatever reason, already so disposed will accept the facts, adopt the opinion, or carry out the actions suggested by the mass communicator. Over years of study, conflicting evidence emerged about the relation between mass media (largely televised) violence and its influence on aggressive behavior. Operational definitions of key variables, research designs, and support for research having come from the television industry or not, all have been viewed as possible influences on the research results themselves.
The media-violence effects issue is one in which research results have played an important role in public policy debates involving the broadcast industry often pitted against public interests. In recent years, concern over the media-violence effects issue has been ‘exported’ to the rest of the world through the multiple means of transmission and aggressive marketing by multinational corporate media interests. Public opinion surveys in all corners of the globe indicate disturbance by the ubiquitousness of television violence. The challenges posed by experimental studies have to be faced. Casual but repeated exposure to televised messages results in incidental learning. For example, content of advertising appeals gradually intrude into our consciousness until we associate a product with a particular brand name, or issues dominating the news become the criteria by which we measure the effectiveness of a political leadership. Insofar as the various mass media sources transmit similar content and play on similar themes, such limited effects, if they are cumulative, can produce shifts of significant proportions. Because the responses of persons are so diverse, the effect of communication en masse has to be conveyed in some kind of summary measure—as an average, a trend, a general movement. From this perspective, the magnitude of the shift in the responses of individuals, or whether this represents reinforcement or a reversal, matters less than the general picture, taken over time.
The process by which innovations are adopted and spread suggests that early adopters, also called ‘influentials’ or ‘opinion leaders,’ depending on context, are more cosmopolitan in their orientation and hence more attuned to certain media messages. They select from the total stream the messages that best meet their needs and interests. Others will adopt an innovation only after its success has been demonstrated or, if that is precluded— as it would be in most political decisions— out of trust in the expertise of the pacesetters. One can account for the different behavior of leaders and followers in such situations—that is, why one person moves ahead and another is content to wait—in terms of personal characteristics and social relationships. Aggregate effects, on the other hand, have to do with whether or not there has been a general movement toward acceptance or rejection of the innovation. The most direct measures of aggregate effects are to be found in two-variable relationships designed to show cause and effect, with one variable functioning as an indicator of media presence and the other representing the response. Many such combinations are possible.
One can use media penetration (e.g., newspaper circulation, or the proportion of homes with a television set) or content characteristics (e.g., the number of violent acts in children’s programs, editorial endorsements, or issues emphasized in the news). This rules out media behavior, which is voluntary for individuals in the audience, and may bring into question the influence of still other, often unmeasured, variables that also account for the presumed effect. As the age of television dawned, opportunities for ‘controlled’ observation—comparing two matched areas, one receiving television and the other not yet within reach of the broadcast signal— were never fully exploited. Rarely did findings about the advent of television go beyond documenting the rather obvious fact that television viewing cut into the use of some other media, especially radio and to a lesser degree movie attendance and children’s comic book reading. Nor were the consequences of this reallocation of time at all clear.