Research in Media Effects (Revised October 2009) Mass Media Research: An Introduction, 9 th Edition

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Research in Media Effects

(Revised October 2009)

Mass Media Research: An Introduction, 9th Edition

Roger D. Wimmer and Joseph R. Dominick

While much research is conducted in professional or industry settings, a great deal of mass media research is conducted at colleges and universities. There are several differences between research in the academic and the private sectors, including, but not limited to:

  • Academic research tends to be more theoretical in nature; private-sector research is generally more applied.

  • The data used in academic research are public, whereas much industry research is based on proprietary data.

  • Top management often determines private-sector research topics; academic researchers have more freedom in their choice of topics.

  • Projects in private-sector research usually cost more to conduct than do academic investigations.

The two research settings also have some common features:

  • Many research techniques and approaches used in the private sector emerged from academic research.

  • Industry and academic researchers use the same basic research methodologies and approaches.

  • The goal of research is often the same in both settings—to explain and predict audience and consumer behavior.

This chapter describes some of the more popular types of research carried out by academic investigators and shows how this work relates to private sector research.

Obviously, not every type of scholarly research used in colleges and universities can be covered in one chapter. What follows is not an exhaustive survey but rather an illustrative overview of the history, methods, and theoretical development of five research areas: antisocial and prosocial effects of specific media content, uses and gratifications, agenda setting by the media, cultivation of perceptions of social reality, and the social impact of the Internet. Readers who want a more comprehensive treatment of media effects research should consult Bryant and Thompson (2002).

Antisocial and Prosocial Effects of Media Content

The antisocial effect of viewing television and motion pictures is one of the most heavily researched areas in all mass media studies. Comstock, Chaffee, and Katzman (1978) reported that empirical studies focusing on this topic outnumbered work in all other problem areas by four to one, and this emphasis is still apparent more than a decade later. Paik and Comstock (1994) reviewed the results of 217 such studies conducted between 1959 and 1990.

The impact of prosocial content is a newer area and grew out of the recognition that the same principles underlying the learning of antisocial activities ought to apply to more positive behavior. Applied and academic researchers share an interest in this area: All the major networks have sponsored such research, and the effects of antisocial and prosocial content have been popular topics on college and university campuses for the past 30 years. It is not surprising that there has been a certain amount of friction between academic researchers and industry executives.


Concern over the social impact of the mass media was evident as far back as the 1920s, when many critics charged that motion pictures had a negative influence on children. In 1928, the Motion Picture Research Council, with support from the Payne Fund, a private philanthropic organization, sponsored a series of 13 studies on movies’ influence on children. After examination of film content, information gain, attitude change, and influence on behavior, it was concluded that the movies were potent sources of information, attitudes, and behavior for children. Furthermore, many of the things that children learned had antisocial overtones. In the early 1950s, another medium, the comic book, was chastised for its alleged harmful effects (Wertham, 1954).

In 1960, Joseph Klapper summarized what was then known about the social impact of mass communication. In contrast to many researchers, Klapper downplayed the potential harmful effects of the media. He concluded that the media most often reinforced an individual’s existing attitudes and predispositions. Klapper’s viewpoint, which became known as the minimal effects position, was influential in the development of a theory of media effects.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, concern over the antisocial impact of the media shifted to television. Experiments on college campuses by Bandura and Berkowitz (summarized in Comstock & Paik, 1991) showed that aggressive behavior could be learned by viewing violent media content and that a stimulation effect was more probable than a cathartic (or cleansing) effect. Senate subcommittees examined possible links between viewing violence on television and juvenile delinquency, and in 1965, one subcommittee concluded that televised crime and violence were related to antisocial behaviors among juvenile viewers.

The civil unrest and assassinations in the middle and late 1960s prompted the formation of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, chaired by Milton Eisenhower. The staff report of the Eisenhower Commission, which concluded that television violence taught the viewer how to engage in violence, included a series of recommendations about reducing the impact of television violence.

The early 1970s saw extensive research on the social effects of the mass media. Just three years after the publication of the Eisenhower Commission report came the release of a multi-volume report sponsored by the Surgeon General’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behavior (1972, p. 10). In Television and Growing Up, the committee cautiously summarized its research evidence:

There is a convergence of fairly substantial evidence on short-run causation of aggression among children by viewing violence . . . and the much less certain evidence from field studies that . . . violence viewing precedes some long-run manifestation of aggressive behavior. This convergence . . . constitutes some preliminary evidence of a causal relationship.

The committee tempered this conclusion by noting that in accordance with the reinforcement notion, “any sequence by which viewing television violence causes aggressive behavior is most likely applicable only to some children who are predisposed in that direction” (p. 10).

At about the same time, the three television networks were sponsoring research in this area. CBS commissioned two studies: a field experiment that found no link between television viewing and subsequent imitation of antisocial behavior (Milgram & Shotland, 1973), and a longitudinal study in Great Britain that found an association between viewing violence on television and committing antisocial acts such as damaging property and hurting others (Belson, 1978). ABC sponsored a series of studies by two mental health consultants who concluded that television stimulated aggression to only a tiny extent in children (Heller & Polsky, 1976). NBC began a large-scale panel study, but results were not released until 1983. In addition to television violence, the potential antisocial impact of pornography was under scrutiny. The Commission on Obscenity and Pornography (1970), however, reported that such material was not a factor in determining antisocial behavior. The commission’s conclusions were somewhat controversial in political circles, but in general they supported the findings of other researchers in human sexuality (Tan, 1986). Subsequent efforts in this area were directed primarily toward examining links between pornography and aggression.

Along with violence and pornography, the contrasting prosocial effect of television was investigated as well. One stimulus for this research was the success of the television series Sesame Street. A substantial research effort went into the preparation and evaluation of these children’s programs. It was found that the series was helpful in preparing young children for school but not very successful in narrowing the information gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children (Minton, 1975). Other studies by both academic researchers and industry researchers demonstrated the prosocial impact of other programs. For example, the series Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids was found to be helpful in teaching prosocial lessons to children (CBS Broadcast Group, 1974).

Studies of these topics continued between 1975 and 1985, although there were far fewer than in the early 1970s. An update to the 1972 Surgeon General’s Report, issued in 1982, reflected a broader research focus than the original document; it incorporated investigations of socialization, mental health, and perceptions of social reality. Nonetheless, its conclusions were even stronger than those of its predecessor: “The consensus among most of the research community is that violence on television does lead to aggressive behavior” (National Institute of Mental Health, 1982, p. 8). Other researchers, notably Wurtzel and Lometti (1984) and Bear (1984), argued that the report did not support the conclusion of a causal relationship, whereas Chaffee (1984) and Murray (1984), among others, contended that the conclusions were valid.

Not long after the Surgeon General’s report was updated, the results of the NBC panel study begun in the early 1970s were published (Milavsky, Kessler, Stipp, & Rubens, 1983). This panel study, which used state-of-the-art statistical analyses, found a nonsignificant relationship between viewing television violence during the early phases of the study and subsequent aggression. The NBC data have been reexamined by others, and at least one article suggests that the data from this survey do show a slight relationship between violence viewing and aggression among at least one demographic subgroup—middle-class girls (Cook, Kendzierski, & Thomas, 1983).

From 1985 to 2001, the controversy subsided, but this topic remained popular among academic researchers. Williams (1986) conducted an elaborate field experiment in three Canadian communities. One town was about to receive television for the first time, another received Canadian TV, and the third received both Canadian and U.S. programs. Two years later, Williams and her colleagues found that when compared to children in the other two communities, children in the town that had just received TV scored higher on measures of physical and verbal aggression.

Additional evidence on the topic of television and violence comes from a series of panel studies conducted by an international team of researchers (Huesmann & Eron, 1986). Data were gathered from young people in the United States, Finland, Australia, Israel, and Poland. Findings from the U.S. and Polish studies reached a similar conclusion: Early TV viewing was related to later aggression. The Finnish study found this relationship for boys but not for girls. The Israeli study found that TV viewing seemed to be related to aggression for children living in urban areas but not for those in rural areas. The Australian study failed to find a relationship. In all countries where a relationship between TV viewing and violence was found, the relationship was relatively weak. Rosenthal (1986), who concluded that even a weak relationship could have substantial social consequences, examined the practical implications of this weak relationship.

More recently, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Part of the act specified that newly manufactured TV sets had to contain a V-chip, a computer chip that allows parents to block out violent and other objectionable programming from their TV sets. The chip would work in concert with a ratings system developed by the industry. (Recent research suggests that consumers have largely ignored the V-chip. One study found that 53% of consumers who had recently purchased a new TV set were not even aware they had a V-chip. A Kaiser Family Foundation study discovered that only 17% of families were using the V-chip to screen programs.)

Another recent research area examined mediating effects on the viewing of TV violence. Nathanson (1999), for example, confirmed that parental mediation of TV viewing helped curtail the antisocial inclinations of their children. The same researcher (Nathanson, 2001) also examined the influence of peer mediation on antisocial TV viewing. She found that peer influence was more frequent and more potent than parental mediation and that it tended to promote a positive attitude toward antisocial TV.

The violence at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and in other high schools at the end of the century, sparked renewed interest in media violence among parents and policy makers. Media leaders were called before a congressional committee investigating this topic. In 2001, the Surgeon General issued a report entitled Youth Violence, a document that included a study of the factors that contributed most to antisocial behavior among young people. The report concluded that media violence was less of a risk factor than family influences, peer group attitudes, socioeconomic status, and substance abuse (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001).

The increasing popularity of video games during the early years of this decade opened up another avenue of inquiry for researchers. Since more than 90% of young people report that they sometimes play these games, and since some of the more popular games feature graphic and explicit violence (Doom, Grand Theft Auto), social concern over their impact was widespread. Results of some of the early studies in this area (for example, Silvern & Williamson, 1987) suggest that playing video games can lead to increased aggression levels in young children and is related to their self-concepts (Funk & Buchman, 1996). More recent research, however, has been inconclusive.

Results from both surveys and experiments have been mixed with some studies finding a relationship between exposure to violent games and antisocial behavior while others found no relationship. Meta-analyses have also reached different conclusions. For example, Anderson and Bushman (2001) and Anderson (2004) found a small but significant correlation between violent game-playing and aggression while Sherry (2001, 2007) concluded that no relationship existed. A meta-analysis by Ferguson (2007) suggested that publication bias, the tendency of journals to publish only those studies with significant effects, was a factor in those meta-analyses that found a significant link. When publication bias was controlled, Ferguson found no evidence that violent games were associated with aggressive behavior.

Research about the antisocial effects of pornography increased in the late 1980s but has recently declined. One controversial research area examined if prolonged exposure to nonviolent pornography had any antisocial effects (Donnerstein, Linz, & Penrod, 1987; Zillmann & Bryant, 1989; Allen, D’Alessio, & Brezgel, 1995). The most recent studies have focused on exposure to pornographic Internet sites. For example, Peter and Valkenburg (2008) found a link between exposure to pornographic Internet sites and adolescents’ positive attitudes toward casual sex.

Research interest in the prosocial effects of media exposure decreased in the 1980s and has remained at low level into the end of the 2000s. Sprafkin and Rubinstein (1979) reported on a correlational study in which the viewing of prosocial television programs accounted for only 1% of the variance in an index of prosocial behavior exhibited in school. The apparent lack of a strong relationship between these two variables, coupled with the absence of general agreement on a definition of prosocial content, might have discouraged researchers from selecting this area. In any case, few studies of the media impact on prosocial behavior have appeared in the scholarly literature in the last five years. The meta-analysis of Anderson and Bushman (2001) found only a handful of prosocial studies to analyze but concluded that playing violent video games is linked to a decline in prosocial behavior.

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