It has become something of a cliche to observe that despite many decades of research and hundreds of studies, the connections between people’s consumption of the mass media and their subsequent behaviour have remained persistently elusive. Indeed, researchers have enjoyed an unusual degree of patience from both their scholarly and more public audiences. But a time must come when we must take a step back from this murky lack of consensus and ask – why? Why are there no clear answers on media effects?
There is, as I see it, a choice of two conclusions which can be drawn from any detailed analysis of the research.
The first is that if, after over 60 years of a considerable amount of research effort, direct effects of media upon behaviour have not been clearly identified, then we should conclude that they are simply not there to be found. Since I have argued this case, broadly speaking, elsewhere (Gauntlett, 1995), I will here explore the second possibility: that the media effects research has quite consistently taken the wrong approach to the mass media, its audiences, and society in general.
This misdirection has taken a number of forms; for the purposes of this chapter, I will impose an unwarranted coherence upon the claims of all those who argue or purport to have found that the mass media will routinely have direct and reasonably predictable effects upon the behaviour of their fellow human beings, calling this body of thought, simply, the ‘effects model’.
Rather than taking apart each study individually, I will consider the mountain of studies – and the associated claims about media effects made by commentators – as a whole, and outline ten fundamental flaws in their approach. 1. The effects model tackles social problems ‘backwards’ To explain the problem of violence in society, researchers should begin with that social problem and seek to explain it with reference, quite obviously, to those who engage in it: their background, lifestyles, character profiles, and so on.
The ‘media effects’ approach, in this sense, comes at the problem backwards, by starting with the media and then trying to lasso connections from there on to social beings, rather than the other way around. This is an important distinction. Criminologists, in their professional attempts to explain crime and violence, consistently turn for explanations not to the mass media but to social factors such as poverty, unemployment, housing, and the behaviour of family and peers.
In a study which did start at what I would recognise as the correct end – by interviewing 78 violent teenage offenders and then tracing their behaviour back towards media usage, in comparison with a group of over 500 ‘ordinary’ school pupils of the same age – Hagell & Newburn (1994) found only that the young offenders watched less television and video than their counterparts, had less access to the technology in the first place, had no unusual interest in specifically violent programmes, and either enjoyed the same material as non-offending teenagers or were simply uninterested.
This point was demonstrated very clearly when the offenders were asked, ‘If you had the chance to be someone who appears on television, who would you choose to be? ‘: ‘The offenders felt particularly uncomfortable with this question and appeared to have difficulty in understanding why one might want to be such a person… In several interviews, the offenders had already stated that they watched little television, could not remember their favourite programmes and, consequently, could not think of anyone to be.
In these cases, their obvious failure to identify with any television characters seemed to be part of a general lack of engagement with television’ (p. 30). Thus we can see that studies which begin by looking at the perpetrators of actual violence, rather than at the media and its audiences, come to rather different conclusions – and there is certainly a need for more such research. Another study of the viewing preferences of young offenders was commissioned in the UK (Browne & Pennell, 1998), but this made the ‘backwards’ mistake of showing violent videos to the offenders – putting violent media content onto the agenda from the start – rather than discussing the offenders’ everyday viewing choices. The study, which had some methodological flaws (see Gauntlett, 2001), was only able to hint that some violent individuals may enjoy watching violent material more than non-violent people do, if you actually sit the participants down, and show hem the videos. Of course such a study is unable to tell us anything about ‘media effects’). The fact that effects studies take the media as their starting point, however, should not be taken to suggest that they involve sensitive examinations of the mass media. As will be noted below, the studies have typically taken a stereotyped, almost parodic view of media content.
In more general terms, the ‘backwards’ approach involves the mistake of looking at individuals, rather than society, in relation to the mass media. The narrowly individualistic approach of some psychologists leads them to argue that, because of their belief that particular individuals at certain times in specific circumstances may be negatively affected by one bit of media, the removal of such media from society would be a positive step.
This approach is rather like arguing that the solution to the number of road traffic accidents in Britain would be to lock away one famously poor driver from Cornwall; that is, a blinkered approach which tackles a real problem from the wrong end, involves cosmetic rather than relevant changes, and fails to look at the ‘bigger picture’. 2. The effects model treats children as inadequate The individualism of the psychological discipline has also had a significant impact on the way in which children are regarded in effects research.
Whilst sociology in recent decades has typically regarded childhood as a social construction, demarcated by attitudes, traditions and rituals which vary between different societies and different time periods (Aries, 1962; Jenks, 1982, 1996), the psychology of childhood – developmental psychology – has remained more tied to the idea of a universal individual who must develop through particular stages before reaching adult maturity, as established by Piaget (e. g. 1926, 1929).
The developmental stages are arranged as a hierarchy, from incompetent childhood through to rational, logical adulthood, and progression through these stages is characterised by an ‘achievement ethic’ (Jenks, 1996, p. 24). In psychology, then, children are often considered not so much in terms of what they can do, as what they (apparently) cannot. Negatively defined as non-adults, the research subjects are regarded as the ‘other’, a strange breed whose failure to match generally middle-class adult norms must be charted and discussed.
Most laboratory studies of children and the media presume, for example, that their findings apply only to children, but fail to run parallel studies with adult groups to confirm this. We might speculate that this is because if adults were found to respond to laboratory pressures in the same way as children, the ‘common sense’ validity of the experiments would be undermined.
In her valuable examination of the way in which academic studies have constructed and maintained a particular perspective on childhood, Christine Griffin (1993) has recorded the ways in which studies produced by psychologists, in particular, have tended to ‘blame the victim’, to represent social problems as the consequence of the deficiencies or inadequacies of young people, and to ‘psychologize inequalities, obscuring structural relations of domination behind a focus on individual “deficient” working-class young people and/or young people of colour, their families or cultural backgrounds’ (p. 199).
Problems such as unemployment and the failure of education systems are thereby traced to individual psychology traits. The same kinds of approach are readily observed in media effects studies, the production of which has undoubtedly been dominated by psychologically-oriented researchers, who – whilst, one imagines, having nothing other than benevolent intentions – have carefully exposed the full range of ways in which young media users can be seen as the inept victims of products which, whilst obviously puerile and transparent to adults, can trick children into all kinds of ill-advised behaviour.
This situation is clearly exposed by research which seeks to establish what children can and do understand about and from the mass media. Such projects have shown that children can talk intelligently and indeed cynically about the mass media (Buckingham, 1993, 1996), and that children as young as seven can make thoughtful, critical and ‘media literate’ video productions themselves (Gauntlett, 1997, 2005). 3. Assumptions within the effects model are characterised by barely-concealed conservative ideology
The systematic derision of children’s resistant capacities can be seen as part of a broader conservative project to position the more contemporary and challenging aspects of the mass media, rather than other social factors, as the major threat to social stability today. Effects studies from the USA, in particular, tend to assume a level of television violence which is simply not applicable in Canada, Europe or elsewhere, and which is based on content analysis methods which count all kinds of ‘aggression’ seen in the media and come up with a correspondingly high number.
George Gerbner’s view, for example, that ‘We are awash in a tide of violent representations unlike any the world has ever seen… drenching every home with graphic scenes of expertly choreographed brutality’ (1994, p. 133), both reflects his hyperbolic view of the media in the US and the extent to which findings cannot be simplistically transferred across the Atlantic. Whilst it is certainly possible that gratuitous depictions of violence might reach a level in US screen media which could be seen as unpleasant and unnecessary, it cannot always be assumed that violence is shown for ‘bad’ reasons or in an uncritical light.
Even the most ‘gratuitous’ acts of violence, such as those committed by Beavis and Butt-Head in their eponymous MTV series, can be interpreted as rationally resistant reactions to an oppressive world which has little to offer them (see Gauntlett, 1997). The way in which media effects researchers talk about the amount of violence in the media encourages the view that it is not important to consider the meaning of the scenes involving violence which appear on screen.
Critics of screen violence, furthermore, often reveal themselves to be worried about challenges to the status quo which they feel that some movies present (even though most European film critics see most popular Hollywood films as being ridiculously status quo-friendly). For example, Michael Medved, author of the successful Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values (1992) finds worrying and potentially influential displays of ‘disrespect for authority’ and ‘anti-patriotic ttitudes’ in films like Top Gun – a movie which others find embarrassingly jingoistic. The opportunistic mixing of concerns about the roots of violence with political reservations about the content of screen media is a lazy form of propaganda. Media effects studies and TV violence content analyses help to sustain this approach by maintaining the notion that ‘antisocial’ behaviour is an objective category which can be measured, which is common to numerous programmes, and which will negatively affect those children who see it portrayed. . The effects model inadequately defines its own objects of study The flaws numbered four to six in this list are more straightforwardly methodological, although they are connected to the previous and subsequent points. The first of these is that effects studies have generally taken for granted the definitions of media material, such as ‘antisocial’ and ‘prosocial’ programming, as well as characterisations of behaviour in the real world, such as ‘antisocial’ and ‘prosocial’ action.
The point has already been made that these can be ideological value judgements; throwing down a book in disgust, sabotaging a nuclear missile, or smashing cages to set animals free, will always be interpreted in effects studies as ‘antisocial’, not ‘prosocial’. Furthermore, actions such as verbal aggression or hitting an inanimate object are recorded as acts of violence, just as TV murders are, leading to terrifically (and irretrievably) murky data.
It is usually impossible to discern whether very minor or extremely serious acts of ‘violence’ depicted in the media are being said to have led to quite severe or merely trivial acts in the real world. More significant, perhaps, is the fact that this is rarely seen as a problem: in the media effects field, dodgy ‘findings’ are accepted with an uncommon hospitality. 5. The effects model is often based on artificial elements and assumptions within studies Since careful sociological studies of media effects require amounts of time nd money which limit their abundance, they are heavily outnumbered by simpler studies which are usually characterised by elements of artificiality. Such studies typically take place in a laboratory, or in a ‘natural’ setting such as a classroom but where a researcher has conspicuously shown up and instigated activities, neither of which are typical environments. Instead of a full and naturally-viewed television diet, research subjects are likely to be shown selected or specially-recorded clips which lack the narrative meaning inherent in everyday TV productions.
They may then be observed in simulations of real life presented to them as a game, in relation to inanimate objects such as Bandura’s famous ‘bobo’ doll, or as they respond to questionnaires, all of which are unlike interpersonal interaction, cannot be equated with it, and are likely to be associated with the previous viewing experience in the mind of the subject, rendering the study invalid. Such studies also rely on the idea that subjects will not alter their behaviour or stated attitudes as a response to being observed or questioned.
This naive belief has been shown to be false by researchers such as Borden (1975) who have demonstrated that the presence, appearance and gender of an observer can radically affect children’s behaviour. 6. The effects model is often based on studies with misapplied methodology Many of the studies which do not rely on an experimental method, and so may evade the flaws mentioned in the previous point, fall down instead by applying a methodological procedure wrongly, or by drawing inappropriate conclusions from particular methods.
The widely-cited longitudinal panel study by Huesmann, Eron and colleagues (Lefkowitz, Eron, Walder & Huesmann, 1972, 1977), for example, has been less famously slated for failing to keep to the procedures, such as assessing aggressivity or TV viewing with the same measures at different points in time, which are necessary for their statistical findings to have any validity (Chaffee, 1972; Kenny, 1972). A longitudinal panel study is one in which the same group of people – the panel – are surveyed and/or observed at a number of points over a period of time). The same researchers have also failed to adequately account for why the findings of this study and those of another of their own studies (Huesmann, Lagerspetz & Eron, 1984) absolutely contradict each other, with the former concluding that the media has a marginal effect on boys but no effect on girls, and the latter arguing the exact opposite (no effect on boys, but a small effect for girls).
They also seem to ignore that fact that their own follow-up of their original set of subjects 22 years later suggested that a number of biological, developmental and environmental factors contributed to levels of aggression, whilst the mass media was not even given a mention (Huesmann, Eron, Lefkowitz & Walder, 1984). These astounding inconsistencies, unapologetically presented by perhaps the best-known researchers in this area, must be cause for considerable unease about the effects model.
More careful use of similar methods, such as in the three-year panel study involving over 3,000 young people conducted by Milavsky, Kessler, Stipp & Rubens (1982a, 1982b), has only indicated that significant media effects are not to be found. Perhaps the most frequent and misleading abuse of methodology occurs when studies which are simply unable to show that one thing causes another are treated as if they have done so.
Such is the case with correlation studies, which can easily find that a particular personality type is also the kind of person who enjoys a certain kind of media – for example, that violent people like to watch ‘violent films’ – but are quite unable to show that the media use has produced that character. Nevertheless psychologists such as Van Evra (1990) and Browne (1998, 1999) have assumed that this is probably the case.
There is a logical coherence to the idea that children whose behaviour is antisocial and disruptional will also have a greater interest in the more violent and noisy television programmes, whereas the idea that the behaviour is a consequence of these programmes lacks both this rational consistency, and the support of the studies. 7. The effects model is selective in its criticisms of media depictions of violence In addition to the point that ‘antisocial’ acts are ideologically defined in effects studies (as noted in item three above), we can also note that the edia depictions of ‘violence’ which the effects model typically condemns are limited to fictional productions. The acts of violence which appear on a daily basis on news and serious factual programmes are seen as somehow exempt. The point here is not that depictions of violence in the news should necessarily be condemned in just the same, blinkered way, but rather to draw attention to another philosophical inconsistency which the model cannot account for.
If the antisocial acts shown in drama series and films are expected to have an effect on the behaviour of viewers, even though such acts are almost always ultimately punished or have other negative consequences for the perpetrator, there is no obvious reason why the antisocial activities which are always in the news, and which frequently do not have such apparent consequences for their agents, should not have similar effects. 8. The effects model assumes superiority to the masses
Surveys typically show that whilst a certain proportion of the public feel that the media may cause other people to engage in antisocial behaviour, almost no-one ever says that they have been affected in that way themselves. This view is taken to extremes by researchers and campaigners whose work brings them into regular contact with the supposedly corrupting material, but who are unconcerned for their own well-being as they implicitly ‘know’ that the effects could only be on others.
Insofar as these others are defined as children or ‘unstable’ individuals, their approach may seem not unreasonable; it is fair enough that such questions should be explored. Nonetheless, the idea that it is unruly ‘others’ who will be affected – the uneducated? the working class? – remains at the heart of the effects paradigm, and is reflected in its texts (as well, presumably, as in the researchers’ overenthusiastic interpretation of weak or flawed data, as discussed above).
George Gerbner and his colleagues, for example, write about ‘heavy’ television viewers as if this media consumption has necessarily had the opposite effect on the weightiness of their brains. Such people are assumed to have no selectivity or critical skills, and their habits are explicitly contrasted with preferred activities: ‘Most viewers watch by the clock and either do not know what they will watch when they turn on the set, or follow established routines rather than choose each program as they would choose a book, a movie or an article’ (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan & Signorielli, 1986, p. 9). This view – which knowingly makes inappropriate comparisons by ignoring the serial nature of many TV programmes, and which is unable to account for the widespread use of TV guides and digital or video recorders with which audiences plan and arrange their viewing – reveals the kind of elitism and snobbishness which often seems to underpin such research.
The point here is not that the content of the mass media must not be criticised, but rather that the mass audience themselves are not well served by studies which are willing to treat them as potential savages or actual fools. 9. The effects model makes no attempt to understand meanings of the media A further fundamental flaw, hinted at in points three and four above, is that the effects model necessarily rests on a base of reductive assumptions and unjustified stereotypes regarding media content.
To assert that, say, ‘media violence’ will bring negative consequences is not only to presume that depictions of violence in the media will always be promoting antisocial behaviour, and that such a category exists and makes sense, as noted above, but also assumes that the medium holds a singular message which will be carried unproblematically to the audience. The effects model therefore performs the double deception of presuming (a) that the media presents a singular and clear-cut ‘message’, and (b) that the proponents of the effects model are in a position to identify what that message is.
The meanings of media content are ignored in the simple sense that assumptions are made based on the appearance of elements removed from their context (for example, woman hitting man equals violence equals bad), and in the more sophisticated sense that even in context the meanings may be different for different viewers (woman hitting man equals an unpleasant act of aggression, or appropriate self-defence, or a triumphant act of revenge, or a refreshing change, or is simply uninteresting, or any of many further alternative readings). In-depth qualitative studies have unsurprisingly iven support to the view that media audiences routinely arrive at their own, often heterogeneous, interpretations of everyday media texts (e. g. Buckingham, 1993, 1996; Hill, 1997; Schlesinger, Dobash, Dobash & Weaver, 1992; Gray, 1992; Palmer, 1986). Since the effects model rides roughshod over both the meanings that actions have for characters in dramas and the meanings which those depicted acts may have for the audience members, it can retain little credibility with those who consider popular entertainment to be more than just a set of very basic propaganda messages flashed at the audience in the simplest possible terms. 0. The effects model is not grounded in theory Finally, and underlying many of the points made above, is the fundamental problem that the entire argument of the ‘effects model’ is not substantiated with any theoretical reasoning beyond the bald assertions that particular kinds of effects will be produced by the media.
The basic question of why the media should induce people to imitate its content has never been adequately tackled, beyond the simple idea that particular actions are ‘glamorised’. (However, antisocial actions are shown really positively so infrequently that this is an inadequate explanation). Similarly, the question of how merely seeing an activity in the media would be translated into an actual motive which would prompt an individual to behave in a particular way is just as unresolved.
The lack of firm theory has led to the effects model being rooted in the set of questionable assumptions outlined above – that the mass media (rather than people) should be the unproblematic starting-point for research; that children will be unable to ‘cope’ with the media; that the categories of ‘violence’ or ‘antisocial behaviour’ are clear and self-evident; that the model’s predictions can be verified by scientific research; that screen fictions are of concern, whilst news pictures are not; that researchers have the unique capacity to observe and classify social behaviour and its meanings, but that those researchers need not attend to the various possible meanings which media content may have for the audience. Each of these very substantial problems has its roots in the failure of media effects commentators to found their model in any coherent theory. So what future for research on media influences? The effects model, we have seen, has remarkably little going for it as an explanation of human behaviour, or of the media’s role in society.
Whilst any challenging or apparently illogical theory or model reserves the right to demonstrate its validity through empirical data, the effects model has failed also in that respect. Its continued survival is indefensible and unfortunate. However, the failure of this particular model does not mean that the impact of the mass media can no longer be considered or investigated. Indeed, there are many fascinating questions to be explored about the influence of the media upon our perceptions, and ways of thinking and being in the world (Gauntlett, 2002), which simply get ignored whilst the research funding and attention is going to shoddy effects studies.
It is worrying to note the numbers of psychologists (and others) who conduct research according to traditional methodological recipes, despite the many well-known flaws with those procedures, when it is so easy to imagine alternative research methods and processes. (For example, see the website www. artlab. org. uk, and Gauntlett (2005), for information about the ‘new creative audience studies’ in which participants are invited to make media and artistic artefacts themselves, as a way of exploring their relationships with mass media). The discourses about ‘media effects’ from politicians and the popular press are often laughably simplistic. Needless to say, academics shouldn’t encourage them.
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