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Media influence or media effects are terms used in psychology, communication theory and sociology to refer to the theories about the ways the mass media affect how their audiences think and behave.

Mass media plays a crucial role in forming and reflecting public opinion, connecting the world to individuals and reproducing the self-image of society. Critiques in the early-to-mid twentieth century suggested that media weaken or delimit the individual's capacity to act autonomously — sometimes being ascribed an influence reminiscent of the telescreens of the dystopian novel 1984. Mid 20th-century empirical studies, however, suggested more moderate effects of the media. Current scholarship presents a more complex interaction between the media and society, with the media on generating information from a network of relations and influences and with the individual interpretations and evaluations of the information provided, as well as generating information outside of media contexts. The consequences and ramifications of the mass media relate not merely to the way newsworthy events are perceived (and which are reported at all), but also to a multitude of cultural influences that operate through the media.

The media have a strong social and cultural impact upon society. This is predicated upon their ability to reach a wide audience with a strong and influential message. Marshall McLuhan uses the phrase “the medium is the message” as a means of explaining how the distribution of a message can often be more important than content of the message itself.[1] It is through the persuasiveness of media such as television, radio and print media that messages reach their target audiences. These have been influential media as they have been largely responsible for structuring people's daily lives and routines.[2] Television broadcasting has a large amount of control over the content society watches and the times in which it is viewed. This is a distinguishing feature of traditional media which New media have challenged by altering the participation habits of the public. The internet creates a space for more diverse political opinions, social and cultural viewpoints and a heightened level of consumer participation. There have been suggestions that allowing consumers to produce information through the internet will lead to an overload of information.



Primary, secondary and tertiary involvement

The extent to which an audience engages with a media text can be roughly split into three degrees. The first of these is primary involvement, in which the audience is solely concentrating on consuming the media text. For example, sitting down solely to watch a favorite program on television. Secondary involvement is when an audience's concentration is split between the media text and another distraction. For example, working on the computer while watching television. Tertiary involvement is when the media text is merely in the background, with no real concentration upon it at all. For example, glancing at a newspaper on a crowded train. While this theory is somewhat simplistic, it provides a clear and probable explanation as to the changes in audience reception.

Perhaps the most widely accepted theory on audience reception is Denis McQuail's Uses and Gratifications model. This places emphasis on the reasons audiences consume media. The first reason outlined in the model is the need to reinforce ones own behavior by identifying with roles, values and gender identities presented in the media. Secondly, consumers need to feel some kind of interaction with other people which is offered by text such as a soap opera or a lifestyle magazine. The third reason is the need for security. Media offer a window to the world that allows education and the acquisition of information. The final reason is the need for entertainment through both escapism, and the need for emotional release, such as laughter. A strength of the Uses and Gratifications theory is the emphasis on the audience as active in the reception of media. However, this would suggest no passivity within the audience whatsoever. A person may, for example, be too lazy to turn off their television and as a result consume any media that is available, regardless of need. This theory also pays little attention to the short term and long term effects of media on the audience.

Media communications psychology is an emerging field of study. All media influencing human behavior manifests itself from communication. Cognitive and sensory psychology combine with other ologies into the field of media psychology. Bernard Luskin media and educational psychology pioneer continues to argue that the "e" in eLearning means more than electronic and embraces exciting, enthusiastic, energetic, exceptional and a variety of additional cognitive and sensory implications relating to behavior. Media and communications psychology are growing dimensions of learning both in and outside of the classroom. Distance education is an expanding area of eLearning and media and communications provides cornerstones in media influence.


David Gauntlett, professor of media and communications at the University of Westminster, proposed ten criticisms of the Media , whereas, Gauntlett prefers that research focus on the violence, then look to untangle its causes.

To explain the problem of violence in society, researchers should begin with that social violence and seek to explain it with reference, quite obviously, to those who engage in it: their identity, background, character and so on.

Gauntlett goes on to criticize studies that focus on children by stating that they do not utilize adults as a control group, and that the studies are conducted primarily to further a "barely-concealed conservative ideology." He counters the premise of these studies with the concept that not all depictions of violence are even bad to witness. M.I.T. Professor Henry Jenkins, for instance, suggested in his speech to congress that The Basketball Diaries utilizes violence in a form of social commentary that provides clear social benefit.[3]

David Gauntlett explains further that objects defined as "violent" or "anti-social" may not be judged as such in the minds of the viewer and tend to be viewed in artificial circumstances. These objects are furthermore based on previous studies with flawed methodology, and are not grounded in theory. Additionally, he claims that the effects model makes no attempt to understand the meanings of media.[4]

  • Historical criticisms situate the 'meta-narrative' of effects theory within a long history of distrust of new forms of media, dating as far back as Socrates's objections to the deleterious effects due to the written alphabet.
  • Political criticisms pose an alternative conception of humans as rational, critical subjects who are alert to genre norms and adept at interpreting and critiquing media representations, instead of passively absorbing them.

Supporters of effects theory contend that commercials, advertising and voter campaigns prove that media influence behavior. In the 20th century, aggressive media attention and negative coverage of trials involving celebrities like Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle or Michael Jackson have influenced the general public's opinion, before the trials effectively started. However, these critics do point out that while the media could have an effect on people's behavior this isn't necessarily always the case.

Critics of the media effects theory point out that many copycat murders, suicides and other violent acts nearly always happen in abnormal upbringings. Violent, emotionally neglectful or aggressive environments influence behavior more than watching certain programs, films or listening to certain music. Most people who carry out these acts are also mentally unstable to begin with.

Critics also point out that just because an audience sees acts of violence in media, this does not mean they will actually commit them. Of the millions of people who watch violent films, only a small number have carried out acts of violence as a direct result. People regularly exposed to violent media usually grow up to be completely normal people. If there are any effects from media, they only affect a very small number of people.

Also there are other thinkers who criticize effects based research, such as Terry Flew and Sal Humphreys, Barker and Freedman.[5],[6], [7]

-Martin Barker (2001)[8] criticised Elizabeth Newson who alleged link between media violence and real life violence in her report in 1994, Brooke (2003-07),for example talks about this in details.[9] [1], and the report gained media attention when it claimed the horror film Child's Play 3 had influenced two 10-year-old boys' behavior and led to the Murder of James Bulger in Feb. 1993. After examining and assessing Newson’s report, it was apparent that there was no clear link between the film and the crime. Critics pointed out that Newson's case studies were reliant on press accounts and opinions rather than independent research. However, Newson's report was influential, and has led to more censorship of videos and more concern from the British Board of Film classification on the psychological effects of media violence. The attention and question become whether they were watching violent media. But Barker (2001) [8] doesn’t agree with Elizabeth Newson. He reject her claim about the connection between media violence and real life violence, in his argument he justifies his position, he indicates that there was not a scrap of evidence that the boys had seen the movie and Child's Play 3 is a moral film. He also criticized anti media campaigns and described them as ignorant and disguised political campaigns. He states that these claims are represented by media and most of people have no chance to check the credibility of them, he also points out that these films including Child's Play 3 are often attacked because they deal with political issues. Moreover, he lists real cases, for example “a man takes a gun and shoots his entire family after watching the news, arrested and tried , he explains his actions on the basis that the world news was so bad there seemed no point anyone going on living”. Barker suggests that this case for example is no different that other putative cases of media a causing violence, Barker said that we should not always blindly blame the media because people are not copycats, instead we should be aware of someone mental state and take other factors into account before making such claims. For example, in his case he states that the man reaction was abnormal. Therefore, his behavior could not be explained by suggesting “the effects of the news”. There are other social and cultural factors in criminal acts in which the media are not the basic influence. Barker also suggests 'that we must look beyond a specific film to think about the specific context in which it has been consumed, and the wider social background of the people'.[10],according to Barker there is no such thing called violence in the media that either could or could not cause violence, we should rather pay attention to how social factors and background make some people consume media in specific way.[11], for instance, even the news also show lots of violence, so people should rather pay attention to how social factors and background make some people consume media in particular way. In addition Barker (2001) proposes further research, he suggests that the theory of media violence connection must be tested because identification with particular element in a film is not something can be seen. He also noted problem with campaigners treating delinquents as normal people who become influenced by the media. Therefore, he suggests further research on how these people understand and consume media.

-Critics of effects research see no connection between exposure to media violence and real life violence, because humans are not copycats and can realize what is wrong and what is right. Although some research claims that heavy exposure to media violence can lead to more aggressive behavior, it has been suggested that exposure alone does not cause a child to commit crimes.[12]

-Flew and Humphreys (2005) said that the assumptions of effects researchers are frequently flawed. According to Flew and Humphreys, Freedman (2001) and Goldstein (2001) the number of studies on games and violence is small and the research suffers from flawed methodologies which do very little to prove a direct link.[13] Terry Flew and Sal Humphreys also state ‘that differing context of consumption will always mean we need to take account of the particularities of players and how and why they play, effects researches often give insufficient account to the relevance of cultural contexts and the way in which media are actually implicated in the circulation of meanings in our cultures'.[14]

-Freedman (2007) [15] is another thinker who rejects this idea, in reference to the FCC ‘the Federal Communications Commission in US’ report that suggests link between media violence and real life violence, Freedman indicates the lack of discussion and states that the FCC does not make a sufficient distinction between people’s opinions, intuitions and musings on the one hand, and the hard scientific data on the other, and he indicates the lack of discussion of one of the strongest arguments against the idea that media violence causes aggression. According to Freedman the rate of violent crime in the United states increased sharply from 1965 to 1980 and some people blamed that increase on media, The rate of violent crime leveled off until about 1992, since that time, television continued to have violent programs, there was also more scenes and media showing more violence, if exposure to violent media cause real violence one would surely expect the rate of violent crime to have increased sharply, yet, since 1992 there has been a dramatic drop in violent crime, it seems clear that media violence did not cause the earlier increase. Therefore, it is widely accepted that there is no convincing evidence that prove that media violence cause violent crime or any type of real life violence


Certain groups tend to argue for media effects in an effort to promote a political cause. Demands for the banning of certain songs or the labeling of obscene albums came specifically from conservative political groups in the United States. However, it is important to note that Tipper Gore, the wife of Al Gore, was the founder of the Parents Music Resource Center, and was the main figure in pushing for warning labels on music although she does not fit into the conservative demographic. They argued that such material had simple and identifiable effects on children, and thus should be banned/labeled.

Priming and Framing

The agenda-setting process is an almost unavoidable part of newsgathering by the large organizations which make up much of the mass media. (Just four main news agencies — AP, UPI, Reuters and Agence-France-Presse — claim together to provide 90% of the total news output of the world’s press, radio and television.[citation needed]) Stuart Hall points out that because some of the media produce material which often is good, impartial and serious, they are accorded a high degree of respect and authority. However, in practice the ethics of the press and television are closely related to that of the homogeneous establishment, providing vital support to the existing order. Independence (eg of the BBC) is not “a mere cover, it is central to the way power and ideology are mediated in societies like ours.” The public is bribed with good radio, television and newspapers into an acceptance of the biased, the misleading, and the status quo. The media are not, according to this approach, crude agents of propaganda. They organize public understanding. However, the overall interpretations they provide in the long run are those most preferred by, and least challenging to, those with economic power. Greg Philo demonstrates this in his 1991 article, “Seeing is Believing”, in which he showed that recollections of the 1984 UK miners’ strike were strongly correlated with the media presentation of the event, including the perception of the picketing as largely violent when violence was rare, and the use by the public of phrases which had appeared originally in the media.

McCombs and Shaw (1972) demonstrate the agenda-setting effect at work in a study conducted in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA during the 1968 presidential elections. A representative sample of un-decided voters was asked to outline the key issues of the election as it perceived them. Concurrently, the mass media serving these subjects were collected and their content was analyzed. The results showed a definite correlation between the two accounts of predominant issues. "The evidence in this study that voters tend to share the media's composite definition of what is important strongly suggests an agenda-setting function of the mass media." (McCombs and Shaw).

New media

Theorists such as Louis Wirth and Talcott Parsons have emphasized the importance of mass media as instruments of social control. In the twenty-first century, with the rise of the internet, the two-way relationship between mass media and public opinion is beginning to change, with the advent of new technologies such as blogging.

Mander’s theory is related to Jean Baudrillard’s concept of ‘hyperreality’. We can take the 1994 O.J. Simpson trial as an example, where the reality reported on was merely the catalyst for the simulacra (images) created, which defined the trial as a global event and made the trial more than it was. Essentially, hyperreality is the concept that the media are not merely a window on to the world (as if a visiting alien were watching television), but are part of the reality they describe. Hence (although additionally there is the question of navel-gazing) the media’s obsession with media-created events. It is this which led Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s to say that "the medium is the message", and to suggest that mass media are increasingly creating a "global village". For example, there is evidence that Western media influence in Asia is the driving force behind rapid social change: “it is as if the 1960s and the 1990s were compressed together.” A notable example is the recent introduction of television to Bhutan, resulting in rapid Westernization. This raises questions of ‘cultural imperialism’ (Schiller) — the de facto imposition, through economic and political power and through the media, of Western (and in particular US) culture.

An instrument for social control

Social scientists have made efforts to integrate the study of the mass media as an instrument of control into the study of political and economic developments in the Afro-Asian countries. David Lerner(1958) has emphasised the general pattern of increase in standard of living, urbanization, literacy and exposure to mass media during the transition from traditional to modern society. According to Lerner, while there is a heavy emphasis on the expansion of mass media in developing societies, the penetration of a central authority into the daily consciousness of the mass has to overcome profound resistance.


Government and Mass Media

They include licensing in advance;censorship of offending material before publication;seizure of offending material;injunctions against publication of a newspaper or book or of specified content;requirement of surety bonds against libel or other offense;compulsory disclosure of ownership and authority;post publication criminal penalties for objectionable matter;post publication collection of damages in a civil action;post publication correction of libel and other misstatements;discrimination in granting access to news source and facilities;discrimination and denial in the use of communications facilities for distribution;taxes;discriminatory subsidies;and interference with buying, reading and listening.

The public sphere

Structural transformation

Habermas believed that society becomes increasingly polarised into spheres of "public authority" - referring to the emergence of the state and associated political activity - and the "private" - the intimate domain of private relationships and the family. Jürgen Habermas believed that the development of mass media was a crucial factor in the transition from an absolutist regime to liberal-democratic society. With the invention of the printing press and then the availability of newspapers and other forms of printed literature, Habermas claimed the emergence of an intermediate sphere which according to him is the bourgeois public sphere. This space will provide individuals with a chance to gather together to critically access, discuss and evaluate important contemporary issues of utmost importance for the people. He claimed that this will resemble the Greek agora. Habermas claims that this public use of reason not only acts as a regulatory mechanism over the state, which is now highly visible, but also as a catalyst for the replacement of the absolutist regime with a liberal democratic government.

Frankfurt School

The Frankfurt School came into existence in the early 1920s to explain the failure of Marxism to take hold in the working classes, especially after the "Great Betrayal" of social-democratic parties who aligned with their governments during the first World War. It sees the loss of individuality through decline of privacy as the main cause of dependence on great mass organisations. Habermas to a certain extent depends on some early critiques of the media from the ‘Frankfurt School’, such as that of Max Horkheimer use. For these three, media was a 'culture industry' which was creating an impact on passive individuals. These individuals merely absorb any information they are exposed to. (A clear influence of Karl Marx can be seen here, with links to the theory of alienation.) According to Thompson, the cause of this is the commodification of art and culture, which allows the possibility of "manipulation by demagogues". Emile Durkheim claimed that the interdependence of highly specialised individuals, or what is known as ‘organic solidarity’, is seen as being succeeded by a new and barbarous homogeneity. Due to this, only a ‘mechanical’ cohesion is possible, dependent on similarity and standardisation. Horkheimer thus argued that, paradoxically, individuality was impaired by the decline in the impulse for collective action. According to him, ‘As the ordinary man withdraws from participating in political affairs, society tends to revert to the law of the jungle, which crushes all vestiges of individuality.’ In this analysis the Frankfurt school saw totalitarianism emerging as a result of corrupt social institutions and the decline of liberal principles. Thus Oppenheimer claimed that: “Just as the slogans of rugged individualism are seeking exemption from social control, so in mass culture the rhetoric of individuality, by imposing patterns for collective imitation, subverts the very principle to which it gives lip service.” Adorno in The Jargon of Authenticity claimed that “mass media can create an aura which makes the spectator seem to experience a non-existent actuality”. Thus a mass-produced, artificial culture replaces what went before.

Mass media and modern public sphere

In political behaviour, opinion leading tends to correlate positively with status, whereas this is not the case in consumer behaviour . So for political behaviour, the general conclusion that the media merely fixes (confirms) people’s opinion is not supported. Hovland, using experimental psychology, found significant effects of information on longer-term behaviour and attitudes, particularly in areas where most people have little direct experience (e.g. politics) and have a high degree of trust in the source (e.g. broadcasting). Since class has become a less reliable indicator of party (since the surveys of the 40s and 50s) the floating voter today is no longer the apathetic voter, but likely to be more well-informed than the consistent voter — and this mainly through the media.

There is also some very persuasive and empirical evidence suggesting that it is ‘personal contact, not media persuasiveness’ which counts. For example, Trenaman and McQuail (1961) found that ‘don’t knows’ were less well informed than consistent voters, appearing uninterested, showing a general lack of information, and not just ignorance of particular policies or policies of one particular party. During the 1940 presidential election, a similar view was expressed by Katz and Lazarsfeld's theory of the two-step flow of communication, based on a study of electoral practices of the citizens of Erie County, Ohio. This examined the political propaganda prevalent in the media at the time during the campaign period to see whether it plays an integral role in influencing people's voting. (In terms of generalising their results, one should note that there are questions about short term versus long term influence). The results contradict this: Lazarsfeld et al. (1944) find evidence for the Weberian theory of party, and identify certain factors, such as socio-economic circumstances, religious affiliation and area of residence, which together determine political orientation. The study claims that political propaganda serves to reaffirm the individual's predisposed orientation rather than to influence or change one's voting behaviour.

Thompson does not see ‘mediated quasi-interaction’ (the monological, mainly one-way communication of the mass media) as dominant, but rather as intermingling with traditional face-to-face interactions and mediated interactions (such as telephone conversations). Contrary to Habermas’ pessimistic view, this allows both more information and discussion to come into the public domain (of mediated quasi-interaction) and more to be discussed within the private domain (since the media provides information individuals would not otherwise have access to).

Mass Media in a free enterprise society

Although a sizable portion of mass media offerings - particularly news, commentaries, documentaries, and other informational programmes - deal with highly controversial subjects, the major portion of mass media offerings are designed to serve an entertainment function. These programmes tend to avoid controversial issues and reflect beliefs and values sanctified by mass audience. This course is followed by Television networks, whose investment and production costs are high. Jerry Mander’s work has highlighted this particular outlook. According to him, the atomised individuals of mass society lose their souls to the phantom delights of the film, the soap opera, and the variety show. They fall into a stupor, or apathetic hypnosis, that Lazarsfeld called the ‘narcotizing dysfunction’ of exposure to mass media. Individuals become ‘irrational victims of false wants’ - the wants which corporations have thrust upon them, and continue to thrust upon them, through both the advertising in the media (with its continual exhortation to consume) and through the individualist consumption culture it promulgates. Thus, according to the Frankfurt School, leisure has been industrialised. The production of culture had become standardised and dominated by the profit motive as in other industries. In a mass society leisure is constantly used to induce the appropriate values and motives in the public. The modern media train the young for consumption. ‘Leisure had ceased to be the opposite of work, and had become a preparation for it.’

Mass media, mass culture and elite

The relation of the mass media to contemporary popular culture is commonly conceived in terms of dissemination from the elite to the mass. The long-term consequences of this are significant in conjunction with the continuing concentration of ownership and control of the media, leading to accusations of a 'media elite' having a form of 'cultural dictatorship'. Thus the continuing debate about the influence of 'media barons' such as Conrad Black and Rupert Murdoch. For example, the UK Observer (March 1 1998) reported the Murdoch-owned HarperCollins' refusal to publish Chris Patten's East and West, because of the former Hong Kong Governor's description of the Chinese leadership as "faceless Stalinists" possibly being damaging to Murdoch's Chinese broadcasting interests. In this case, the author was able to have the book accepted by another publisher, but this type of censorship may point the way to the future. A related, but more insidious, form is that of self-censorship by members of the media in the interests of the owner, in the interests of their careers.


  1. ^ McLuhan, Marshall and Fiore Quentin (1964) “The Medium is the Message”, Hardwired, San Francisco, pp. 8-9, 26-41.
  2. ^ O’Reagan (1993) “Australian Television Culture”, Allen & Unwin, Australia.
  3. ^ Henry Jenkins (1999-05-08). "Prof. Jenkins Goes to Washington". Retrieved 2008-03-12. 
  4. ^ David Gauntlett (1998). "Ten things wrong with the ‘effects model’". Approaches to Audiences – A Reader. Retrieved 2007-01-22. 
  5. ^ Flew, Terry and Humphreys, Sal. ‘Games: Technology, Industry, Culture’ in New Media: an introduction (second edition), ed. Terry Flew (South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2005). P.101-114
  6. ^ Barker, M. “the Newson Report: a Case Study in Common Sense’in III Effects in the Media /Violence Debate, (second edition), ed. Martin Baker and Julian Petley (London: Routledge, 2001), pp.27-46.
  7. ^ Freedman, Jonathan. ‘No Real Evidence for TV Violence Causing Real Violence’ First Amendment Centre, 2007, online, Available: [2007, October 17.].
  8. ^ a b Barker 2001.
  9. ^ Brooke, Michael. ‘The Newson Report’ Screen Online, (2003-07), online, Available:{2007, October 17.}
  10. ^ Austin, T.’Media Effects: A Never-Ending Debate’. Introduction to Media Studie, 2002. online, Available: effects lecture2.doc. [2004,May 10].
  11. ^ Austin 2002.
  12. ^ Ward, Michael. ‘Video games, Crime & Violence’ Net Institute, 2007, online, Available: [2007, October 17.].
  13. ^ Flew and Humphreys 2005
  14. ^ Flew, Terry and Humphreys, Sal. ‘Games: Technology, Industry, Culture’ in New Media: an introduction (second edition), ed. Terry Flew (South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 264.
  15. ^ Freedman 2007.

Media makes a difference No it doesn't, it makes you docile

Further reading

  • Adorno, Theodor (1973), The Jargon of Authenticity
  • Chomsky, Noam & Herman, Edward (1988, 2002). Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon
  • Curran, J. & Seaton, J. (1988), Power without Responsibility
  • Curran, J. & Gurevitch, M. (eds) (1991), Mass Media and Society
  • Habermas, J. (1962), The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere
  • Horkheimer (1947), The Eclipse of Reason, Oxford University Press
  • Lang K & Lang G.E. (1966), The Mass Media and Voting
  • Lazarsfeld, Berelson and Gaudet (1944), The People’s Choice
  • Mander, Jerry, “The Tyranny of Television”, in Resurgence No. 165
  • McCombs, M & Shaw, D.L. (1972), 'The Agenda-setting Function of the Mass Media', Public Opinion Quarterly, 73, pp176–187
  • David Riesman (1950), The Lonely Crowd
  • Thompson, J. (1995), The Media and Modernity
  • Trenaman J., and McQuail, D. (1961), Television and the Political ImageMethuen
  • Barker, Martin, & Petley, Julian, eds (2001), Ill Effects: The media/violence debate - Second edition, London: Routledge
  • Carter, Cynthia, and Weaver, C. Kay, eds (2003), Violence and the Media, Maidenhead: Open University Press
  • Fowles, Jib (1999), The Case for Television Violence, Thousand Oaks: Sage
  • Gauntlett, David (2005), Moving Experiences - Second Edition: Media Effects and Beyond, London: John Libbey
  • Potter, W. James (1999), On Media Violence, Thousand Oaks: Sage

See also


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