The Theoretical and Practical Problems Associated with Viewing the Media in Terms of Effects

By Yousif Al Hamadi

Today, media research includes media effects and media content analyses showing how people use the messages they receive from the media. Major studies have examined the effects and some of the media’s roles in people’s lives. Since the beginning of the 20th century, media scholars and researchers initially presented theories showing extreme media power that directly affected mass consumption. Later, studies and experiments proved that all media effects were limited, indirect, or minimal. They presented other theories that had more consideration towards human behaviors, technology, and the relationship between mass media and mass consumption. Some theories favored the passive audience, others preferred the active audience, and others looked at the cause and connection with the event. Media scholars and researchers also presented cultural media theories where symbolism emerged as a critical element in some of their construction. Others interpreted social and political practices by using the effects of mass media on public opinions and behaviors.

C1 Media: Audience effects theories part 2 - YouTube


One of the earliest forms of communication is propaganda. It attempts to achieve a wide range of responses that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist. It is a deliberate manipulation using symbols, gestures, words, images, or music that affects people’s thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors (Narasimha Reddi, 2014: 8). Communications theorist Harold Lasswell noted that a propagandist media had duped the people during the First World War. In 1948, he based his work on a model focusing on a set of questions:

who says what, in which channel, to whom, with what effect?

(Chandler and Munday, 2011: 118)

Lasswell’s approach viewed human responses to the media as uniform and immediate. Similarly, other theories were developed in the 1930s, such as the Magic Bullet and the Hypodermic Needle Theory, offering readymade opinions for the unthinking herd. They were based on the assumption that people are uniformly controlled by their instincts and react to whatever comes along by human nature (Jowett and O’Donnell, 2014: 182). For example, in 1754, Benjamin Franklin, the Founding Father of the United States, drew a served snake of eight pieces to symbolize the separate colonies, with the caption ‘JOIN, or DIE’. This political cartoon portrayed a potent propaganda weapon throughout the Revolutionary period (Jowett and O’Donnell, 2014: 90).

Join, or Die - Wikipedia

In 1944, the American sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld presented a study analyzing the United States presidential election of 1940. The study examined the changes in voters’ opinions in Ohio over several months, expecting to affect their voting behavior directly. Analysis showed that many voting decisions are different from the messages sent to the public. It turns out that there are other factors than media influencing ideas and knowledge, such as social interactions. He called this process the two-step flow of communication (Cobley and Schulz, 2013: 19-20).

What was broadcasted on the American radio programme War of the Worlds on the Halloween of 1938 proves Lazarsfeld’s viewpoint. The episode was intended to spread panic, but many people did not believe it. After this incident, 135 people were interviewed, and it was clarified that better-educated people have a higher critical thinking ability allowing them to interpret the broadcast differently (Biagi, 2016: 285). Research later found that such media influences are limited, minimal, and indirect to selective perception. The studies and viewpoints then shifted from what the media do to people to what people do to the media (Chandler and Munday, 2011: 119).

Active and Passive Affections

There is often an argument regarding media theories revolving around the two major categories of passive or active audiences. Politician Bernard Cohen defined a theory that was called the Agenda Setting Theory. He said the press might not successfully tell people what to think, but it can successfully steer its readers to what to think about. Most social scientists accept this theory as an accurate description of the role of the press (Genest, 1995: 13). The theory can also explain how a social issue can rise to the level of awareness that drives the creation of policies. The Agenda Setting Theory can be seen in the example of how secondhand smoking turned into a policy issue to ban smoking in public buildings (Scott and Lewis, 2017: 1859). Obviously, The theory favors passive audiences and suggests that meanings are imposed exactly as the media intended.

No Smoking In Public Areas Notice Signs |

In contrast, fulfillment and satisfaction with media consumption obtained some researchers’ attention. The Uses and Gratification Theory is an example that focuses on why and what the audience does with mass communication tools. It favors active audiences and suggests that the audience’s engagement with media happens according to their own desire (DeFleur L. and DeFleur H., 2016: 192). The users might choose specific media to seek relaxation, entertainment, or social interaction. Currently, many media entities have developed access to on-demand media products, giving audiences the ability to consume them anywhere, anytime, and as often as they desire (Li, 2013: 8).

Cause-and-Effect Dilemma

1999 Columbine Massacre News Coverage (WABC-TV)

An Effect means any event that follows another event or a combination of events. Researchers assume a simple treatment of cause and effect relationship between human behavior and media consumption (Cannella and Soto, 2010: 178). On the 20th of April 1999, at the Columbine high school in Colorado, two teenagers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, murdered 12 students and a teacher and wounded 23 others before shooting themselves. They used to play Doom, a violent video game challenging shooter experience in modern times. That unfortunate incident is a clear example of how uncertain evidence suggests that violent video games, shows, and films encourage aggressive behavior.

A spokesman for the British Psychological Society was not convinced. He said:

There is a difference between pressing a buzzer and shooting their classmates in a college

(Radford, 2000)

Some theorists find determinism plays a significant role in the issue of establishing meaning in acts of communication. Some effects may be attributed to a strong determining cause that is sufficient on its own to produce them. Others may be attributed soft determinism as a contributory influence, but not enough (Clark, 2001: 189). Critics who minimize the relationship between media violence and aggressive behavior found that a large proportion of stimuli derived from sources other than exposure to media violence (Bryant and Zillmann, 2002: 277).

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase:

the medium is the message

Marshall McLuhan

McLuhan’s phrase became popular to describe how messages are conveyed. Additionally, the medium itself has an impact on the content. The meaning of his statement is that values and behaviors are changing according to technology (Gray, 2017). Additionally, the interaction between mass media and mass consumption has been developing accordingly. However, teenagers and children are using media platforms as an essential source of information.

An American high school reported in 2000 that 75% of the students had access to watch cable television; 80% learn about sex, drugs, and violence from television shows, films, or other media entertainment; and 10% learn about Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) from media sources rather than teachers, parents, or friends (Gruber and Grube, 2000). Today, digital media has interwoven the daily lives of citizens and their decisions whether to vote, support, campaign, demonstrate or complain. It shapes their information environment and extends their social networks, particularly the users of social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter. Social media have brought a democratic landscape that stretches from small acts such as signing a petition to political violence or armed struggles (Margetts, 2017).

Cultural Media Effects

The cultural media effects are another area where media reinforces values. Images become icons, symbols of a culture, event, or value. Media producers reuse them in books, films, murals, or even on t-shirts. For example, the World Trade Center attack has become an international symbol of terrorism. Similarly, the Hollywood Western actor John Wayne never served in the military, even though he was portrayed as a Pentagon propaganda expressing militant values (Connelly, 2014: 53).

The Green Berets Poster - Frank McCarthy | Disney movie posters, Mondo  posters, Cinema posters
John Wayne and The Green Berets as pentagon propaganda (

Furthermore, a large number of people use Celebrities as role models. They might reinforce values such as the importance of appearance, charisma, fame, wealth, and glamourous lifestyles, but at the expense of modesty, loyalty, charity, and thrift (Watson and Hill, 2015: 270). Marilyn Monroe, Jane Mansfield, and Diana Dor were the sex idols of the 1950s, and they all exhibited their feminine attributes. Some women, especially young girls, were stuffing their brassieres with padding to shape false breasts that make them look like their idols (Thesander, 1997: 166). In Western culture, debates over terms and principles might seem odd with some dominant trends. Lately, stories of celebrities regarding same-sex relationships have become less scandalous. They became relatively progressive due to some popular television shows such as Will and Grace, Modern Family, and Glee that feature lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) themes and characters (Szeman and O’Brien, 2017: 169). 

In Semiotics, the study of signs, the messages are regarded as required for encoding and decoding. Linguist and literary theorist Roman Jakobson argued that understanding messages, whether a text, content, or meaning, requires textual and social knowledge of relevant codes and contexts. They can have different linguistic functions, not confining to a referential function or information (Chandler and Munday, 2011: 273). The philosopher George Herbert Mead and the sociologist Charles Horton Cooley conceived the Theory of Symbolic Interactionism. It is a set of interrelated assumptions and concepts to explain social life. It covers an interpersonal exchange relationship between social institutions and nations, depending on the symbolic meaning that people develop in the process of social interaction. (Musolf, 2003; 2).

Your Non-Scientific Guide to Colour Semiotics — Huddle Creative

Likewise, The Spiral of Silence, developed by the scholar Elisabeth Noelle Neumann, explains the dynamics of public opinion. It also explains why the majority might remain silent in various situations (Goltz and Nelson, 2017: 251). For example, Donald Trump succeeded in becoming the 45th President of the United States by showing himself uncensored and radical. He had no policies, no specific messages, and no ground structure in his campaign. It turned out that he was speaking the language of the silent majority, who were frightened into supporting him openly (Ansah, 2016).

There has been imperative to conduct stage events and affairs in ways that conform to the routines and needs of the mass media and its main types of content, including news, sports, drama, entertainment, and advertising, to follow standardized formats. The idea of a staged media event belongs to the Theory of Media Logic. In 1979, David Altheide and Robert Snow used the term ‘media logic’ to capture the systematic nature according to pre-existing definitions. The general notion of media logic is to include the influence of media requirements on a wide range of cultural happenings and public events (McQuail, 2010: 330). This theory explains why some formats have more credibility than others, such as newspapers or TV news.


The cultivation Analysis Theory by George Gerbner is similar in dealing with consumers’ perceptions of reality. It explains how heavy television viewing leads to a long-term influence of excluding other information, ideas, and consciousness. Gerbner calls the subsequent effect ‘cultivation’, guiding common worldviews, roles, and values (Du Plooy, 1995: 10). In Britain, a 2014 Ipsos MORI polling report found that the British public thinks that one in five British people are Muslim, but in reality, it is one in 20. If 24% of the population are immigrants, the official figure is 13%. These surveys and misperceptions were spontaneous responses that were cultivated and amplified by politicians and media, not by academics or socio-social experts (Tiffen, 2017).



Initially, researchers and scientists thought that media messages control whoever receives them, but later, those who have better knowledge and critical thinking proved that the effect is limited. However, some theorists favored theorizing about the passive audience suggesting that meanings are imposed as the media intended. Others preferred the active ones who engaged with what suited their desires. Eventually, they realized that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between human behavior and media consumption. Surveys showed that media effects should have a strong determining cause, sufficient to create a reaction, such as linking violent behavior to aggressive media, but this is not precise because the evidence is insufficient to obtain the cause. However, no one can deny that technology has enabled the media to be available to everyone without discrimination, affecting the values ​​and behaviors of individuals and societies. In addition, studying the media’s effects on societies is different from its effects on individuals because the media uses symbols and signs effectively and creates symbols for their cultural use. Media Networks and Governments are aware of the power that the media has and accordingly cultivate the values and manners they want in their audience. Nevertheless, awareness of the process of media effects allows people to use mass communication effectively and minimize adverse effects.


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