History of Media Effects Essay

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The established history of media-effects research is characterized by a series of phases marked by fundamental paradigm shifts. Each of these phases is associated with particular concepts, researchers, studies, and historical circumstances that influenced the perception of media effects (see McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory (2010), or Severin and Tankard’s Communication Theories (2001).

The first phase, from World War I to the end of the 1930s, was characterized by the assumption that the effects of the media on the population would be exceedingly strong. The media were credited with an almost limitless omnipotence in their ability to shape opinion and belief, to change life habits, and to mold audience behavior more or less according to the will of their controllers. The mass media supposedly fired messages like dangerous bullets, or shot messages into the audience like strong drugs pushed through hypodermic needles. Instinct psychology and the theory of mass society were interpreted to show that people were defenseless against the capricious stimuli of the media.

The second phase of the standard history lasted approximately from the end of the 1930s to the end of the 1960s and was distinguished by the assumption that the media were largely not influential. In the election study, The People’s Choice (1944), Lazarsfeld and colleagues defined all three key concepts that Joseph T. Klapper (1960) later united and used as the basis of his limited effects theory: (1) People use selective exposure and selective perception to protect themselves from media influences; (2) opinion leaders initiate a two-step flow of communication by absorbing and transforming ideas and arguments from the mass media; and (3) social group formation enhances the role that

 interpersonal communication plays in protecting an individual member from a change of opinion.

The third phase, from the end of the 1960s through the end of the 1970s, was characterized by the rediscovery of strong media effects. According to standard media-effects history, new studies (e.g., on agenda-setting effects or the spiral of silence) showed that it was possible for the media to overcome some selectivity processes in a television-saturated environment. Also, more sophisticated methods, more specific hypotheses, and more highly differentiated theoretical approaches were used. In addition, effects research since that time has been less focused on crude changes in attitude or behavior, and more interested in subtle changes in our perception of the world.

The fourth phase of the standard media-effects history is characterized by negotiated or transactional effects. Now the central premise maintains that the media exert their greatest influence when they become involved in the process of constructing sense and meaning. Typical theories connected with this new approach are social constructivism, cultivation, framing, and information processing. Recipients are assumed to construct for themselves their own view of social reality, in interaction with the symbolic constructions offered by the media.

The oversimplified account of the received view of media-effects history has been criticized as unrealistic paradoxes that feigned contradictions that had never existed. Indeed, re-analyses of research literature from the first phase indicate that “few, if any, reputable social scientists in the pre-World War II era … worked with what was later described as the hypodermic needle model” (Lang & Lang 1981, 655). Even the empirical findings from the second phase, upon closer inspection, show no justification for an overall verdict of media impotence. Two main factors explain the successful run enjoyed by the ‘minimal- effects myth’: First, there was an exaggerated concentration of a limited range of effect types; and second, the conclusions from key publications of that time were adopted with little critical review. The apparent change of mind leading to the rediscovery of strong effects was then partially motivated by the rapid spread of television.

Today, a growing number of scholars agree that the established standard history of the field is misleading because it tends to ignore those findings that do not fit neatly into the stage-by-stage scenario. Many authors (Chaffee & Hochheimer 1985; McLeod et al. 1991) have thus concluded media effects, strength of 353 that the development of mass media-effects research did not move in pendulum swings from “all-powerful” to “limited” to “rediscovered powerful” to “negotiated” effects. Bryant and Thompson argue in Fundamentals of Media Effects (2002) that the body of media-effects research from the beginning showed overwhelming evidence for significant effects.


  1. Chaffee, S. H. & Hochheimer, J. L. (1985). The beginnings of political communication research in the United States: Origins of the “limited effects” model. In E. M. Rogers & F. Balle (eds.), The media revolution in America and in Western Europe. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, pp. 267–296.
  2. Lang, G. E. & Lang, K. (1981). Mass communication and public opinion: Strategies for research. In M. Rosenberg & R. H. Turner (eds.), Social psychology: Sociological perspectives. New York: Basic Books, pp. 653–682.
  3. McLeod, J. M., Kosicki, G. M., & Pan, Z. (1991). On understanding and misunderstanding media effects. In J. Curran, M. Gurevitch, & J. Woollacott (eds.), Mass media and society. London: Edward Arnold, pp. 235–266.
  4. Neuman, R. W. & Guggenheim, L. (2011). The evolution of media effects theory: A six-stage model of cumulative research. Communication Theory, 21(2), 169–196.

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