Media Effects

Students who are new to media studies usually need to be brought back to earth.

Many who snatch up communication as their major are interested in media effects and want to study how advertising, news, music and films influence audiences. They’re convinced that mass media affect everyone—except them.
I know because I was just like them.

How can you not love media? Media entertain, inform, guide and feed us. I loved advertising and television and film and literature, and I was pretty sure media indelibly influenced us all (well, except for me).

Problem is that we naturally assume that if the media message carries some meaning, that receivers take that meaning to heart. And it wasn’t until grad school that I discovered that just because media present certain images and ideologies doesn’t necessarily mean that viewers and readers embrace those meanings.

I read a study in grad school that reported that more than 75% of US women are in the workforce, but in TV commercials, more than 75% of the US women are housewives, depicted as washing clothes, mopping floors, shopping for groceries and driving the kids to school. But just because the imagery (of commercials) depicts women in such roles doesn’t mean that we adopt the roles like so many automatons.

In fact, it’s more likely that we learn these roles early on from our families. And media are pretty good at reinforcing roles and stereotypes, and, as viewers, we often look to media to confirm our already existing beliefs. When it comes to actually changing beliefs, media aren’t as effective as we imagine.

Listeners to conservative radio, for example, are already conservative and listen to programs that reinforce their current beliefs. That’s according to empirical data.

So when a fresh-faced student is interested in how audiences embrace the stereotypes in hip hop music or laundry ads, I gently bring them back to earth and ask them to find the evidence to support their assumptions.

As it turns out, the evidence is mighty slim when it comes to media effects. First of all, media don’t affect all audience members equally. One important feature is that the more experience we have personally the less likely mediated message alter what our hard-won experiences have taught us.

And most of us believe that other people are more likely to be influenced by media than we are ourselves. It’s called the Third Person Effect, and researchers have shown convincing evidence that we personally believe we are immune to media messages. In contrast, we also believe that other people are dumb saps who embrace media messages.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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