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The effects of media effects research

The comprehensive examination at the Missouri School of Journalism is a nerve-racking but fun process. For several weeks I had to read about 100 journal articles, book chapters, and books from five subject areas. These reading lists were developed in consultation with my dissertation committee members.

Then, for five days spread in just two weeks, I had to take five four-hour closed-door, closed-book, no-internet, no-contact-with-the-outside-world exams, with just me, an old PC provided by the department, and a few sheets of scratch paper inside the window-less room. You never get to know the exact exam question until that day you are locked into that room.

Now that I have successfully defended my comps—yes, we also have an oral defense for the comprehensive exams—I am uploading some of my answers. The following abridged version comes from my first exam—one of the four questions I had to answer for my mass communication theory test. I was asked to discuss the issue with media effects research.

If I got anything wrong, please consider I was writing this from memory (away from my books and notes), within a four-hour deadline (I was to answer three more questions), and without immediate access to donuts, chocolates, or pad thai that could have inspired me to do much better.


The Missouri School of Journalism

The Missouri School of Journalism

The field of mass communication research has been dominated by studies on media effects. For instance, most accounts of the history of mass communication research tend to organize periods based on paradigms about the effects media have on audiences, from the magic bullet era, to limited effects, to the so-called return to powerful effects (e.g. Klapper, 1960; Noelle-Neumann, 1991). This focus on the effects of the media is traced back to the earliest mass communication studies, when scholars and policy makers were concerned about the adverse effects the media exert on those exposed to them. For example, the Payne Fund studies in 1929 looked at the effects of sex and violence in the movies on children. Cantril (1938) studied the mass hysteria triggered by the radio broadcast War of the Worlds. The Second World War brought attention to the power of propaganda and the process of persuasion, prompting the Hovland studies in 1948. These studies, and those they spawned in later years, are supported by the valid rationale that we should be concerned with how media messages influence audiences.

However, while media effects research have contributed to much of what we now know about the media, this tradition misses the big picture. McLeod, Kosicki and Pan (1996) said media effects research is focused on three main aspects: the audience, influences on the audience, and the sources of these influences (e.g. particular medium, content). An important, but missing, piece, is the process by which these influences come about. Thus, media effects research have been critiqued by many other traditions. Critical cultural theorists found media effects research to have ignored important power relations that provide the context to why particular effects are more prevalent, and preferred, than others. The focus is skewed toward the individual, ignoring the fact that individuals exist within norms and traditions shaped and subscribed to by groups. Indeed, Shoemaker and Reese (1996) argued that this preoccupation with individuals among American scholars has cultural roots, the American society being dominated by ideologies such as capitalism which celebrates individualism and competition. Even behavioral and quantitative scholars have found media effects research wanting. They argued that even within the paradigm is a disagreement in how media effects are characterized. Several schisms exist: is it micro or macro, cumulative or non cumulative, direct or conditional, short term or long term, based on alteration or stabilization (McLeod et. al 1996)?  I argue that this lack of agreement and consistency in findings from studies on media effects stems from the fragmented manner in how the mass communication process has been studied. The preoccupation to finding effects has overlooked the investigation of the overall process that brings about these effects.

First, media effects research has conceptualized “effect” as change (Lang & Ewoldsen, 2010; McLeod et. al, 1996). Thus, most media effects studies have been biased for finding change, for change is easier to observe (McLeod et. al., 1996). The plausibility that sometimes, and for some people, the effect of the media is protection from attitude change, or what we might call reinforcement, is insufficiently explored. This bias for change has become ingrained in the academic culture, with journal publications preferring articles that reject the null hypothesis of finding no-change.

Second, media effects research have been preoccupied with short-term effects. Lang and Ewoldsen (2010) argued that the use of the word “effects” connotes a short-term duration, which again is also easier to measure. This preoccupation on short-term effects, which oftentimes are found to be minute in magnitude, misses the plausibility that media processes unfold over time, that the actual “effect” is not exerted upon exposure to media and messages, but rather it unfolds with the process of constant, repeated exposure.

Third, the idea that something has an effect on someone presents a view of the communication process as a linear process, when it is a dynamic process. This argument is particularly relevant in today’s complex media environment. Those who use the media no longer wait for content to be passed on to them. They seek content. If they don’t find what they want, they can create their own content. Aggregating existing content, then melding them with their own content, is a different process from the usual linear who-says-what-in-which-channel-with-what-effect model that started media effects research. It is a different process that most likely culminates with a different type of effect. In order to understand this effect, we have to understand and explain the process.

Finally, media effects research usually conceptualizes media users as passive receivers of messages. Talking about effects—and effects only—and ignoring media processes supports the conceptualization of a passive audience, something researchers have found to be unsupported.

I argue that the problem with media effects research is not the focus on media effects, but the focus on media effects only. First, mass communication research does not yet devote equal attention to message production, or to the study of the processes that lead to messages that we suppose to exert effects. For example, Tewksbury and Scheufele (2009) classified framing research into frame-building and frame-setting, and most framing studies have been concerned with frame-setting, or how frames in communication (e.g. Druckman, 2001), those that are contained in media messages, affect individuals who process them. Second, we have seen very few attempts to consolidate the often fragmented studies on media effects. Lang and Ewoldsen (2010) pointed out that the marginal short-term effects different isolated studies have found might not be marginal at all, for if these short-term effects, tiny as they are, are found consistently across different media in experiments and surveys across different times and places, then they should trigger the suspicion that media effects are rather cumulative, owing their “effect” from consistency and repetition. This is more difficult to measure, but it brings us closer to what we are supposed to be looking for. I argue that media and content indeed have effects. They exist. We have empirically observed them. We have measured them in our surveys and experiments. But media effects alone do not define mass communication. Effects are outcomes of a dynamic, complex and linear process. Studying media effects is only one path, not the only path, to shedding light on complex mass communication processes.

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