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Research has presented significant and consistent evidence that the mass media have noticeable and meaningful effects. These media effects are modest; small to moderate in size. Conclusions about the strength of media effects, however, must be tempered by considerations of research methodology. While some media effects, such as agenda-setting effects, are fairly strong, in general, meta-analyses reveal that media effects can best be described as small to moderate. Exposure to television violence, for example, accounts for over half of a standard deviation in negative effects. The connection between playing video games and aggression is r = 0·15. The effects of stereotyped media content and sex-role stereotyping range from r = 0·11 to r = 0·31. Pro-social messages targeted toward children have a moderate effect: r = 0·23.
Effects of media violence are larger in laboratories than in the real world. There is also evidence that effects of pro-social media content are larger than those of antisocial media content and that unusual messages have greater impact. For instance, research on US basketball player Magic Johnson’s 1991 announcement that he was HIV-positive, for example, had much greater effects on knowledge and attitudes about HIV and AIDS than more routine messages.
The effects of mass communication might be modest, but they are meaningful because of the size of the audience and the importance of the outcomes. The small effects found for media health campaigns (r = 0 · 09) cannot be dismissed, because even small effects mean that large numbers of people have been influenced. Scholars estimate that eliminating television violence could reduce aggression in society by small but significant amounts. Small effects translate into large groups of people being affected.
There are some areas of disagreement regarding media effects. The most substantial media effects are found in laboratory experiments. Exposure to media content in a laboratory setting, however, is atypical and cannot account for selective exposure or social influences. The dependent measures used in laboratories are often artificial and do not translate to real-life actions. Experiments typically focus on short-term effects, so researchers cannot assess the endurance of effects. Research participants might believe that the content presented or actions encouraged in the laboratory are sanctioned or even encouraged by the researcher. Content selected for experiments is often chosen to magnify differences between experimental and control conditions, extreme selections that are often atypical of media content seen in the real world.
Nevertheless, there are several reasons to believe that research underestimates media effects because of methodological imprecision. Outside of the laboratory, measures of media exposure are imprecise and subject to a good deal of measurement error. Media effects might be stronger if researchers could access accurate measures of attentive media use.
For ethical reasons, researchers often limit dependent variables to those that cannot harm research participants. So, studies rarely give participants opportunities to enact behaviours, but instead assess attitudes, perceptions, and reactions to hypothetical situations. These ‘diluted’ measures might not be the most valid and accurate ways to assess the impact of the mass media.
The main reason that media effects appear limited is that it is impossible to isolate media’s impact in most developed societies. It is nearly impossible to find someone who has not been exposed to mass media. And even those people who do not watch much television or read newspapers or surf the Internet interact regularly with others who do. Media’s influence can go beyond direct exposure to the media; it is filtered through other social contact.
- Hovland, C. I. (1959). Reconciling conflicting results derived from experimental and survey studies of attitude American Psychologist, 14, 8–17.
- Perse, E. M. (2001). Media effects and society. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Preiss, R. W., Gayle, B. M., Burrell, N., Allen, M., & Bryant, J. (2007). Mass media effects research: Advances through meta-analysis. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.