21 Oct 2009

Sample Essay: Media Effect Theories: The Manner and Degree of Media Influence in Human Thinking


Mass media denotes a section of the media specifically envisioned and intended to get in touch with a very large audience such as the population of a nation or state. Examples of media include newspapers, magazines, books, televisions radios and the internet. Media serves various purposes such as advocacy for both for business and social concerns, entertainment, and public service announcements. Mass media advocate through advertising, marketing, spreading propaganda, public relations and political communication and entertains through performances such as acting, music and sports (Carrie & Bonds, 1999). Some of the negative characteristics of mass media include the inability to transmit tacit knowledge, manipulation of large groups of people through its outlets, biasness and its inability to act as peoples’ watchdog (Gerbner et al, 1986

Media Effect Theories

Cultivation theory

This theory was developed by George). The population covered by media consists of people with diversified characters, opinions, education backgrounds, and religion to mention but a few whose influence through the mass media is variable. Several theories have been formulated to explain the effects of mass media on its audience. In this paper, the writer will discuss the influence of media on people in relation to these theories. The writer assumes that the society has bestowed great trust in the mass media and relies heavily on it for information creating a scenario whereupon the media easily influences them to think differently.  Gerbner and its fundamental claim is that persistent and long-term exposure to television content has little but measurable effects on the perceptual worlds of audience members (Gerbner et al, 1986). Gerbner further claims that heavy television viewing creates an exaggerated belief in a “mean and scary world” and that television has surpassed religion as the key storyteller of our culture (Gerbner et al, 1986). The theory is most famous for its applications to the correlations between media violence and violent behavior. According to Gerbner, the children, elderly, African-Americans, Latinos, women and the less educated are often the victims of television violence.

Television is not a reflection of the world but a world in itself and a sort of modern day religion. People cultivate perceptions of reality from television. They make assumptions about others, places and things from fictional sitcoms, soap operas, dramas and television news. From fictional sitcoms, people tend to take the fiction in them seriously and even go to an extent of reflecting them on their life (Gerbner et al, 1986). From watching soap operas, they take the stage acting as if it were a real life situation; many envying to live the ‘movie superstar’s life’ forgetting that it is only stage managed. Dramas have similar effect too while the effect of the news is variable with its content (Entman, 2006).  For instance, news showing people striking or demonstrating for their rights ends up spreading the message that striking and demonstrating are the solutions to oppression (Zucker, 1978).

The repetitive nature of television’s mass-produced messages and images also forms the conventional symbolic environment that people base their perceptions in. Most of television programs are commercially designed to be watched by nearly everyone in a moderately nonselective fashion, a strategy for widening their target audience group (Bryant & Zillman, 1986). Television cultivates from childhood, the very predispositions and preferences that used to be acquired from other primary sources like parental counseling. This is largely contributed by the continuous absence of parents to preoccupy children with other activities and to monitor their television watching habits (Bryant & Zillman, 1986). Children who watch violent television programs such as wrestling end up being violent and aggressive in schools as well as being prone criminality that exposes them to the wrong side of law in latter life. They grow seeing incidences of violence in these programs and the effect of such viewing is gradual. At first, they may not be influenced much but as time elapses, they unconsciously start engaging in violent activities when faced with some situations. Their minds are already corrupted so that they see violence as the only option that can solve their problems better. In fact, in 1993, at a conference of the National Council for Families and Television, it was estimated that ten percent of the violence in the United States could be attributed to television (UCLA Center for Communication Policy, 1997). Incidences of television violence forms a necessary part of plot and character development of thought accurately portraying real life and it is responsible for actual violence in society (UCLA Center for Communication Policy, 1997).

Social action theory

This theory was developed by Anderson and Meyer and claims that media audience who are neither hapless nor passive, participate enthusiastically in mediated communication; constructing meanings from the content they perceive. The theory views communication interactions in terms of actors’ objective, receivers’ interpretation and the message content (Anderson & Meyer, 1988). According to this theory, the communication process does not deliver meaning; rather it constructs it. Each communication act generates at least three potentially different sites of this construction from where meaning arises. These sites are the intentions of the producer, the contents’ conventions and the receivers’ interpretation (Johnson, 2005).

Reasoning today is influenced by the media rather than platonic ideas (Bourdon, 2000).  Usually, the media is the most trusted institution with fanatical following and whatever it reports, supports or rejects is taken as the stand of the society. For example, during campaign periods to elect leaders, the media can tactfully influence the voting pattern by either showing positive or negative bias towards a specific candidate or party (Wanta & Miller, 1996). The society has become lazy and passive and in turn waits to be spoon-fed with information by the media regardless of its validity. This is why such pertinent decisions that would have been made by personal rational judgment such as voting are positively influenced by the media to influence the pattern of voting.

Mass media unifies and invigorates conversations (makes them uniform in space and diversified in time) of the society by giving its audience conversations of the day whose subject changes every day and every week (Bolter & Grusin, 2000). This is done tactfully, directly and behind the scenes thereby controlling and influencing the thoughts and actions of the society at large. For instance, if a leader differs in opinion with the media, the media can hit back at him by initiating and invigorating a conversation directly aimed at discrediting that leader and making him unpopular. The effect of this is that a bad image of this leader is created on people’s minds and people start perceiving him as a bad leader. On the contrary, such leaders may be carriers of effective ideas but due to such action, the general perspective of the society effectively coined and affixed by the media to disregard the leader. This can have and effect of causing major steps backward in development. Positively, the act of unifying and invigorating conversation especially on matters affecting the general society like environmental degradation, changes their attitude towards the topic and in turn they can be more responsible. The general effect therefore is to align people’s thoughts to react negatively or positively in society under the influence of media machinations.

Agenda- setting theory

In Maxwell McCombs’ and Donald Shaw’s (theorists of the agenda-setting theory) explanation, agenda is “not what to think, but what to think about” (McCombs & Shaw, 1972). Agenda-setting theory’s vital axiom is salience conveyance, or the ability of the mass media to transmit importance of items on their mass agendas to the public agendas. Agenda-setting theory contrasts with the selective exposure hypothesis of cognitive dissonance, reaffirming the press power while maintaining the freedom of an individual (Kiousis & McCombs, 2003 Mar). The theory aligns well with social judgment theory and is consistent with a “use and gratification” approach to television viewers’ motives (and dependency theory) (Kiousis & McCombs, 2003 Mar). Agenda- setting theory shows how the media influence public opinion, necessarily not by supporting one view over another, but by laying emphasis on certain issues in the public sphere.

When mass media choose what stories to consider newsworthy and how much space and prominence to give them, they create a large influence on their audiences. The influence results from the pictures which the media creates in audience members’ mind eye by setting an agenda for what people should think about and the importance order of these thoughts. For example, one host of a radio talk show admitted that his listeners have got to talk about what he is talking about or they risk ever getting off-air (Craft & Wanta, 2005). There develops a correlation between the media story covering rate and the extent at which people take that story important. Actions surrounding the ‘Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal’ are excellent examples of agenda-setting in action. During this historic event, the media was ever-present. By placing full page, color articles and top stories on news programming, the media made it clear that Americans should place this event as important issues. Some believed Clinton should have been impeached, and others thought otherwise. Therefore, the media was not extremely successful in telling people what to think on this issue, but most Americans did believe that was an important issue for a long period of time. Agenda- setting theory has evolved beyond the media’s influence on the perceptions of the public on issues salience to political candidates and corporate reputation. The theory is now being utilized in political campaigns, political advertising and debates, business news and corporate reputation, business influence on federal policy, role of groups, legal systems, trials, public opinion and audience control to influence the society into thinking their line (McCombs, 2005).

Media dependency theory

This theory was developed by Ball-Rockeach and De-Fluer and holds to the opinion that audiences depend on media information to attain goals and meet needs (DeFleur & Ball-Rokeach, 1989). Social institution and mass media systems interact with audiences to create interests, needs and motives in person. The degree of media dependence is influenced by the number and centrality of information, functions which include entertainment, education, social cohesion and government monitoring. Also influencing media dependency is the social stability whereby in cases of instability, reliance on the media increases (DeFleur & Ball-Rokeach, 1989).

People depend on media information to meet certain needs and achieve certain goals. However, this dependence is not equal through all the media (DeFleur et al, 1992). Those with great desire to understand the social world better, rely on the mass media for information. The mass media plays a vital role in the way they think since information obtained has a direct influence on their thinking. They can be able to relate their encounters with whatever they have learnt. Their decisions are to a greater degree a function of obtained knowledge (DeFleur et al, 1992). From the media, people can learn more about different cultures enabling them to understand those cultures better and change any cultivated perception that could have existed before. Out of this, their way of thinking is indirectly modeled by the media. During large-scale social crises such as war, for example, the societal dependency on the media increase dramatically. People incessantly rely on mass media exclusively for information and this gives mass media an upper hand in influencing their thinking about their allies and opponents in the war. If the mass media sees no need of generating panic, it can decide to censure contents likely to arouse panic. This is exemplified in the war on terror where sections of the media have openly been biased to the Arab communities and continuously associated them with the axis of evil in former president of the US, George W. Bush’s terminology.


Mass media forms an integral part of any society and plays an important role of spreading information. In the course of executing its duties and functions, mass media influences the society relatively depending on the audience it reaches. Factors such as age, sex, education background and exposure inform this degree of influence. The press may not be successful always in telling people what to think, but it has stunningly succeeded in telling its readers what to think about. Individuals differ on their need for orientation. Need for orientation is a blend of the individual’s interest in the topic and uncertainty about the issue. The higher levels of uncertainty and interest produce higher levels of orientation need. So the individual would be noticeably likely to be influenced by the media broadcasts. According to cultivation theory, televisions dictate character development with those having long time exposure to it having the greatest impact. In social action theory, the media directly influences the society reasoning by constructing meaning in its contents. The agenda setting theory reaffirms the press power while maintaining individual’s freedom. Lastly according to the media dependency theory, audiences depend on media information to attain goals and meet needs. Although mass media has negative influence to its audience, it is unfair to condemn or acknowledge its merits solely. The society on its part is to blame for ignorance and laziness in quest for the truth other than accepting everything from the media as the gospel truth. It has bestowed great trust in the mass media and relies heavily on it for information creating a scenario whereupon the media easily influences them to think differently.  It is practically impossible to do away with mass media considering its positive contributions. What is appropriate is to be more conscious, rational and critical to avoid especially negative media influence, most of which is out of ignorance.

List of References

Anderson, J. A., & Meyer, T. P. (1988). Mediated communication: A social action perspective. Beverly Hills: Sage.

Bolter, J. & Grusin, R. (2000). Remediation: Understanding new media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Bourdon, J. (2000). Live Television is Still Alive. Media, Culture & Society, 22(5), 531-556.

Bryant, J. & Zillman, D. (1986). Perspectives on media effects. Eds. Hilldale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Carrie, P & Bonds, J.(1999).Cultivations of Reality Through Television. University of South     Carolina

Craft, S., & Wanta, W. (2005). U. S. public concerns in the aftermath of 9-11: A test of second-level agenda-setting. International Journal of Public Opinion Research 16(4): 456-462.

DeFleur, M. L. & Ball-Rokeach, S. (1989). Theories of mass communication. 5th Ed. White Plains, NY: Longman.

DeFleur, M. L. et al. (1992). Audience recall of news stories presented by newspaper, computer, television and radio. Journalism Quarterly, 69: 1010-1022.

Entman, R. M. (2006). Framing public life: Perspectives on media and our understanding of the social world. Political Communication, 23(1): 121-122.

Johnson, S. (2005). Everything bad is good for you: How today’s popular culture is actually making us smarter. (New York: Riverhead (Penguin).

Kiousis, S. & McCombs, M. (2003). Agenda setting study: Agenda setting effects and strength. MT Journal Nr. p. 142.

McCombs, M E. & Shaw, D. L. (1972). The agenda-setting function of mass media. Public Opinion Quarterly 36(2):176-187.

McCombs, M.E. (2005). A look at agenda-setting: Past, present and future. Journalism Studies 6: 543-557.

UCLA Center for Communication Policy. (1997). The UCLA Television Violence Report 1997. Online. Retrieved 01 April 2009 from <http://www.digitalcenter.org/webreport95/intro.htm>

Wanta, W. & Miller, R. (1996). Sources of the public agenda: The president-press-public relationship. International Journal of Public Opinion Research. 8(4), 390-402.

Wober, J. M. (1988). The use and abuse of television: a social psychological analysis of the changing screen. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Zucker, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M., & Signorielli, N. (1986). Living with television: The dynamics of the cultivation process. In J. Bryant & D. Zillman (Eds), Perspectives on media effects (pp. 17-40). Hilldale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Zucker, H.G. (1978). The variable nature of news media influence, 154-72. In Ruben, B., Ed. Communication Yearbook 2. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books.

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