There is a notion held by many people that the media has the power to affect our beliefs, attitudes, values and behaviours either directly or indirectly. Many sociologists believe that the media could be extremely powerful and influential because of their technology, economics, and because of the sheer scale of operations. There has been a tremendous amount of research done into the possible short and long term effects of the media on society but very little has been proved either way. Early research often stressed the construction of the audience and made assumptions about the impact on the public.
This includes the hypodermic effect theory, also known as the behaviourist approach, which sees the mass media as not just an influence on society but as being able to directly affect us with a metaphorical, powerful syringe full of messages directly into the mind. Based on the theory that behaviour is learnt through rewards and punishment, the notion here is that the media could provide a model of behaviour which could influence people by showing them that they could get the same results as those portrayed in what they had read/seen/heard.
For instance if a child sees someone get hurt on television and finds it exciting then they would want to replicate this behaviour, to gain the reward of feeling the same emotion again. In 1960 Albert Bandura undertook a research project based on these ideas. He showed three groups of children a film which included scenes of violence towards a doll, in the first film the person committing the crime was punished, in the second the person was rewarded and in the third no punishment or reward took place. Only the group which had seen the violent person punished was not violent toward the doll.
This theory has since been discredited for being too simplistic and narrow in its approach. It does not take into account for other variables such as the fact that the tests were done on small groups in unnatural surroundings, and the personality of those tested. This approach would appear to make no allowance for the fact that as human beings we are active in how we try to make sense of the world. A contrasting model of behaviourism is the audience selection approach. This approach sees the media as having an active audience rather than the passive one portrayed by the behaviourist view.
This theory proposes that the audience choose what they want to read/hear/see, based on their own attitudes, values and beliefs. For example television programmes could be used as an escape from loneliness or as a central leisure interest. Basically this approach implies that the messages have meaning to the individual or group. David Morelys 1980 study was seen by some sociologists as an important step forward in studying media effects as it took account for meaning rather than suggesting that we are merely receptors for what we see/read/hear.
Morley interviewed 29 different groups of people including apprentice electricians, sociology students and management trainees and asked then for their views on a well known television programme at the time, ‘nationwide’. Morley found that the different types of audience did indeed take different meanings from the programme; the middle class viewers didn’t like the patronizing tone but accepted what they saw was true, and the working class viewers liked what it said but not the content.
Black students interviewed said the content and the tone was irrelevant to them. This research is seen as a step forward from some of the earlier approaches such as the behaviourist approach as it at least presumes that the audience is creating meanings from the messages that they consume, however it doesn’t take into account for intended meanings of the media and whether or not the meanings can influence or reinforce our views. This theory comes with the assumption that the media has no influence on society at all.
Also this research has been criticised for being too narrow in its selection of people to represent ‘society’ for research. Research was conducted through interviews on selected groups. No specific research was done on the reactions of women. A large scale survey might have had better and more accurate results. The problem with this and the behaviourist approaches are that neither takes into account the ability the media might have to set agendas by continuing to show one version of reality to their audience.
The cultural effects theory seeks to address this issue. This approach concerns itself with the long term effects of the media continually portraying certain groups and what they do in a particular way. The supposed effect is that the audience could translate these attitudes into reality, causing prejudice and pressure to be how these messages suggest you should be.
It often suggested (interestingly often in the media) that the material used in magazines aimed at young women can cause eating disorders such as anorexia with their unrealistic and unobtainable images of extremely slim and beautiful women, who act as role models for young image conscious women. Glasgow Universities Media Group analysed news bulletins in the late 70’s and early 80’s and suggested that the language and the settings of the interviews and how the information was presented led to a strong bias against the unions in industrial matters.
There are two school of thoughts as to the reasons behind why the media influences society in this way, one is the Marxist view that the way certain things are portrayed are the result of a capitalist way of controlling the population though biased information and entertainment. The other is the view that the agenda setting is done through the professional activities of journalists and the agencies that run them. Sociologist Stanly Cohen believed the Medias agenda particularly in the amount of time spent on law and order is to show society what their boundaries are.
‘ so much space in the mass media is given to deviance that some sociologists have argued that this interest functions to reassure society that the boundaries lines between conformist and deviant, good and bad, healthy and sick, are still valid ones. The value of the boundary line must continually be reasserted; we can only know what it is to be saintly by being told just what the shape of the devil is. ‘ (Stanley Cohen, Images of defiance (penguin 1982), introduction)
Whatever the view they each hold the notion that the media is setting an agenda whether it’s for subconscious or conscious reasons. Another element of the cultural effects theory is that it often takes into account the audience effect model. Although this approach would seem a common sense approach it is not very testable, however this theory coupled with the audience effects model could go a long way to explaining what the effects of the media are on society.
Despite all the research done on media effects there is very little conclusive evidence to suggest that the media can change society. This does not mean that it does not, just that it is very difficult to prove or disprove because of the so many different variables that can affect the research. Even though there is little conclusive evidence common sense would suggest that if the mass media cannot change society then it certainly would seem to influence it, if there were no influence there then the billions spent on advertising would be a waste of money.