Reception analysis model states there three main types of ‘reading’ which audiences make of media content:
The dominant reading: which is the same as the media content creators.
The oppositional reading: which opposes the views expressed in the media
The Negotiated reading: where people interpret media content to fit in with their own lives.
The reception analysis model is an ‘active audience’ model associated with Morley (1980) who conducted research on how several different groups of people interpreted media messages.
Audiences are polysemic
According to Morley audiences came from many different cultures and thus there were many possible ‘negotiated’ readings. He further argued that individuals had many aspects to their identities, and they interpreted media content in a variety of ways, often chopping and changing their interpretations over time.
Morley thus believed that audiences were active rather than passive and their interpretations were not always easy to predict.
The selective filter model of audience effects (Klapper 1960) holds that media messages pass through three filters before they have an effect.
This is an active audience model which suggests that the audience do not just passively accept what they see in the media as ‘the truth’, as the hypodermic syringe model suggests.
According to this theory the three filters are:
Different groups are exposed to different media content, which will influence the effect the media can have on them.
Audiences actively choose what to watch, which is influenced by their interests, age, gender, education etc.
Censorship may also deny some groups access to certain content, thus denying them exposure. An example of this is with age-graded media content which parents might prevent their children from watching.
Audiences may reject some of the content they are exposed to, for example because what they see does not fit in with their view of the world.
Festinger (1957) argued that people actively seek out media content which affirms their already existing views of the world.
Finally, content has to stick for it to have an effect.
Audiences are more likely to remember content they agree with.
Adapted from Chapman et al: Sociology AQA A-level Year 2 student book
Postmodernists argue that the media is an integral part of postmodern society. Individuals actively use the media to construct their identities, and there is a sense of playfulness, creativity and unpredictability about how they go about doing this.
Postmodernists criticise other theories of audience effects, especially the Hypodermic Syringe model for assuming that audiences are homogenous (the same) and any models which assume there is such a thing as one dominant or preferred reading of media messages, such as the reception analysis model.
A diverse and active audience
Individuals read media in a diverse variety of ways, and how they read media content depends on a range of factors, including the entirety of an individual’s prior life experiences. Audiences can also change the way the interpret media content over time and make multiple readings of the same content simultaneously.
It follows that of all the models of audience effects, the postmodernist model sees the audience as the most active.
No such thing as an ‘underlying’ reality
Finally, postmodernists also argue that the media is constitutive of people’s realities – there is no deeper reality underneath media representations, media representations are no less real than non-media reality (if indeed there is such a thing!). It is thus meaningless to say that the media has an ‘effect’ on audiences as to make such a claim assumes that media representations and the audience are two different things, in postmodernism they are not, they are one and the same.
This is an example of a 20 mark essay question written for the AQA’s A-level sociology paper 2, Topics in Sociology, Media option.
Read Item N below and answer the question that follows.
Applying material from Item N and your knowledge, evaluate the view that the media have a direct and immediate effect on their audiences [20 marks]
Commentary on the question
A classic essay, asking you to evaluate the Hypodermic Syringe Model, picking up on the relationship between violence and the media as an example.
Introduction – hypodermic syringe model key points
the media can have a direct and immediate effect on the audience, audience as a ‘homogeneous mass’ (all the same), and as passive
content creators can manipulate vulnerable audiences
associated with neo-Marxists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (A and H), from the the 1940s
They noted that there were similarities between the ‘propaganda industry’ in Nazi Germany’ and what they called the ‘Culture Industry’ in the United States.
A and H saw popular culture in the USA was like a factory producing standardized content which was used to manipulate a passive mass audience. The point was to creat false psychological needs and keeping capitalism going.
Pluralists and postmodernists would criticise the above theory – people have diverse needs which they actively meet through media, and especially New Media.
Other evidence that media messages can have a direct and immediate effect on audiences:
Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of ‘War of the Worlds‘ in 1938.
However, people are more media literate now.
The ‘beauty myth’, especially the representations of size zero as normal, have encouraged an increase in eating disorders.
However, evidence of women (and men) resisting such messages – and setting up ad campaigns which celebrate diverse body shapes criticises this.
Campaigns behind Trump and Brexit used sophisticated targeted advertising to nudge voters into voting for Trump and Brexit, suggesting the media can have a very direct and immediate effect on specific populations.
However, it is not quite accurate to say this is the media having a direct and immediate effect –they don’t even bother targeting the people who they know will make ‘oppositional readings’ – thus the two-step flow and reception analysis models may be more applicable.
Violence (in item)
There is some evidence that media violence can ‘cause’ people to be more violence in real-life…
The Bandura ‘Bobo Doll’ experiment
However, this experiment was carried out in such an artificial environment, it tells us little about how violence happens in real life.
A more nuanced version is ‘desensitisation’
There are enough criticisms which can be made of the Hypodermic syringe model to say that it is mostly invalid today….
model may have been true in the 1940s when the media was relatively new and audiences less literate, but in today’s new media age, audiences are more likely to criticise what they see rather than just believing it, and to check what they see with other sources.
Audiences are also clearly more diverse, active, and USE media for their own devices rather than the other way around.
Finally, it is just too simplistic a theory to explain social problems – societal violence has many causes, and it’s all too easy to scapegoat the media
This model explains little about how the media and audiences are interrelated in a complex postmodern age.
The cultural effects model is a Marxist model audience effects, usually associated with neo-marxism and the Glasgow University Media Group.
The media and the dominant ideology
According to the cultural effects model, the media contains ideological messages that reflect the values of media owners and professionals who expect audiences to agree with their preferred readings of events.
Points of view which are oppositional media owners and middle class journalists’ world views are generally kept out of the mainstream media through processes such as agenda setting and gatekeeping.
Ideological control through gradual exposure
Audiences are continually exposed to the dominant ideology and this has a gradual ‘drip-drip’ effect and over time audiences come to share the views of the rich and powerful. They also come to criticise those who have been demonised by the ideological framing of the elite: such as immigrants and those on benefits.
The cultural effects model recognises that audiences are active and that they interpret media content in diverse ways, but they do argue that interpretations are narrow due to long term ideological framing of media content.
Criticisms of the cultural effects model
Methodologically it is difficult to test any theory on long term media effects. It is almost impossible to isolate the independent effect that long term exposure to media content has over several years.
It seems increasingly unlikely that homogenous content has homogenous effects in the postmodern age of new media.
The two-step flow model of audience effects was derived by Katz and Lazarsfeld (1965) which views the audience as active and influenced by influential opinion leaders, rather than directly by media content.
Katz and Lazarfeld argued that social networks were dominated by opinion leaders, who were influential people within social networks with the power to influence how others around them saw the world.
Opinion Leaders are exposed to media content, and they then share their interpretation of that content with the wider audience. Thus media content goes through two stages, with the wider audience being primarily influenced by the views of the active opinion leaders rather than being influenced directly by media content.
+ The two step flow model recognises that most people watch media as part of a social network.
+ This model might be especially useful for understanding the role of parents as opinion leaders.
– Of course there is a sense in which the media has a ‘direct effect’ – on the opinion leaders, so there may still be some validity in the hypodermic syringe model.
– This model may not apply to people who are socially isolated – and these could be the people who are most likely to be influenced by media content.
The hypodermic syringe model believes that the media can have a direct and immediate effect on the audience. This model sees the audience as a ‘homogeneous mass’ (all the same), as passive and believing what they see in the media without questioning the content.
It is thus possible for content creators to use their media productions to manipulate vulnerable audiences into thinking or acting in certain ways.
They noted that there were similarities between the ‘propaganda industry’ in Nazi Germany’ and what they called the ‘Culture Industry’ in the United States.
Adorno and Max Horkheimer theorised that popular culture in the USA was like a factory producing standardized content which was used to manipulate a passive mass audience.
They argued that consumption of the ‘dumbed down’ content of popular culture made people passive and false psychological needs that could only be met and satisfied by the products of capitalism.
The ultimate function of the culture industry was thus to manipulate audiences into becoming good consumers and keeping capitalism going.
Further evidence that the media can have direct effects on a passive audience
One of the earliest examples is the audience response to Orson Welle’s radio adaptation of ‘War of the Worlds‘ in 1938.
War of the Worlds is a fictional story about Alien invaders coming from Mars and killing very large numbers of people in the process. The original radio adaptation was done in the style of a news report, and some of the listeners who tuned in after the show had begun (and so missed the introduction to it) actually believed they were hearing a news report, packed their cars and fled to the country.
Feminist sociologists such as Susi Orbach and Naomi Wolfe have highlighted how the ‘beauty myth’, especially the representations of size zero as normal, have encouraged an increase in eating disorders, especially among young women, as well as an increase in mental health problems.
More recent evidence suggests that the campaigns behind both Trump and Brexit used sophisticated targeted advertising to nudge voters into voting for Trump and Brexit, suggesting the media can have a very direct and immediate effect on specific populations (even if such campaigns didn’t treat the audience as a ‘mass’ and so this is only partial support the Hypodermic Syringe Model).
Imitation or Copycat Violence
One of the most researched areas of media effects is that surrounding the relationship between media violence and real-life violence. There is some evidence that media violence can ‘cause’ people to be more violence in real-life…
The Bandura ‘Bobo Doll’ experiment is evidence that media-violence can ‘cause’ children to act more aggressively when given the opportunity to do so. Bandura showed three groups of children real, film and cartoon examples of a bobo-doll being beaten with a mallet. A further group of children were shown no violence. The children were then taken to a room with lots of toys, but then ‘frustrated’ by being told the toys were not for them. They were then taken to a room with a mallet and a bobo-doll, and the children who had seen the violent examples (whether real, film, or cartoon) imitated the violence by beating the doll themselves, while the children who had seen no violence did not beat the doll.
Newson (1994) theorised that the effects of media violence on children were more subtle and gradual. She argued that continued exposure to violence in films over several years ‘desenstised’ children and teenagers to violence and that they came to see violence as a norm, and as a possible way of solving problems. She also argued that television and film violence tended to encourage people to identify with the violent perpetrators, rather than the victims.
Newson’s research led to increased censorship in the film industry – for example, the British Board of Film was given the power to apply age certificates and T.V. companies agreed on a 9.00 watershed, before which shows would not feature significant sexual or violent scenes.
Criticisms of the hypodermic syringe model
Firstly, this model may have been true in the 1940s when the media was relatively new and audiences less literate, but in today’s new media age, audiences are more likely to criticise what they see rather than just believing it.
Secondly, the hypodermic syringe model treats audiences a ‘homogenous mass, but today’s audiences are more diverse than in the past, so this model is less applicable. This post offers a more nuanced counterpoint: it theorises that the masses were ‘willingly misled’ and thus co-produced a false reality in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s.
Thirdly, it’s too simplistic a theory to explain social problems – societal violence has many causes, and it’s all too easy to scapegoat the media.
Fourthly, where Bandura’s imitative aggression model is concerned, this was carried out in such an artificial environment, it tells us little about how violence happens in real life.
57 pages of revision notes covering all of the sub-topics within the sociology of the media
19 mind maps in pdf and png format – covering most sub-topics within the sociology of the media.
Short answer exam practice questions and exemplar answers – three examples of the 10 mark, ‘outline and explain’ questions and three of the 10 mark ‘analyse’ with item questions, all take from the specimen paper and the 2017/2018 exam papers.
Three essays and essay plans, taken from the specimen paper and 2017 and 2018 exam papers.
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