Media Effects: Conceptual, Methodological and Political Causation

 March 9, 2001

            Communications studies in the decades surrounding the Second World War were primarily focused on the effects of the mass media on the public audiences exposed to them with little analysis of the intrinsic political and economic natures of the media themselves.  Examinations of the new aural and visual media of radio, television and film relied primarily, therefore, on analyses of audience behavior, giving effects studies a heavy behavioralist slant.  The idea behind this was to see how media changed the way people reacted to their environment and in what ways media could be used to alter or influence those reactions.  While social scientists sometimes disagreed concerning the methods they employed, these disagreements were not always based on the ways in which the studies were conceptualized but on the ends the social scientists hoped to achieve through their studies.  Financed largely by governmental and corporate organizations, social scientists were often expected to find results conducive to the political objectives of their funding agencies. The shortest path to securing such results, it made sense, was to look not at a medium itself but at the effects that medium produced because these were more easily demonstrable and satisfied the expectations (if written in accordance with them) of those responsible for renewing the research grants. As Chaffee argues,

The search for 'effects' of the media stems from the concern of producers of goods to sell their products through the use of advertising, product and packaging design, pricing decisions, and so forth.  The most effective marketing is that which realizes the largest increase in sales…The 'effect' of the media is then seen as the intervening factor that induces a more favorable perception of the product being marketed.  (Chaffee 78)

This is true whether that product be the political capital of votes or the economic capital of dollars.  This is not to say that social scientists were entirely mercenary in their approach to the field, for they had their private interests and agendas, too.  It is to argue, however, that the interests of the researcher are often subordinate to the interests of the entity that provides the funds.  Media effects research in the middle of the twentieth century provides a reasonable illustration, therefore, of motivated and subjective focus on how sell the goals of a hegemonic ascendancy to the masses it hopes to control.

            As illustrative of what media effects research does, Carey demonstrated in the early 70's that "functional analysis, like causal analysis, goes directly from the source to the effect without ever seriously examining mass communication as a system of interacting symbols and interlocked meanings that somehow must be linked to the motivations and emotions for which they provide a symbolic outlet" (239).  The reason for the direct channel linking entity and effect is due to its being derived from a transmission model of communication, which couches itself in the idea that what is most important is 'who says what to whom in what medium and with what effect,' not from a transactional model of communication that is based upon the receiver's not being merely a passive recipient but an active participant in the dialogue of the message.  That the communication research of the 1920's followed the propaganda efforts of the Great War explains a lot about how the transmission model remained entrenched in the ideas of social scientists, for the very idea of propaganda lies within a functional transmission model.  With the new media of radio and film acquiring such a popular mass following in the 1920s, national opinion makers, like the recent graduates of the Committee on Public Information who had already been trained in propaganda research and development, tried to take notice of how people responded to what appeared to be an ubiquitous flood of information and influence.  All three of the inquiries with which propaganda analysis was involved were transmission-based.  According to Bauer,

propaganda analysis, which is what research communication was called in [the twenties], was occupied with three inquiries: the structure of the media (who owns and controls them, and what affects what gets into them); content analysis (what was said and printed); and propaganda techniques (which are the devil's devices to influence people).  (Bauer 320)

Infant content-oriented corporations, like NBC, CBS and ABC, came into being in the mid- to late-20s with the exclusive purpose of providing an outlet for mediated content, and it was important for them to know what people thought of any given program in order to sell advertising space during the program to product-manufacturing corporations.  As with the newspaper-reading movement[1] in the teens and twenties, the science by which each new medium was created was shortly followed by the development of a social science by which to study it. 

Now, to qualify what I said earlier about the interests of social scientists being governed by their corporate sponsors, it seems that one researcher, Rev. William Short, was motivated in his five-year study of the effects of movies on adolescent behavior between 1928 and 1933 primarily by his own determined drive to destroy the medium as such even if that meant working against the contradictions between his beliefs and his evidence.  Jowett et alia describe Short's six categories of research as follows:

(1)     the number of children reached by the movies;

(2)     a quantitative measure of their influence;

(3)     the positive, negative or neutral qualities of their influence;

(4)     differentiations of their influence ascribed to gender, age, intelligence level, and 'temperament';

(5)     their influence on children's information processing, attitudes, emotions, conduct and aesthetic and moral standards;

(6)   their influence on such 'important matters' as respect for authority, marriage, forms of crime, health, hero worship and international understanding.  (64)


All of these points are focused on determining and interpreting the general effects of the medium on a given audience of adolescent film-viewers.  Short's motivation behind this was made quite obvious in his declaration to his colleagues that he "should much dislike to see [this] research eventuate in any such fashion…that motion pictures are comparatively…or perhaps quite harmless" (74), and the kinds of studies he initiated through his research staff are indicative of seeking to attribute harmful effects to the movie industry even when the evidence was not conducive to those preconceptions. This first glimpse at media effects research foreshadows what will follow in later decades as mass communication theory is legitimized into a social science and as social scientists find themselves increasingly employed by political and corporate entities interested in motivated (subjective) research.  Because Short went looking for information that would support his ideas, he found himself frustrated with results that indicated effects contrary to his ends. He was not at all pleased, for instance, with Thurstone and Peterson's attendance and film content studies that concluded that "while a powerful film could temporarily modify opinions, young people's social attitudes generally conformed to group values and resisted easy redirection by mass media" (78).  In some cases, "film behavior and community standards appeared to agree," as evidenced in Peters's standards study, which included the finding that "films presented less child abuse and more racial tolerance than the accepted standard in American society; in addition, community practices in these areas appeared to fall below the perceived national standard" (77).  In short, Short's hypotheses were inconclusive[2], and one of his researchers even switched 180 degrees from the initial goals of the study[3], but any motivated agency could have found a way to manipulate the evidence to prove its point.  While there is no evidence that it happened here, the potential for manipulation would be realized elsewhere as Simpson later reveals.

            While the harms Short was searching for were not as apparent as he would have hoped, his study could be construed as having successfully proven that film did have an effect on the behavior of its audience, but I would argue that so does the ingestion of entire pizza and case of beer.  That something has an effect does not necessarily mean that the effect is good or bad, but it is interpretation that makes it so.  Even so, media effects research had not met its end.  Effects of a given medium would be further illustrated half a decade following the conclusion of Short's study by the release of a radio play entitled War of the Worlds on October 30, 1938, during which a significant portion of its listening audience went berserk thinking that Earth was being attacked by Mars.  Hadley Cantril's 1940 study of the phenomenon entitled "The Invasion from Mars" sought reasons why the broadcast frightened some people (when other broadcasts based on imaginative theater did not do so) and not others.  He began with four psychological conditions to explain the suggestibility of general audiences members, which included the following:

In the first place, individuals may refer a given stimulus to a standard or to several standards of judgment which they think are relevant for interpretation.


A second condition of suggestibility exists when an individual is not sure of the interpretation he should place on a given stimulus and when he lacks adequate standards of judgment to make a reliable check on his interpretation. 


A third and perhaps more general condition of suggestibility exists when an individual is confronted with a stimulus which he must interpret or which he would like to interpret and when none of his existing standards of judgment is adequate to the task.


A fourth condition of suggestibility results when an individual not only lacks standards of judgment by means of which he may orient himself, but lacks even the realization that any interpretations are possible other than the one originally presented.  (419-20)

I would argue that conceptually, this psychological analysis is at the cornerstone of all propaganda theory.  If coupled with a transmission model of communication, the natural suggestibility of any given audience proves tempting ground for cultivation by a motivating power.  Moreover, if individuals were indeed atomized units suggestible to any outside influence, then there would be no point in studying the structural foundations of those influences, for the effects would be all that mattered.  This led to the conceptualization of a post-Second World War paradigm of dominance, which Simpson elucidates as being a system

in which the appropriateness and inevitability of elite control of communication was taken as a given.  As a practical matter, the key academic journals of the day demonstrated only a secondary interest in what communication ‘is.’  Instead, they concentrated on how modern technology could be used by elites to manage social change, extract political concessions, or win purchasing decisions from targeted audiences.  Their studies emphasized those aspects of communication that were of greatest practical interest to the public and private agencies that were underwriting most of the research.  This orientation reduced the extraordinarily complex, inherently communal social process of communication to simple models based on the dynamics of transmission of persuasive—and, in the final analysis, coercive—messages.  (62)


Up to and following the Second World War, then, the conceptual focus of communications research was predicated upon the idea that the media had direct effects and that these effects were measurable and could be engineered.  Two transmission theories, that of the hypodermic needle, where media was considered a panacea for social ills, and the magic bullet, which depicts media as hitting only those few in the population who are in need of it without affecting anyone else, greatly contributed to this mindset. 

Because it was just assumed that media had direct effects, the methods social scientists used to pursue their studies centered on the behavior that followed media exposure.  In 1948, however, Lazersfeld and Merton argued that "it is clear that the mass media reach enormous audiences...These are formidable figures.  But they are merely supply and consumption figures, not figures registering the effect of mass media.  They bear only upon what people do, not upon the social and psychological impact of the media" (495).  This not only signaled an important conceptual shift in the study of media effects, but it also affected the methods by which those studies would be pursued in the future and was the beginning of a paradigm shift.  Both Lazarsfeld and Merton summed up the mid-century state of communications theory in the following analysis:

Many are, first of all, fearful of the ubiquity and potential power of these media…There is, secondly, concern with the present effects of the mass media upon their enormous audiences…Finally, there is the danger that these technically advanced instruments of mass communication constitute a major avenue for the deterioration of esthetic tastes and popular cultural standards.  (Lazarsfeld and Merton 494)

Taking these concepts, Lazarsfeld and Merton shifted them into the idea of there really being little correlation between the media that is transmitted by governing elites and that which is believed or ingested by popular masses because there is a narcotizing effect on the public that comes together to discuss what it considers are relevant social issues.  This became the basis of the limited effects model.  This new limited effects model then supported the growing corporate interests in downplaying their own accountability in the engineering of public opinion, as Chaffee points out: "The argument that media need not be controlled because they have only minimal political and social impact has been continually reasserted by the broadcasting industry" (75-6). 

Lazarsfeld's research was supported by Elihu Katz's 1957 articulation of the two-step flow of communication, in which he speculated that "it may be…that influences stemming from the mass media first reach 'opinion leaders' who, in turn, pass on what they read and hear to those of their everyday associates for whom they are influential" (346).  These opinion leaders were not concentrated in the elite positions of society "but were located in almost equal proportions in every social group and stratum" (Katz 359).  So, the methods shifted from analyzing the effects of audience behavior to analyzing what could affect audience behavior. In a political environment struggling for democratic hegemony against Communism during the Cold War, it became increasingly important to gauge how people were influenced; in a corporate environment struggling for capitalistic hegemony against Communism during the Cold war, to use Lazersfeld's dictum, it became increasingly important to sell soap.  These concepts were given form in notions of gatekeeping roles where opinion leaders controlled access to the channels of information.  The argument could be made here that there was no conceptual change since the limited effects and two-step flow models were still based on transmission theories of communication--only the means by which information was conveyed changed from direct influence to filtered influence.  Both Katz and Lazarsfeld had already come to the notion that "in a stratified community or in a hierarchical institution… communications directed from the top of an organization downwards will be most effective when they are funneled through the informal leaders of the informal groups which emerge…on every level of the structure" (120).  I think that this is the first indication of a shift in communication theory toward the transactional model though I doubt it was recognized as such at the time.

Perhaps what lead most to the formulation of a limited-effects model of communication was the inception and proliferation of television broadcasting, which had the potential to undergo a similar attack as that perpetrated by Short on the movie industry twenty years earlier. Himmelweit et alia's 1955 study tied content analysis of the medium with its effects and found that television programming seemed to revolve around middle-class norms of stable families and white collar professions, and this image seemed to have an effect on the way television viewers envisioned their society and their future prospects.  They write,

There was a small but consistent influence of television on the way children thought generally about jobs, job values, success, and social surroundings.  In their wishes about jobs the viewers proved more ambitious than children not exposed to television; in their job values they were more 'middle class,' and in their assessment of the factors making for personal success they more often stressed the need for self-confidence,  (424)

 which seems to correspond more to normalization theories than to that of limited effects.  Normalization theory would argue that what we come to perceive as normal in the world around us comes to comprise our worldview.  In their focus on children, Himmelweit et alia looked at the effects of television on the child who watches it, which is different from the effects of movies on children in the sense that television watching is often a solitary or family activity while movie-going is a social one involving interaction with one's peers.  In any case, their findings were positive for the television industry, arguing that

Conflict about television does occur, especially over bedtimes, mealtimes, and the banning of certain programme.  But in many cases this conflict is only indirectly due to television; it may arise from existing poor parent-child relations, from unwise handling by the parents of problems thrown up by television (failure, for instance, to understand the child’s absorption in what he views), or from emotional disturbance within the child.  In all this television does not create conflicts, although it may precipitate them; it provides a whole new range of situations about which conflict can occur—but the root cause of the conflict normally goes much deeper than television.  (430-1)

 They then qualify those results by dichotomizing television's effects:

 At best, television can implant information, stimulate interests, improve tastes, and widen the range of the child’s experience so that he gains some understanding of people in other walks of life; this can make him less prejudiced and more tolerant.  It can make him less susceptible to over-simplified value judgments; it can raise the level of his aspirations.  At best, viewing can reduce the child’s less worth-while activities...whilst leaving the more worth-while ones intact.  At worst, on the other hand, viewing can lead to a reduction in knowledge...keep children from relatively worth-while activities...and implant or accentuate one-sided, stereotyped value judgments—if the content of television is such as to convey this kind of attitude.  (444)

 Based on the consistency of these findings with those of Short's earlier study, I think I have so far shown that all media have a plurality of effects, and the value these effects have for society or motivated interests merely depends upon which effects it is that the researcher decides to focus.

While the social scientists argued on the surface about responsible mediated communications, Christopher Simpson, in his 1994 Science of Coercion, argues with the advantage of hindsight that beneath the surface the results they were producing were being funded by political interests intent on manipulating not only the world markets and governments but also the consumers and voters at home.  Simpson uses the term 'psychological warfare,' and demonstrates throughout his book how it

has been a tool for managing empire, not for settling conflicts in any fundamental sense.  It has operated largely as a means to ensure that indigenous democratic initiatives in the Third World and Europe did not go ‘too far’ from the standpoint of U.S. security agencies.  Its primary utility has been its ability to suppress or distort unauthorized communication among subject peoples, including domestic U. S. dissenters who challenged the wisdom or morality of imperial policies.

 He also demonstrates that propaganda weapons are

psychological only in the effect they produce and not because of the nature of the weapons themselves.  In this light, overt (white), covert (black), and gray propaganda; subversion; sabotage; special operations; guerrilla warfare; espionage; political, cultural, economic, and racial pressures are all effective weapons.  They are effective because they produce dissension, distrust, fear and hopelessness in the minds of the enemy, not because they originate in the psyche of propaganda or psychological warfare agencies” (12).


My personal conclusions are with Bauer, who argued that  "The model which ought to be inferred from the data of research--is of communication as a transactional process in which two parties each expect to give and take from the deal approximately equitable values" (319).  He states further that

the argument for using the transactional model for scientific purposes is that it opens the door more fully to exploring the intention and behavior of members of the audience and encourages inquiry into the influence of the audience on the communicator by specifically treating the process as a two-way passage.  In addition to the influence of the audience on the communicator, there seems little doubt that influence also operates in the 'reverse' direction.  But the persistence of the one-way model of influence discourages the investigation of both directions of relationship.  (Bauer 327)

 If nothing else, this essay has provided a picture of mass communications theory as a rather organic process growing out of the needs of hegemonic interests and that as society continues to find value in the way in which it comes to know its needs beyond those of motivated interests, as more voices begin to find ways in which to allow others to hear them, new models couched within the ones with which we are currently dealing will begin to make themselves known.


 Bauer, Raymond A. "The Obstinate Audience: The Influence Process from the Point of View of Social Communication."  (319-28).

 Berelson, Bernard.  "Content Analysis in Communication Research." (260-6).

 Cantril, Hadley.  “The Invasion from Mars.” 

Carey, James W.  and Albert L. Kreiling.  “Popular Culture and Uses and Gratifications: Notes Toward an Accommodation” (225-48)

Chaffee, Steven H. and John L. Hochheimer.  "The Beginnings of Political Communication Research in the United States: Origins of the 'Limited Effects' Model." (74-104).


Himmelweit, Hilde, A. N. Oppenheim, and Pamela Vince.  "Television and the Child."  (418-45).

Jowett, Garth, Ian Jarvic, and Kathryn Fuller.  "Movie-Made Social Science: The Enterprise of the Payne Fund Studies Researchers, 1928-1933."  Children and the Movies: Media Influence and the Payne Fund Controversy.  London: Cambridge University Press, 1996: 56-91.

 Katz, Elihu.  "The Two-Step Flow of Communication." (346-65) 

Katz, Elihu and Paul Lazarsfeld. "The Group and the World Outside: Implications for Mass Media Research." Personal Influence: The Part Played by People in the Flow of Mass Communications.  Free Press, 1955: 116-33.


Lasswell, Harold D.  “The Structure and Function of Communication in Society.”  (117-30).

Lazarsfeld, Paul F.  and Robert K. Merton.  "Mass Communication, Popular Taste and Organized Social Action."  (492-512).

Lazarsfeld, Paul F., Bernard Berelson and Hazel Gaudet.  "Radio and the Printed Page as Factors in Political Opinion and Voting."  (513-26).

Simpson, Christopher.  Science of Coercion: Communication Research and Psychological Warfare 1945-1960.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

[1] Once again, I'd like to acknowledge my debt to Dr. Pauly for this insight.

[2] On the final afternoon of the [last] conference, the researchers…all agreed that their research had located an influence of movies on attitudes, emotions and behavior, but disagreement arose over the extent and strength of those effects.  Some believed that they had found conclusive evidence that movies were harmful and that the movie industry must be confronted and changed.  Dale noted that 'even though we can't pin specific harmful effects on motion pictures, we will be able to show that they do not have great positive moral and social values.'  Stoddard felt that movies had definite effects and were a 'powerful force' in children's lives and so approved a social activist role for the researchers: 'We are justified in making a critical analysis of everything in movies and of every possible outcome in conduct or attitude.  The practical implication is that we should do everything we can to mold public opinion and set up educational forces in such a way as to improve the content of movies, aesthetically and artistically, in the directions indicated by our studies.'  (81-2)

[3] Paul Cressey was appointed to do a study on the effects of movies on adolescents at the Thrasher's Boys' Club in New York: "Cressey had an intellectual epiphany in the fall of 1932…A year into his research and almost at the completion stage, Cressey…formulated a new thesis--that movies should not be linked to boys' delinquency, but must instead by viewed as a powerful source of 'informal education' that served boys in a far more direct and practical way than did schools or the Boys' Clubs" (86).