It is generally concluded that media content has effects on those it comes into contact with but there is no consensus on how or to what extent media can affect people. In this post I’ll cover three top-down theories of the relationship between the mass media and society, point out the main criticism of such top-down approaches, and then provide a way of sidestepping this criticism.
In the interwar period, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer of the Frankfurt School wrote an influential essay about how the standardization and homogenization of cultural output had led to the erosion of cultural values and standards. They decried the way that popular culture no longer possessed any creativity whatsoever, how it had transformed into the established powers of society’s way of systematically spreading and reinforcing the dominant ideology. The arts had openly turned into businesses: the movie industry, the music industry, the radio industry, … As a collective, they labeled these businesses "The Culture Industry."
I think there are two main reasons why cultural goods are becoming more and more identical:
- In meeting their shared objective of maximizing profit, they all try to appeal to the widest possible audience. If lots of media producers are trying to reach the widest possible audience, then we should expect there to be a lot of overlap in the methods they employ to do this.
- The established powers of the present thrive in a certain kind of political, economic, and cultural environment. It is in the best interests of the multimedia corporations and the other organizations (such as the advertising agencies that influence their content) to promote conservative and capitalist values. We should expect all of these corporations to produce ideologically similar content in their rational attempts to cement the environment that is best for their corporations.
Cultivation theory views television as a system of coherent memes and messages that perpetuate the ideological status quo. According to George Gerbner, the father of cultivation theory, media content has demonstrable cultivating effects on viewers. He and his followers performed empirical research to try to discover how media content might alter the values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours of viewers. The cultivation theorists were specifically interested in how exposure to mass media might influence people in the direction of the dominant cultural ideology.
The Propaganda Model of the mass media proposed by Herman and Chomsky argues that the structure and dynamics of the media fosters a systematic right-wing bias and a reduction of possible discourses. This model tries to show how the combination of ideology and power perpetuate a system that is biased toward certain types of media content that have specific kinds of effects on cultural learning, social practices, and ultimately, behaviour. Herman and Chomsky focus on how populations are manipulated by biased media messages to favour some policies over others.
The Frankfurt School, Gerbner, and Herman & Chomsky’s views of media influence are top-down because they envision the people at the top of the capitalist food chain as passing down controlled messages through the media and succeeding in controlling public opinion in this way. This idea has been pejoratively labeled the “hypodermic needle” or “magic bullet” theory of media influence, as it portrays media consumers as passive individuals that accept the ideas in their favourite programs without questioning or rejecting them (almost as if the ideas are injected into them with a needle or fired into them like bullets from a gun). In reality, people actively engage with the media around them. That’s why a movie can glorify violence without transforming the people that enjoy it into criminals. Unlike food, medicine, or bullets, people are able to consciously filter media information on its way into them, making the prospect of media influence much harder to pin down.
This argument seems to have buried top-down theories of media influence, but only in favour of other theories that are less clear-cut and more difficult to work with. It might be easier to simply reform the old theories so that the hypodermic needle criticism no longer applies. I have yet to come across the proposal of a probabilistic needle theory that sees media influence as manifesting itself across a large sample of people, even if any one individual might be unlikely to show a noticeable change. Probabilistic needle theory looks at media effects on the scale of a culture, rather than on the scale of the individual. A given artwork might have a 10% chance of influencing a single person, or a strong chance of influencing 10% of the public. This is what sociologists call a collective phenomena: an effect that can be noticed in groups of people, but not in individuals. In this reformulation of the old theories, there seems to be no reason to reject a top-down understanding of media influence provided that it is adequately sophisticated.