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Mass media can produce a broad spectrum of effects – on knowledge, attitudes, emotions, social behavior, reputation of people covered by the media, etc. Effects may be the consequences of media use, but also a result of interactions with people who have used the media. Explanations are usually based on two types of theories. Learning-theory approaches address the correct reproduction of information. Therefore divergences between beliefs and information provided by media are considered learning deficits that may also be interpreted as a lack of media effects. Cognitive-theory approaches address the processing of information triggered by media reports. Beliefs and opinions are not regarded as copies of media presentation but indicate the type of information processing.
Effects On Reality Perception
Media coverage of current affairs has an influence on the public’s assessment of the significance of social problems and the urgency for solving those problems. Comparison of all issues on the media’s agenda with the population’s agenda over a short period of time, as well as comparison of the development of media coverage on single issues with the development of the population’s beliefs over a longer period of time, may indicate media effects.
The media – and above all TV – are also an important factor in cultural and political socialization. Through both information and entertainment TV conveys ideas of the state of society in which people live. The more frequently and intensely people watch TV, the stronger the influence of its presentation of reality.
Individuals generally have good judgment concerning the relative frequency of causes of death, but they typically overestimate the occurrence of rare fatalities and underestimate the occurrence of frequent causes of death. The concept of availability heuristic explains how this is related to media coverage.
Effects On Social Perception
People tend to overestimate negative media effects (perceptual hypothesis) on other people and take action (behavioral hypothesis) to prevent these negative effects. In addition, a general correlation between presumed media effects and behavior is assumed. The perceptional hypothesis has been often tested and confirmed. The behavioral hypothesis has seldom been tested and if so, subjects have been uninvolved bystanders instead of decision makers who are protagonists of media messages (Sun et al. 2009).
As ‘social beings’ people depend on the society of others. Therefore, they constantly monitor their environment in order to avoid social isolation. They draw on their interactions with other people and personal observation as well as media presentations. Each of these resources can incidentally stimulate correct or incorrect ideas about the distribution of opinions. People who consider themselves in the minority tend to withhold their opinions in public. In the process, the presumed majority opinion is artificially inflated, which in turn increases the pressure on the actual or alleged minority.
Cognitive And Emotional Effects
Citizen assessments about politicians and voting intentions are based in part on beliefs about politicians’ competence. Repeated coverage of issues sensitizes recipients to some issues and makes solutions to the issues seem especially urgent. Thus, the presumed ability of politicians to deal with the issues becomes more significant, contributing to a positive or negative image of them. Accordingly priming effects are based on agenda-setting effects.
Framing theory is based on the assumption that media recipients do not take up individual pieces of information independently of one another and derive meaning from them, but interpret them consistently according to a predetermined frame (or schema). Frame-induced information processing can be controlled by media reports that present events from a certain perspective (Entman 1991).
In the 1940s it was already known that there was a positive correlation between education and the use of information presented by the media. As consequence, in the course of time existing differences in the distribution of information can increase.
Descriptions of events trigger predictable emotional reactions. If the damage is attributed to uncontrollable natural forces, the event evokes sadness; if it is attributed to a person acting in a controlled way, it evokes anger. The extent of reactions is enforced or diminished by the interaction of emotions and cognitions. Appraisal theory combines elements of attribution theory and emotional arousal theory (Nerb & Spada 2001).
Axioms Of Media-Effects Research
Most studies in the effects of mass media are based on three, mostly unspoken, axioms. The first is ‘events happen, media cover.’ According to this axiom, current events on which the media report happen independently of the media. This is doubtful because a number of events on which the media report are the result of previous coverage. Some events would happen without media coverage, but their character is modified by media coverage (mediated events). Some events happen only in order to generate media coverage (staged or pseudoevents).
The second assumption is ‘no effect without change.’ The axiom holds true only under two conditions. First, if the media did not support the existing beliefs, opinions, and behaviors of its audience, these characteristics and attributes would still exist. Second, beliefs, opinions, and behaviors have developed independently from previous media use. There is evidence that the mass media have at least partly established the information and opinions which are already held and used to interpret news on current events.
The third axiom is: ‘no effect without contact.’ This axiom is only acceptable if at least one of two conditions is fulfilled: first, existing attitudes largely prevent the reception of dissonant information; second, dissonant information will be reinterpreted according to existing attitudes. As far as conveyors or opinion leaders pass on information and opinion from the mass media unchanged, their effects have to be attributed to the media. Therefore, opinion leaders and other interlocutors do not necessarily restrain the influence of media reports, but rather extend them to those who lack direct contact with media coverage.
- Bennett, W. L. & Iyengar, S. (2008). A new era of minimal effects? The changing foundations of political communication. Journal of Communication, 58, 707–731.
- Bryant, J. & Zillmann, D. (2002). Media effects: Advances in theory and research, 2nd edn. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Entman, R. M. (1991). Framing U.S. coverage of international news: Contrasts in narratives of the KAL and Iran air incidents. Journal of Communication, 41(2), 6–27.
- Nerb, J. & Spada, H. (2001). Evaluation of environmental problems: A coherence model of cognition and emotion. Cognition & Emotion, 15(4) 521–551.
- Perloff, R. M. (2003). The dynamics of persuasion: Communication and attitudes in the twenty-first century, 2nd edn. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Sun, Y., Pan, Z., & Shen, L. (2009). Understanding the third-person perception: Evidence from a meta-analysis. Journal of Communication, 58, 280–300.