Influence of mass media

In media studies, psychology, communication theory and sociology, media influence and media effects are topics relating to mass media and media culture effects on individual or audience thought, attitudes and behavior.

Media influence is the actual force exerted by a media message, resulting in either a change or reinforcement in audience or individual beliefs. Media effects are measurable effects that result from media influence, or a media message. Whether that media message has an effect on any of its audience members is contingent on many factors, including audience demographics and psychological characteristics. These effects can be positive or negative, abrupt or gradual, short-term or long-lasting. Not all effects result in change: some media messages reinforce an existing belief. Researchers examine an audience after media exposure for changes in cognition, belief systems, and attitudes, as well as emotional, physiological and behavioral effects.[1]

There are several scholarly definitions of media effects. Bryant and Zillmann defined media effects as "the social, cultural, and psychological impact of communicating via the mass media."[2] Perse stated that media effects researchers study "how to control, enhance, or mitigate the impact of the mass media on individuals and society."[3] Lang stated media effects researchers study "what types of content, in what type of medium, affect which people, in what situations."[4]


Media effects studies have undergone several phases, often corresponding to the development of mass media technologies.

Powerful media effects phase

From the early 20th century to 1930s, developing mass media technologies, such as radio and film, were credited with an almost irresistible power to mold an audience's beliefs, cognition and behaviors according to the communicators' will.[5][6] The basic assumption of strong media effects theory was that audiences were passive and homogeneous. This assumption was not based on empirical evidence but on assumptions of human nature. There were two main explanations for this perception of mass media effects. First, mass broadcasting technologies were acquiring a widespread audience, even among average households. People were astonished by the speed of information dissemination, which may have clouded audience perception of any media effects. Secondly, propaganda techniques were implemented during the war time by several governments as a powerful tool for uniting their people. This propaganda exemplified strong-effect communication. Early media effects research often focused on the power of this propaganda (e.g., Lasswell, 1927[7]). Combing through the technological and social environment, early media effects theories stated that the mass media were all-powerful.[8]

Representative theories:

Limited media effects phase

Starting in the 1930s, the second phase of media effects studies instituted the importance of empirical research, while introducing the complex nature of media effects due to the idiosyncratic nature of audience individuals.[5] The Payne Fund studies, conducted in the United States during this period, focused on the effect of media upon young people. Many other separate studies focused on persuasion effects studies, or the possibilities and usage of planned persuasion in film and other media. Hovland et al. (1949) conducted a series of experimental studies to evaluate the effects of using films to indoctrinate American military recruits.[9] Lazarsfeld (1944) and his colleagues' effectiveness studies of democratic election campaigns launched political campaign effect studies.[10]

Researchers uncovered mounting empirical evidence of the idiosyncratic nature of media effects on individuals and audiences, identifying numerous intervening variables, such as demographic attributes, social psychological factors, and different media use behaviors. With these new variables added to research, it was difficult to isolate media influence that resulted in any media effects to an audience's cognition, attitude and behavior. As Berelson (1959) summed up in a widely quoted conclusion: "Some kinds of communication on some kinds of issues have brought to the attention of some kinds of people under some kinds of conditions have some kinds of effect."[11] Though the concept of an all-powerful mass media was diluted, this did not determine that the media lacked influence or effect. Instead, the pre-existing structure of social relationships and cultural contexts were believed to primarily shape or change people's opinions, attitudes and behaviors, and media merely function within these established processes. This complexity had a dampening effect upon media effects studies.[8]

Representative theories:

Rediscovered powerful media effects phase

Limited media effect theory was challenged by new evidence supporting that mass media messages could indeed lead to measurable social effects.[5] Lang and Lang (1981) argued that the widespread acceptance of limited media effect theory was unwarranted, and that "the evidence available by the end of the 1950s, even when balanced against some of the negative findings, gives no justification for an overall verdict of 'media importance.'"[12]

In the 1950s and 1960s, widespread use of television indicated its unprecedented power on social lives. Meanwhile, researchers also realized that early investigations, relying heavily on psychological models, were narrowly focused on only short-term and immediate effects. The "stimuli-reaction" model introduced the possibility of profound long-term media effects. The shift from short-term to long-term effect studies marked the renewal of media effects research. More attention was paid to collective cultural patterns, definitions of social reality, ideology and institutional behavior. Though audiences were still considered in control of the selection of media messages they consumed, "the way media select, process and shape content for their own purposes can have a strong influence on how it is received and interpreted and thus on longer-term consequences" (Mcquail, 2010).[8]

Representative theories:

Negotiated media effects phase

In the late 1970s, researchers examined the media's role in shaping social realities, also referred to as "social constructivist" (Gamson and Modigliani, 1989).[5][14] This approach evaluated the media's role in constructing meaning, and corresponding social realities. First, the media formats images of society in a patterned and predictable way, both in news and entertainment. Second, audiences construct or derive their perception of actual social reality—and their role in it—by interacting with the media-constructed realities. Individuals in these audiences can control their interaction and interpretation of these media-constructed realities. However, when media messages are the only information source, the audience may implicitly accept the media-constructed reality. Alternatively, they may choose to derive their social reality from other sources, such as first-hand experience or cultural environment.

This phase also added qualitative and ethnographic research methods to existing quantitative and behaviorist research methods. Additionally, several research projects focused on media effects surrounding media coverage of minority and fringe social movements.[8]

Representative research:

New media environment phase

As early as the 1970s, research emerged on the effects of individual or group behavior in computer-mediated environments.[5] The focus was on the effect of computer-mediated communication (CMC) in interpersonal and group interaction. Early research examined the social interactions and impressions that CMC partners formed of each other, given the restrictive characteristics of CMC—such as the anonymity or lack of nonverbal (auditory or visual) cues.[16] The first generation of CMC researches simply compared existing "text-only" internet content(e.g. emails) to face-to-face communication (Culnan & Markus,1987).[17] For example, Daft and Lengel (1986) developed the media richness theory to assess the media's ability of reproducing information.[18]

The internet was widely adopted for personal use in the 1990s, further expanding CMC studies. Theories such as social information processing (Walther,1992)[19] and social identification/deindividuation (SIDE) model (Postmes et al. 2000)[20] studied CMC effects on users' behavior, comparing these effects to face-to-face communication effects. With the emergence of dynamic user-generated content on websites and social media platforms, research results are even more conducive to CMC studies. For instance, Valkenburg & Peter (2009) developed the internet-enhanced self-disclosure hypothesis among adolescents, stating that social media platforms are primarily used to maintain real-life friendships among young people. Therefore, this media use may enhance the friendships.[21] New CMC technologies are evolving at a rapid pace, calling for new media effects theories.[8]


The broad scope of media effects studies creates an organizational challenge. Organizing media effects by their targeted audience type, either on an individual (micro-level) or an audience aggregate (macro-level), is one effective method. Denis McQuail, a prominent communication theorist, organized effects into a graph.

Micro- versus macro-level media effects

Media effects studies target either an individual (micro-level) or an audience aggregate (macro-level).


Theories that base their observations and conclusions on individual media users rather than on groups, institutions, systems, or society at large.[22]
Representative theories: Elaboration likelihood model, Social cognitive theory of mass communication, Framing theory, Priming theory, etc.

On a micro-level, individuals can be affected six different ways.

  1. Cognitive This is the most apparent and measurable effect: includes any new information, meaning or message acquired through media consumption. Cognitive effects extend past knowledge acquisition: individuals can identify patterns, combine information sources and infer information into new behaviors.
  2. Beliefs We cannot validate every single media message, yet we might choose to believe many of the messages, even about events, people, places and ideas that we have never encountered first-hand.
  3. Attitudes Media messages, regardless of intention, often trigger judgments or attitudes about the presented topics.
  4. Affect Refers to any emotional effect, positive or negative, on an individual from media exposure.
  5. Physiological Media content may trigger an automatic physical reaction, often manifested in fight-or-flight response or dilated pupils.
  6. Behaviors Researchers measure an individual's obvious response and engagement with media content, measuring any change or reinforcement in behaviors.[1]


Theories that base their observations and conclusions on large social groups, institutions, systems or ideologies.
Representative theories: Knowledge gap theory, Risk communication, Public sphere theory in Communication, etc.

McQuail's typology

Figure 1: McQuail's typology of media effects

Denis McQuail, a prominent communication theorist, organized effects into a graph according to the media effect's intentionality (planned or unplanned) and time duration (short-term or long-term). See Figure 1.[8]

Key media effects theories

Micro-level media effects

The following are salient examples of media effects studies which examine media influence on individuals.


Individuals often mistakenly believe that they are less susceptible to media effects than others. About fifty percent of the members in a given sample are susceptible to the third-person effect, underestimating their degree of influence.[23] This can allow an individual to complain about media effects without taking responsibility for their own possible effects.[24] This is largely based on attribution theory, where "the person tends to attribute his own reactions to the object world, and those of another, when they differ from his own, to personal characteristics."[25] Standley (1994) tested the third-person effect and attribution theory, reporting people are more likely offer situational reasons for television's effect upon themselves, while offering dispositional reasons for other members of an audience.[26]


This is a concept derived from a network model of memory used in cognitive psychology. Information is stored in this model as nodes, clustered with related nodes by associated pathways. If one node is activated, nearby nodes are also activated. This is known as spreading activation. Priming occurs when a node is activated, causing related nodes to stand by for possible activation. Both the intensity and amount of elapsed time from the moment of activation determine the strength and duration of the priming effect.[8]

In media effects studies, priming describes how exposure to media can alter an individual's attitudes, behaviors, or beliefs. Most media violence research, a popular area of discussion in media effects studies, theorizes that exposure to violent acts may prime an individual to behave more aggressively while the activation lingers.[16]

Social learning

Miller and Dollard (1941) pioneered social learning theory by their findings that individuals do not need to personally act out a behavior to learn it; they can learn from observation.[27] Bandura (1977) expanded upon this concept, stating that audiences can learn behaviors from observing fictitious characters.[28]

Media violence

The effects of media violence upon individuals has many decades of research, starting as early as the 1920s. Children and adolescents, considered vulnerable media consumers, are often the target of these studies. Most studies of media violence surround the media categories of television and video games.

The rise of the motion picture industry, coupled with advances in social sciences, spurred the famous Payne Fund studies and others. Though the quality of the research has been called into question, one of the findings suggested a direct role between movies depicting delinquent adolescents and delinquent behaviors in adolescents. Wertham (1954) later suggested that comic books influenced children into delinquent behaviors, provided false worldviews and lowered literacy in his book Seduction of the Innocent. This research was too informal to reach a clear verdict, and a recent study suggests information was misrepresented and even falsified, yet it led to public outcry resulting in many discontinued comic magazines.[29]

Television's ubiquity in the 1950s generated more concerns. Since then, studies have hypothesized a number of effects.

Behavioral effects include disinhibition, imitation and desensitization.

  1. Disinhibition, a theory that exposure to violent media may legitimize the use of violence, has found support in many carefully controlled experiments. Men exposed to violent pornography behave more aggressively towards women in certain circumstances.[30]
  2. Imitation theory states individuals may learn violence from television characters. Bandura's Bobo doll experiment, along with other research, seems to indicate correlation even when controlling for individual differences.[31]
  3. Desensitization refers to an individual's habituation to violence through exposure to violent media content, resulting in real-life implications. Studies have covered both television and video game violence.[32]

Cognitive effects include an increased belief of potential violence in the real world from watching violent media content, leading to anxiety about personal safety.[33]

Macro-level media effects

The following are salient examples of media effects studies which examine media influence on an audience aggregate.


Not all media effects are instantaneous or short-term. Gerbner (1969) created cultivation theory, arguing that the media cultivates a "collective consciousness about elements of existence."[34] If audiences are exposed to repetitive themes and storylines, over time, they may expect these themes and storylines mirrored in real life.[16]

Agenda setting in the news

There are two primary areas of media agenda-setting: (i) the media tells us the news and (ii) tells us what to think about the news. Press coverage sends signals to audiences about the importance of mentioned issues, while framing the news induces the unsuspecting viewer into a particular response. Additionally, news that is not given press coverage often dissipates, not only because it lacks a vehicle of mass communication, but because individuals may not express their concerns for fear of ostracization; this further creates the spiral of silence effect.


News outlets can influence public opinion by controlling variables in news presentation. News gatherers curate facts to underscore a certain angle. Presentation method—such as time of broadcast, extent of coverage and choice of news medium—can also frame the message; this can create, replace or reinforce a certain viewpoint in an audience. Entman (2007) describes framing as "the process of culling a few elements of perceived reality and assembling a narrative that highlights connections among them to promote a particular interpretation." Not only does the media identify supposed "causes of problems," it can "encourage moral judgments" and "promote favored policies."[16][35]

One long-term implication of framing, if the media reports news with a consistent favorable slant, is that it can lend a helping hand to certain overarching institutions of thought and related entities. It can reinforce capitalism, patriarchy, heterosexism, individualism, consumerism, and white privilege.[36] Some theorize this bias may reinforce the political parties that espouse these thought paradigms, although more empirical research is needed to substantiate these claims.[35]

Media outlets contend that gatekeeping, or news filtering that may result in agenda-setting and specifically framing, is inevitable. With a never-ending, near-limitless amount of information, filtering will occur by default. Subcultures within news organizations determine the type of published content, while editors and other news organization individuals filter messages to curate content for their target audience.[37]

The rise of digital media, from blogs to social media, has significantly altered the media's gatekeeping role. In addition to more gates, there are also more gatekeepers. Google and Facebook both cater content to their users, filtering though thousands of search results and media postings to generate content aligned with a user's preferences.[38] In 2015, 63 percent of Facebook and Twitter users find news on their feeds, up from 57% from the previous year.[39] With some many "gates" or outlets, news spreads without the aid of legacy media networks. In fact, users on social media can act as a check to the media, calling attention to bias or inaccurate facts.There is also a symbiotic relationship between social media users and the press: younger journalists use social media to track trending topics.[38]

Legacy media outlets, along with newer online-only outlets, face enormous challenges. The multiplicity of outlets combined with downsizing in the aftermath of the 2008 recession makes reportage more hectic than ever. One study found that journalists write about 4.5 articles per day. Public relations agencies play a growing role in news creation: "41 percent of press articles and 52 percent of broadcast news items contain PR materials which play an agenda-setting role or where PR material makes up the bulk of the story."[40] Stories are often rushed to publication and edited afterwards, without "having passed through the full journalistic process." Still, audiences seek out quality content—whichever outlet can fulfill this need may acquire the limited attention span of the modern viewer.[38]

Spiral of silence

Individuals are disinclined to share or amplify certain messages because of a fear of social isolation and a willingness to self-censor. As applies to media effects studies, some individuals may silence their opinions if the media does not validate their importance or viewpoint. This spiral of silence can also apply to individuals in the media, who may refrain from publishing controversial media content.[41]

Features of current studies

After entering the 21st century, the rapid development of the Internet and Web 2.0 technology is greatly reforming media use patterns. Media effects studies also are more diverse and specified. After conducting a meta-analysis on micro-level media effects theories, Valkenburg, Peter & Walther (2016) identified five main features:[16]

Selectivity of media use

There are two propositions of this selectivity paradigm: (a) among the constellation of messages potentially attracting their attention, people only go to a limited portion of messages; (b) people are only influenced by those messages they select (Klapper 1960,[42] Rubin 2009[43]). Researchers had noticed the selectivity of media use decades ago, and considered it as a key factor limiting media effects. Later, two theoretical perspectives, uses-and-gratifications (Katz et al. 1973,[44] Rubin 2009[43]) and selective exposure theory (Knobloch-Westerwick 2015,[45] Zillmann & Bryant 1985[46]), had been developed based on this assumption, and aimed to pinpoint the psychological and social factors guiding and filtering audience's media selection. Generally, these theories put media user in the center of the media effect process, and conceptualize media use as a mediator between antecedents and consequences of media effects. In other words, users (with intention or not), develop their own media use effects.

Media properties as predictors

The inherent properties of media themselves are considered as predictors in media effects.

Media effects are indirect

After the all-power assumption of mass media was disproved by empirical evidence, the indirect path of the media's affect on audiences has been widely accepted. An indirect effect indicates that an independent variable (e.g., media use) affecting on the dependent variables (e.g., outcomes of media use) via one or more intervening (mediating) variables. The conceptualization of indirect media effects urges us to pay attention to those intervening variables to better explain how and why media effects occur. Besides, examining indirect effects can lead to a less biased estimation of effects sizes in empirical research (Holbert & Stephenson 2003).[49] In a model including mediating and moderating variables, it is the combination of direct and indirect effects that makes up the total effect of an independent variable on a dependent variable. Thus, "if an indirect effect does not receive proper attention, the relationship between two variables of concern may not be fully considered" (Raykov & Marcoulides 2012)[50]

Media effects are conditional

In correspondence with the statement that media effect is the result of a combination of variables, media effects can also be enhanced or reduced by individual difference and social context diversity. Many media effects theories hypothesize conditional media effects, including uses-and-gratifications theory (Rubin 2009),[35] reinforcing spiral model (Slater 2007),[51] the conditional model of political communication effects (McLeod et al. 2009),[52] the elaboration likelihood model (Petty & Cacioppo 1986).[53] Take the elaboration likelihood model as an example: the variable of "need for cognition", indicating users' tendency to enjoy effortful information processing, is considered as a moderator of media effects on attitudes.

Media effects are transactional

Many theories assume reciprocal causal relationships between different variables, including characteristics of media users, factors in environment, and outcomes of media (Bandura 2009).[38] Transactional theories further support the selectivity paradigm (Feature 1), which assumes that audience somehow shapes their own media effects by selectively engaging in media use; transactional theories make an effort to explain how and why this occurs. Transactional media effects theories are the most complex among the five features. There are three basic assumptions. First, communication technologies (e.g., radio, television, internet) function as reciprocal mediators between information producers and receivers. They engage in transactions through these technologies (Bauer 1964).[54] Second, the effect of media content are reciprocal between producers and receivers of media content. They influence each other. Producers can be influenced by receivers because they learn from what the audience need and prefer (Webster 2009).[55] Third, transactions can be distinguished as interpersonal.

However, these features are only limited within micro-level media effects studies, which are mostly focused on short-term, immediate, individual effects. We look forward to more syntheses on macro-level research.[56]

Political importance of mass media and how mass media influence political decisions

The images that media create and carry the weight of social responsibility and the right side of social value. Audience learn and conduct their political sights of view from reading, listening to the political analysis and evaluation. The mass media are powerful guardians of proper political behavior because audience tend to trust the press who should inform them about government wrongdoing and providing proper suggestions. All of the mass media are politically importance because of their potential to reach large group of audiences. However, the influence of each media varies depending on their characteristics, ease of access and the quantity of the audience reached.[57] Print media, including newspaper, article and news on internet webpage usually reach to those readers who are literate at appropriate levels and understand the factual political environment. Electronic media especially television broadcasts provide a greater sense of reality which sometimes provide more credibility than others and stronger influence to the audiences. Moreover, large segments of the U.S. population have limited reading skills, they usually find better understanding from convey physical images, conversation and interviews between people from electronic media. They are especially well suited to attract viewers’ attention and arouse their emotions.[58]

Since now it is the era of Internet, the effect of Internet has extended every area. Politics is no exception, the relationship between organization and public opinion has been influenced by new media. New media includes online newspaper, blogs, social media and so on. More and more people prefer new media than traditional media because of the less limitation of new media, such as time limitation and space limitation. Most people have a cell phone or a computer. They can catch the news anytime in anyplace. As a result, new media has a greater impact on people. Politicians also notices new media is a more effective way to convey their message, and they use it to attract supporters. For example, both Barack Obama and The White House have Facebook page and Twitter. They can easily communicate with public and gather them together by “share” and “like it”, which will benefit their political activities especially for presidential campaigns,s because social media can help the candidate get vote. Public opinion also affect politics through new media. New media provides a two-way communication, which achieves an interactive role. People can directly send message to government and politicians by online comment.[59] If people are dissatisfied with the government, they can express their thought through social media and discuss with other people online. When those comments gather together, it will draw public opinion to focus on the downside of government. Since new media has a large user base, the political activity is followed by more people than before. New media lets people can better supervise government behavior. Also, government can know public opinion through new media as reference for decision making. Although new media has both positive and negative effect on politics, it narrows the relationship between the public and politics. Public is not only a information receiver anymore. People also can give their advice and opinion to the government. Government also have a chance to get to know the thought of citizens.[60]

The media play an indispensable role in the proper functioning of a democracy. Without mass media, openness and accountability are very tough to reach in contemporary democracies. The media can inform the public of how effectively the current government or candidates have performed in the past and help to them to account. Nevertheless, mass media can also hinder political transparency as well as help it. Politicians and political operatives can simulate the political virtues of transparency through rhetorical and media manipulation. There are three major societal functions that mass media perform to the political decisions raised by the political scientist Harold Lasswell: surveillance of the world to report ongoing events, interpretation of the meaning of events, and socialization of individuals into their cultural settings. The mass media regularly present politically crucial information on huge audience and it also represents the reaction from the audience rapidly through the mass media. The government or the political decision makers have the chance to have a better understanding of the real reaction from the public of those decisions they have made.[61]

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Further reading

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