The reception analysis model of audience effects

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.png

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.

 

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The selective filter model of audience effects

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:

  1. selective exposure
  2. selective perception
  3. selective retention

selective filter model.png

 

Selective exposure 

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.

Selective perception

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.

Selective retention 

Finally, content has to stick for it to have an effect.

Audiences are more likely to remember content they agree with.

Sources 

Adapted from Chapman et al: Sociology AQA A-level Year 2 student book

 

The postmodernist model of audience effects

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.postmodernism-media-effects.png

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.

Evaluate the view that the media have a direct and immediate effect on their audiences [20 marks]

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.

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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.

Answer

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’

Conclusion

  • 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.

 

 

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The cultural effects model of audience effects

The cultural effects model is a Marxist model audience effects, usually associated with neo-marxism and the Glasgow University Media Group.

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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 uses and gratifications model of audience effects

The uses and gratification model states that audiences are active users of media content and that they use the media to fulfill four main types of need.

uses gratifications model.png

Diversion

People use media to escape from their daily routines.

In some cases media usage may make up for lack of satisfaction in work or personal life.

Personal relationships

The media may compensate for the decline of community and meaningful, intimate relationships

For example soap characters may be seen as companions in the absence of family or friends.

Personal identity

People may use characters to they identify with to help them make decisions in life.

People use Facebook to express identities in ways they can control.

Surveillance

People use the media to obtain information about the world, primarily the news.

Criticisms of the uses and gratifications model of audience effects

  • There is a lack of substantive research which supports this theory
  • Marxists argue it exaggerates audiences’ capacity to interpret media content, ignoring the power of agenda setting.
  • Postmodernists argue there are an even wider set of uses individuals make of media.

 

The Two Step Flow Model of Audience Effects

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.

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Evaluations 

  • + 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 of audience effects

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.

The culture industry 

This theory of media effects is associated with neo-Marxists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in the 1940s, who had managed to escape Nazi Germany and resettled in America.

They noted that there were similarities between the ‘propaganda industry’ in Nazi Germany’ and what they called the ‘Culture Industry’ in the United States.

culture industry.PNG

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.

Desensitization 

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.

Sources 

This post from Marxists.org provides a nice summary of Adorno and Horkheimer’s views on the culture industry.

Chapman et al (2016) Sociology AQA A-level Year 2 Student Book

A Level Sociology of Media Bundle

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