University 18 Yrs + | British Politics & the Media
Media Effects Theory – Long Term Effects
The minimal effects school did not say that there was no effect at all but that it varied a great deal from one person to another and was not a simple reflection of the message transmitted.
Other writers in the 1970s though began to point to effects which might not be immediate but developed over time because of the way that the media present topics, particularly as, by this decade, television had become all pervasive in American society.
The Spiral of Silence Theory
Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann proposed the spiral of silence theory as an explanation of public opinion. The media is influential and promotes an established public opinion which reflects the elite view and the different media outlets present much the same opinion.
There is an inherent tendency in people to not want to be isolated and looked down upon by others and so those with opposing views, except for a few nonconformists, do not challenge the accepted view. The Spiral of Silence, 2nd edition, 1993 sets out the theory in detail.
The Cultivation Theory
George Gerbner and Larry Gross developed cultivation theory which argued that television through repeatedly portraying society in a particular way gradually changed people’s views of the world. It tended to pick up established ideas of society and reflect them back in television programmes.
They surveyed light, medium and heavy watchers and found that heavy watchers (over 4 hours a day – Ofcom’s recent survey found that British people watched 4 hours on average) saw society as more violent and were more distrustful of other people (they called this the mean world syndrome), while they also had more socially conservative values.
The effect was small but Gerbner argued that the cumulative effect of watching would be more significant and, in relation to politics, could decide close run elections.
The other effect he saw, which he called mainstreaming was to blur social differences as everyone who watched frequent television began to develop the same views.
This was a challenge to limited effects theory which saw social differences as more important than the media in determining people’s reactions to what they saw.
There are problems with the survey as there may be social differences between light and heavy viewers which are the underlying reason for different attitudes but, nevertheless, cultivation theory has been very influential.
Later studies have shown, for example, that people watching ‘makeover’ programmes are more likely to be dissatisfied with the way they look, and that heavy television watchers are less concerned with environmental issues perhaps because of television’s concern with materialism.
The article by Michael Morgan and James Shenahan gives a good review of the current state of cultivation theory Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media Vol. 54 No 2, 2010.
The Agenda Setting Theory
Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw studied the 1968 Presidential election and found that the issues that voters saw as relevant and the importance that they attached to issues was highly correlated with the issues which the media presented as relevant and important.
They concluded, in their agenda setting theory, that because the range and nature of issues is very complicated, the media have to filter them and produce a condensed version which, by frequent repetition, embeds itself in people’s memories.
Agenda setting suggest that the media tells people what is important but not what stance to take on issues but a variant is the idea of media priming by which the criteria for judging performance on an issue is defined.
For example, waiting list times become the main way of deciding whether the NHS is performing well because other criteria are much more complicated to understand. The extent to which a party leader controls internal dissent among their MPs becomes a criterion for judging successful leadership as every possible example of dissent is picked up by the media.
Framing theory looks beyond just the frequency of how often issues are mentioned to look at how they are presented. They need to be made interesting and understandable and so are made into a story with a context and this ‘frame’ suggests how the issue should be thought about.
In a case of flooding, a delay in dredging rivers was being presented as a problem of the Environment Agency being remote and ignoring local people’s views and therefore making the flood problem much worse, even though professional opinion was more ambivalent about the usefulness of dredging.
Framing is particularly important in areas such as foreign affairs topics of which the audience has no experience but in other areas such as economic prosperity people will compare the media framing with their own knowledge of the topic.
Dietram Scheufele and David Tewkesbury explain the difference between agenda setting, priming and framing Journal of Communication Volume 57 No 1 2007.