third person

When we act like muggles

In my field—mass communication—you learn that folks have all sorts of theories about how media affect us.

But, many assumptions about media fail to pan out in real life, and here are three:

  1. Even bad publicity is good publicity
  2. Readers and viewers are easily persuaded
  3. Media have great influence on publics, especially when it comes to sex, drugs and rock’n’roll

Publicity about you might be positive, negative or neutral, but the critical indicator is whether people think of you well or poorly—not the mere portrayal in a news story.

In other words, if you are an actor, bad publicity might earn you negative headlines, but how does it affect your paycheck?

For example, Tom Cruise received caustic publicity after his break-up with Katie Holmes, with damning headlines, like this one in the popular British Mirror tabloid: “Weird marriage rules Tom Cruise imposed on Katie Holmes.”

Regardless of cruel headlines, Cruise continues to earn box office gold, and was among North America’s most sought-after actors in 2018, according to CNBC.

We’re not very good at gauging what publics believe because we take our cues in an echo chamber.

In contrast, when Ellen DeGeneres came out as gay in 1997, national news coverage was rarely negative: it was neutral or mildly supportive.

But advertisers like Chrysler and JC Penney pulled out of DeGeneres’ TV show, which was cancelled.

While DeGeneres eventually earned back advertisers’ blessings, she was blackballed by Hollywood’s elites for several years.


They feared public opinion.

Or what they thought was public opinion.

We’re not very good at gauging what publics believe because we take our cues in an echo chamber.

Most of us surround ourselves with news that we agree with, which means we don’t realize that some folks disagree with out viewpoint.

As for the power of the press, we muggles believe that we are (individually) immune to press persuasion, but assume everyone else is a stooge.

So prevalent is the belief that we are personally immune that scholars give it a name: Third Person Syndrome.

That means everyone else is a lemming when it comes to mass media.

And the third myth–that exposure to sex, drugs and rock’n’roll will warp your mind—just never materialized.

Early researchers wanted to find that media had awesome effects, particularly in the wake of World War II.

Researchers reasoned that Nazi-era propaganda had fried people’s brains, so they set out to prove it.

But they found that media don’t have the all-encompassing persuasive effects they thought.

Slasher movies don’t make folks turn to violence, and pornography doesn’t produce pedophiles.

People are much more likely to be persuaded by their friends, families and communities.

And by ourselves.

Our values sometimes make us blind to fact-based evidence, such as the example that no researcher has ever found a link between childhood vaccines and autism.

The best persuaders are… our own judgments: whether right or wrong.

3 March 2019

Image published on Pinterest



















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.
This entry was posted in nativescience, news bias, persuasion, social media and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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