In The Influence and Effects of Mass Media, Denis McQuail systematizes the history of research on media effects up until 1977. McQuail covers three periods of academic interest in media effects.
The first phase, which spans from the start of the 20th Century to the late 1930s, was a period when media was assumed to have great power over public opinion and behaviour. This assumption was not based on rigorous scientific investigation as much as it was on the observation of the formation of mass audiences for the mass media. Sociological methods were at the time still in development. The belief in media’s power to transform people was held by propagandists in WWI, advertisers, totalitarian rulers, etc. This era coincides with both the end of the mass society tradition and the start of the liberal-pluralist tradition, thus we cannot make generalizations about whether media power was envisioned as a positive or negative force in society.
The second phase spans from 1940 to the early 1960s. It was shaped by studies among American sociologists that showed great limits in the media’s ability to transform people. The scientific opinion changed from a naïve belief in hypodermic needle media power to a new belief in media power as situated within a constellation of social factors and cultural structures. Klapper summed up this position with the remark “mass communication does not ordinarily serve as a necessary and sufficient cause of audience effects, but rather functions through a nexus of mediating factors.” Despite this changeover in scientific opinion, mass anxiety over the new medium of television and professional opinion within the field of advertising remained unchanged.
The third phase began in the early 1960s and continued to persist at the time of McQuail’s essay in 1977. It involves reinvestigating the effects media has on society but with more nuance, better methods, and with lower expectations. This task was still in its developmental stages when McQuail’s paper was published. Since then, there have been many discoveries of narrow media effects, some of which I’ve written about in other posts on this blog.
McQuail suggests a list of five important media situations that provide a basis for evaluating research evidence of media effects:
- The campaign: appeals to objectives such as voting, donating to charity, buying goods, health, safety, and education.
- The definition of social reality and social norms: the hypothesized but largely unconfirmed framing of status and legitimacy within the limits of media coverage.
- The immediate response or reaction: the possibility that information transmitted by the mass media will trigger widespread responses and social movements.
- Institutional change: how collective effects influence political, legal, educational, religious, and other institutions, and bring certain kinds of publics into being.
- Changes in culture and society: effects of the sort described by the mass society theorists, cultivation theorists, the Frankfurt School theorists, the liberal-pluralists, the neo-Marxists, etc.
In his essay, McQuail uses the terms “effects” and “effectiveness” to describe the impact of media projects. I am considering using these terms in place of “Strength of Impact” and “Quality of Impact.” For one thing, I’m concerned that the word “quality” makes me look as if I’m evaluating “artistic quality” rather than the quality of media effects, and secondly, if terms are already established, it is better to use that vocabulary.
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