The origins of media research: the effects paradigm

This is a learning module for the class Contemporary Social / Mass Media Theory taught at Purdue University by Sorin Adam Matei


Mass media has become a research issue during the 1930s and 1940s. This has imprinted it with an early concern with psychological effects that individuals cannot control or avoid. Hitler’s purported hypnotic power to control the masses through radio broadcasts was the most vivid image of such effects. Early research has been heavily influenced by these concerns and this remains an important theme of cultural and sociological meditation.


Sparks, G. G. (2015). Media Effects Research: A Basic Overview (5 edition). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.

Chapter 3 – A brief history of media effects research rent from Cengage site. UPDATE: For $18 you get access to the entire book for a semester. Individual chapters cannot be purchased anymore.

Chapter 11 – (free at this link) The impact of new media technologies

About the chpaters – Chapter 3 recounts the early and highly consequential early history of media effects research, emphasizing the main fear-related motivators of that research. It is the most important reading of the week. Chapter 11 offers a view on the latest research and perspectives on new media effects. “MEDIA EFFECTS RESEARCH provides an excellent introduction for students studying mass media’ effects on society. Through an engaging narrative style, the author presents fascinating research findings on media’ impact and related mass media theories. Students are provided a clear perspective of the relationship between science, methods, and practical questions about the effects of mass media.”


To better understand Glenn Spark’s discussion watch as much as you can of Frank Capra’s Prelude to War

Also, to better understand Glenn’s chapter, listen to as much as you can of  “War of the Worlds” Radio Broadcast

Blumer, H (1933). Movies and Conduct. McMillan Press (The Payne Study) – Chapter 8, Emotional Possession

Emotional possession refers to experiences wherein impulses which are ordinarily restrained are strongly stimulated. In this heightened emotional state the individual suffers some loss of ordinary control over his feelings, his thoughts, and his actions. Such a condition results usually from an intense preoccupation with a theme in this case, that of a picture. The individual identifies himself so thoroughly with the plot or loses himself so much in the picture that he is carried away from the usual trend of conduct. His mind becomes fixed on certain imagery, and impulses usually latent or kept under restraint gain expression or seriously threaten to gain such expression. This emotional condition may get such a strong grip on the individual that even his efforts to rid himself of it by reasoning with himself may prove of little avail.

Lazarsfeld’s map of media effects (Backup link)
Elihu Katz. International Journal of Public Opinion Research. Oxford: Autumn 2001. Vol. 13, Iss. 3; pg. 270

It is a distortion to allege that Paul Lazarsfeld’s view of the media focused narrowly on campaigns’ and their limited influence. Apart from the creative impulse of this work, which led to the incorporation of audience selectivity and interpersonal relations into the design of effects research, the fact is that most of his work on the media extends far beyond short-run changes of opinion and attitude.

Paul Lazarsfeld, Robert K. Merton – Mass communication, popular taste and organized social action (Backup site)
in L. Bryson, ed. The Communication of Ideas, New York, Harper and Row, 1948, p. 95 – 118.

Mass media can impact the public not only via psychological mechanisms but also through indirect, macro-social and institutional-functional processes. Of the most important such processes, Lazarsfeld and Merton mention status conferral, enforcement of social norms, narcotizing dysfunction, social conformism, monopolization (propaganda without countering), and canalization (advertising)…

Mass Communication Research: An old road resurveyed Joseph T. Klapper
The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Winter, 1963), pp. 515-527
American Association for Public Opinion Research
Stable URL:

Mass communication has many ramifications and so, too, do the research studies that seek a better understanding of its characteristics and its place in our society. Here it comes under the scrutiny of an old hand at critical surveys of mass communication research, himself a discerning researcher.

Notable quotes:

[This paper] proposes only to discuss a particular type of research orientation, noting that although it has been used to some degree in the service of mass communication research, it has not been rigorously or widely applied; that its potential, though great, has accordingly not been realized; and that our knowledge of the social effects of mass communication might well be greatly enhanced by its wider and more rigorous use. The research orientation to which I refer is functional analysis. The statement that it has rarely been applied in the service of mass communication research may raise some quietly incredulous eyebrows. Lowering them again is part of the objective of this paper.

Let us come back to the perennial question of the effects  of depictions of crime and violence. In this springtime of 1963 I think  I can safely say that it is generally agreed by both communication  researchers and the more thoughtful segment of the public at large  that such depictions do not in and of themselves turn normal children  into delinquents-no, but that they may nevertheless exacerbate the maladjusted behavior of already maladjusted children, yes. A group  of extremely competent psychologists is now attempting to determine  whether such media fare decreases or increases levels of aggression. I will offer odds that the final answer will be susceptible of summary  in Berelsonian terms, i.e. that some types of depicted violence will be  found to have some types of effects on the aggression levels of some  types of children under some types of conditions,12 or-yes, and no, both with provisos. I am not here arguing against the need of investigating dichotomous questions, but I think that if we are to learn what  role these depictions do play in the development of children and  young adults, we must also ask many nondichotomous and more probing  questions.

An Editable Genealogical Tree of Media Effects Theory with some interesting intersections


The Evolution of Media Effects Theory: Fifty Years of Cumulative Research

Neumann, WR and Guggenheim, L

Optional/supplementary – not to be discussed in class

Media Sociology: The Dominant Paradigm
Todd Gitlin
Theory and Society, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Sep., 1978), pp. 205-253

Social Implications of the Internet
Paul DiMaggio, Eszter Hargittai, W. Russell Neuman, and John P. Robinson
Annual Review of Sociology
Vol. 27: 307-336 (Volume publication date August 2001)

The Internet is a critically important research site for sociologists testing theories of technology diffusion and media effects, particularly because it is a medium uniquely capable of integrating modes of communication and forms of content. Current research tends to focus on the Internet’s implications in five domains: 1) inequality (the “digital divide”); 2) community and social capital; 3) political participation; 4) organizations and other economic institutions; and 5) cultural participation and cultural diversity. A recurrent theme across domains is that the Internet tends to complement rather than displace existing media and patterns of behavior. Thus in each domain, utopian claims and dystopic warnings based on extrapolations from technical possibilities have given way to more nuanced and circumscribed understandings of how Internet use adapts to existing patterns, permits certain innovations, and reinforces particular kinds of change. Moreover, in each domain the ultimate social implications of this new technology depend on economic, legal, and policy decisions that are shaping the Internet as it becomes institutionalized. Sociologists need to study the Internet more actively and, particularly, to synthesize research findings on individual user behavior with macroscopic analyses of institutional and political-economic factors that constrain that behavior.

Kraut et al.
Internet paradox revisited
The Journal of social issues [0022-4537] Kraut yr:2002 vol:58 iss:1 pg:49

Kraut et al. (1998) reported negative effects of using the Internet on social involvement and psychological well-being among new Internet users in 1995-96. We called the effects a “paradox” because participants used the Internet heavily for communication, which generally has positive effects. A 3-year follow-up of 208 of these respondents found that negative effects dissipated. We also report findings from a longitudinal survey in 1998-99 of 406 new computer and television purchasers. This sample generally experienced positive effects of using the Internet on communication, social involvement, and well-being. However, consistent with a “rich get richer” model, using the Internet predicted better outcomes for extraverts and those with more social support but worse outcomes for introverts and those with less support.

New research on the effect of over-connection on social and psychological effectiveness reported by the New York Times and NPR. Listen to the show.

The average person today consumes almost three times as much information as what the typical person consumed in 1960, according to research at the University of California, San Diego.

And The New York Times reports that the average computer user checks 40 websites a day and can switch programs 36 times an hour.

“It’s an onslaught of information coming in today,” says Times technology journalist Matt Richtel. “At one time a screen meant maybe something in your living room. But now it’s something in your pocket so it goes everywhere — it can be behind the wheel, it can be at the dinner table, it can be in the bathroom. We see it everywhere today.”

Richtel has spent the past several months researching the toll technology and “information juggling” are taking on our lives — and our brains. His series “Your Brain On Computers” describes how multitasking on computers and digital gadgets affects the way people process information — and how quickly they can then become distracted. (Also see Digital Devices Deprive Us of Downtime).


What was Lazarsfeld’s first research paradigm? What was his main concern?

What competing research traditions existed during the 1930s and 1940s?

What is Klapper’s research agenda?

What alternative forms of media effects do Lazarsfeld and Merton describe? Do their claim that the more we know the less we do ring true?

Where is the point of emphasis in this body of research?

Sorin Adam Matei

Sorin Adam Matei - Professor of Communication at Purdue University - studies the relationship between information technology and social groups. He published papers and articles in Journal of Communication, Communication Research, Information Society, and Foreign Policy. He is the author or co-editor of several books. The most recent is Structural differentation in social media. He also co-edited Ethical Reasoning in Big Data,Transparency in social media and Roles, Trust, and Reputation in Social Media Knowledge Markets: Theory and Methods (Computational Social Sciences) , all three the product of the NSF funded KredibleNet project. Dr. Matei's teaching portfolio includes online interaction, and online community analytics and development classes. His teaching makes use of a number of software platforms he has codeveloped, such as Visible Effort . Dr. Matei is also known for his media work. He is a former BBC World Service journalist whose contributions have been published in Esquire and several leading Romanian newspapers. In Romania, he is known for his books Boierii Mintii (The Mind Boyars), Idolii forului (Idols of the forum), and Idei de schimb (Spare ideas).

27 thoughts on “The origins of media research: the effects paradigm

  • August 29, 2010 at 8:31 pm

    In recent years, research on social media has increasingly developed. One major contention that I have is that we often suggest that Internet applications are innovations. We examine scholarly work that discusses “new media” and “new technologies.” I believe these forms of newer media are, more or less, representative of change, rather than innovations. An innovation may be a technology, but a change is an adaptation to that innovation. That may be very true for the Internet. For instance, Sparks (2010) argues that technology changes at such a rapid pace that “by the time you read these words, the situation will be different than it is at the moment these words are written” (p.220). Online interactive environments such as Second Life provide ways for individuals to live their life virtually, whether to interact with friends or simply explore; some businesses use that platform to hold meetings (Sparks, 2010). New—yes. But in terms of innovation, they are more or less natural developments.

    These Internet applications aren’t particularly at a stabilized point yet towards becoming accepted ‘mass media,’ particularly as they tend to focus on the individual level. Rather, Internet applications are continuously changing the ways in which they deliver information. Additionally, large numbers of users of these applications are not necessarily substantial evidence to suggest that these tools are innovations. Facebook (2010), for instance, has rapidly gained users in the last several years, claiming to have more than 500 million active users, with 50% logging on any given day. Yet this too represents more of a current trend, rather than an innovation, and will continue to change and adapt as the developers see fit. The Internet, I would consider, is innovative—but social media and information technologies are natural developments, rather than innovation. Diffusion of innovation postulates that the adoption of new technologies occurs at the speed of which a population adopts some innovation (Rogers, 2003). Rogers (2003) argues that this is measured by an amount of time needed for a critical percentage of members of a population to adopt an innovation.

    Although we have, in particular, Internet applications that have a wide user base, it seems difficult to not only measure the amount of users utilizing a given technology, but also to assume that such applications have reached their peak of development. That, I believe, would be a mistake.

    Social technologies are important developments in changing the way computer-mediated communication occurs, but they’re not particularly fully developed tools. The most obvious example supporting this is the fact that standards in web development are constantly changing. Ajax, for instance, a set of tools for web development, has only in recent years begun to be used to develop these interactive web sites. That too may change as more sophisticated code is created.

    New media is challenging to research practices as well. Traditional mass communication research focused on large groups of users. Online tools, such as Facebook and Second Life, for example, are geared towards an individual shaping the experience to meet his or her needs. Although it is important to research these tools to better understand their social impact, researchers need to constantly be aware of the fact that Internet applications rapidly change.


    Facebook. Statistics. Retrieved August 28, 2010, from:

    Garrett, J. J. (2005, February 18). Ajax: A new approach to web applications. Retrieved August 28, 2010, from:

    Rogers, E. M. (2003). Diffusion of Innovations, 5th edition. New York: Free Press.

    Sparks, G. G. (2010). The impact of new media technologies. In Media effects research:
    A basic overview (219-236). Wadsworth Publishing.

  • August 30, 2010 at 7:28 pm

    @ Becky: How does your perspective intersect with Lazarsfeld’s map of media effects?

  • August 25, 2012 at 3:54 pm

    I am very intrigued by the question raised by Sparks (2010) in Chapter 11 which is about Screen Time and its effects. As we might recall from the 1940s Nazi propaganda, the effects of the messages on people were quite hypnotizing, but yet they were delivered through posters, newspapers, radio broadcasts etc. Essentially, the messages were analogue, but nonetheless, very powerful. In the Digital age, an interesting question we face now is that of Screen Time. We seem hypnotically attached to several screens depicting virtual images and we tend to shift from one screen to another seemlessly in our everyday endeavors, staying in touch with our virtual selves (and others) as often as possible. And when we look at digital representations of news, videos, advertising etc., one might argue that the “older” channels of messaging such as billboards, posters and newspapers are becoming more and more redundant.

    One of the focal points for companies, in my opinion, will be to harness the power of every media platform that, in some way, is portable and has a screen. According to Reeves’ & Nass’ (1996) Media Equation Theory: “individuals’ interactions with computers, television, and new media are fundamentally social and natural, just like interactions in real life.” Companies should realize the true potential in relaying messages across these portable devices, and thus have the social and natural aspects of the messages in mind.

    An example of the correlation between interactions in the new media and interactions in real life is evident when we look at the concept of Screen Time. According to a professor at the Carnegie Mellon University, there is an 88% correlation between mouse and eye movement when using a Computer or Laptop ( Essentially, this means that we are closely connected physically to our virtual actions in the new media. By pointing out this example, I want to start off a discussion relating to Screen Time and The Media Equation: how will (or could ) companies use this physiological and social connection in order to create mass messages tailored to meet specific needs of the public?

    My starting point to this discussion would be to take a look at the application “CrazyEgg” which utilizes the correlation between mouse and eye movement in order to track heat signatures on websites, so that messages may be directed in the optimal way on websites. I could imagine this becoming a hit for companies relying on audience-centered mass messages. Perhaps this could be the starting point for measuring smartphone or iPad activities as well (via heat ray signatures of touch)?


    CrazyEgg: An overview. Retrieved August 25 from

    Sparks, G. G. (2010). The impact of new media technologies. In Media effects research: A basic overview (219-236). Wadsworth Publishing.

    Reeves, B., & Nass, C. (1996). The media equation: How people treat computers, television, and new media like real people and places. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    • August 29, 2012 at 3:41 pm

      Where in the genealogy of social media/mass media effects would you place this intriguing question? Also, what is your basic premise? What makes us do, what? Can you also define “screen time”?

      • September 3, 2012 at 2:04 pm

        I believe that we have yet to see measurements of the effects of human interactions with new media (iPads etc.). I view this question as being located within the sphere of the Hypodermic Needle Theory – not because I view the general audience (or Public, to borrow a term from PR Theory) as being passive and fully susceptible to these mass messages, but because we have yet to see the actual effects measured by scholars and institutions. Essentially this means that companies are basically shooting bullets into the heads of the audience.

        In relation to what you mentioned in class, companies, I believe, have yet to see and measure the effects of their actual messages (what happens when the needle actually penetrates your skin?), and this might be done by measuring Screen Time and using tools like CrazyEgg. Companies are seemingly trying to explore the opportunities of these new media, however, they do not seem to be measuring it, i.e. truly finding out what the effects are when injecting the audience with new media messages. As Lazarsfeld & Merton (2007) rightly point out we need to know the actual effects on behavior by social (mass) media.

        Here I believe that Screen Time will be important as a tool in the sense that it can help us measure how much time we spend on looking at virtual images on screens, what the effects are and what the collective impact is (Sparks 2010). In addition I think companies need to ask: what makes the audience interact with these various new media? Is it because of constant connectivity, possibilities for live interaction or just because of the basic human need for social interaction? I believe that a fruitful way to start this form of analysis would just be to walk into a bus and ask the first iPad or smartphone user about the whats, whys and behavior in relation to their usage of this new technology. Perhaps we could then get some thoughts and hypotheses going and thus avoid just shooting magic bullets into the heads of a seemingly “docile” audience.

  • August 25, 2012 at 10:25 pm

    One thing attracting my attention is the idea of Social Displacement Hypothesis that heavy use of the Internet should cause one to communicate less with people immediately around them and this should lead to the loss of the positive benefits that those social networks provided. But despite this essential part, I have greater resonance for another part of this idea that time spent communicating online is not the same as time spent communicating face-to-face.

    In the concept of media equation, a point is that people tend to obey the same disclosure rules when interacting with computers that they do when they interact with people. So people will tend to treat computer as a real person, even though they know that it is not. So the same question might be considered in a contract way in communication online. Though people know that they are talking to a real person through using Internet, can they really treat the images or sentences shown on the screen a real person?

    I believe that the answer will be different to everyone, and this answer cannot just be answered by yes or no, but different levels as the mix of attributes approach. Basing on individual differences, basing on who we are talking to, how “real” the feeling of talking to a person will fluctuate. I think that this might be a possible answer that why Social Displacement Hypothesis doesn’t really work on those who are already well connected. The communication over Internet for those people will be no difference comparing to face-to-face talk, since they know each other that well and can have a real feeling of each other even by just seeing clinical list of words.

    But for those who trying to find new relationships, whether the new relationship built can be felt real will still be a problem. There are some people that met through using the Internet and eventually got married, but I believe that they must had had a face-to-face conversation before they really made such a decision. Will you marry a person that you only have conversations online? Very few people would say yes because talking online is hard to give you a real feeling of someone. If this supposition is true, then this supposition might be another source of depression after using online communication. The relationship you built might be weak and seems “unreal” comparing to a face-to-face communication. Because of the time spent on the Internet, you are losing time that could be spent interacting with others face-to-face, which gives you a feeling of real connection.


    Media effects research: A basic Overview
    Chapter 3 – A brief history of media effects research
    Chapter 11 – (free at this link) The impact of new media technologies

    • August 29, 2012 at 3:46 pm

      What type of media effect is the one you theorize about? How does media work out its “effects” on individuals? Does your explanation intersect with any of the traditional media theories? Can you expand on this a little bit?

      • August 30, 2012 at 1:15 pm

        I theorize some ideas about limited effect theory, trying to view it in another aspect, and these ideas are generated from the media equation theory. The whole idea is just a guess, which I tend to believe. I don’t analyze about how media work on individuals, but how individuals will response and feel and what might be their differences when they use the media.

        • August 31, 2012 at 12:19 pm

          How about uses and gratifications? What you are saying goes very much in that direction….

          • September 1, 2012 at 3:42 pm

            You are right. My hypothesis can be better expressed under the effects of uses and gratification.

            People use Internet to communicate with each other because they truly feel gratification when they do it. There is no denying that more and more people begin and be addicted to use online communication, because it works, it makes the world smaller, and it make us closer.

            My concern is that, no matter how good the Internet works, there is still a difference between talking online and face to face, because talking face to face is the way that we use all the life and the way of talking online just gets popular in recent years. To conclude my idea, using Internet fits uses and gratification theory, but it might provide a lower level of gratification comparing to talking face to face, without user’s notice, which become the potential source of depression.

  • August 27, 2012 at 10:43 am

    While most of the readings this week expounded on the nature of media effects (specifically, the history of media effects and an insight into how we think and use those historical concepts today), one of Sparks’ (2010) chapters illuminated media effects research in regards to new technology. Sparks (2010) noted that “they [the new technologies] challenge the traditional concept of mass communication” in that “according to the old definition, the source of a mass communication message was a large organization” (p. 220). However, today, individuals (some associated with large organizations and some not) can set up websites and blogs—or even Pinterest pages—that have the potential to draw large audiences. This distinction draws attention to the name “mass communication” because 1) the message is not always sent out by one large organization and 2) the message is not always intended for a “large, heterogeneous, scattered audience” anymore (Sparks, 2010, p. 220). By thinking about this field more broadly as media research or media effects research and not limiting it to only mass communication, scholars open themselves up to the variety of new technology that emerges every day. However, this also leads to a discussion on “what counts as a legitimate phenomenon to examine” (Sparks, 2010, p. 221).

    One way to think about media research is through the lens of Everland’s mix of attributes approach (Sparks, 2010). This approach posits that every media technology is not inherently different, but instead varies on five continuums: content, textuality, channel, structure and interactivity. I really liked this approach to thinking about media effects and new technology because the impact of the media isn’t necessarily different (people can argue that both television and internet use lead people to be anti-social or social depending on how they is used), but, for example, how interactive the medium is may be different. People can play a bigger role in the development of their Facebook pages than the order programs are shown during the primetime lineup on television. They may only have time to listen to a book being read while they’re driving while others may watch someone performing an excerpt of that book online while following along in their own copy.

    These dimensions can make media research seem “messy,” though, because there aren’t big distinctions among the technologies in regards to their content or overall effect. Some may have some unique challenges due to the combination of features, but the broader themes of media effects, such as Lazarsfeld and Merton’s (1948/2007) status-conferral function, reinforcement of social norms function, and the narcotizing (dys)function, can still hold true. For instance, the importance of Neil Armstrong’s death can be thought of as a type of status-conferral because of the number of updates on Twitter and Facebook or television news programs. These messages are given meaning through people confirming the message by reposting it, liking it, or recreating it themselves. As Lazarsfeld and Merton (1948/2007) described, “The audiences of mass media apparently subscribe to the circular belief: ‘If you really matter, you will be at the focus of mass attention and, if you are at the focus of mass attention, then surely you must really matter’” (p. 236).

    Overall, the technology might vary, but the effect of the media is almost universal. However, measuring these effects becomes more difficult now. How do scholars parse out the individual impact of a technology when it shares content with other technologies? I don’t have an answer to this methodological question, but knowing there’s a way to reconcile “old” and “new” media is important in learning about current media theory—especially in making sure scholars today don’t, as Sparks (2010) put it, “run the risk of ‘reinventing the wheel’” (p. 45).


    Lazarsfeld, P., & Merton, R. K. (1948/2007). Mass communication, popular taste, and organized social action. İletişim kuram ve araştırma dergisi, 24, 229-250.

    Sparks, G. G. (2010). Media effects research: A basic overview (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Wadsworth.

    • August 29, 2012 at 3:50 pm

      Excellent post, very deep insights. One question to ponder some more about, however, is if the molding of choices, behaviors, and “what is possible” (or not) by social media such as Facebook or Twitter we do not in fact obtain a different, yet just a powerful, mass effect. This would not operate at the content, but at the framing level. Facebook as the ultimate “framing” and “priming” machine… What do you think about that? For framing, see

      • September 3, 2012 at 7:15 am

        That’s an interesting idea to think about and the article on framing has helped me think about the next week’s readings on the two-step flow. I agree with the idea that facebook and twitter help us frame the world around us, allowing us to pick and choose what we see and what information we want to be around. That in itself is hugely powerful–if a person can choose to only be updated on the latest happenings regarding a reality television show, that person can become cut off from the political happenings occurring in African countries, for example.

        I think this framing concept stresses the importance of choice in the media effects theories. Lazarsfelf and Merton (1948/2007) wrote of the narcotizing (dys)function as the idea that being informed substitutes for action and involvement in the given area. However, narcotizing combines with the status conferral (where if it is not in the media, it lacks status) when people have the ability to choose their frames or at the least, participate in the construction of their frames. People have the choice to narcotize themselves to some issues, by giving another area their active attention through making that area the center of their frame. I think that it’s here that the content of the frame becomes increasingly important. What do people choose to engage about? What do they choose to actively ignore? How do these choices influence the way people perceive the world around them? Maybe those are more of a “uses and gratifications” set of questions… Regardless, the role of framing in media effects is a fascinating one to think about.

  • August 27, 2012 at 5:57 pm

    There have already been some good comments. I think that these were very interesting readings. For someone like me without a Communications Theory background, they provided a great foundation for the state of Mass Communications research.

    One of the ideas that I have seen quite a bit in contemporary Internet research, and which was echoed by Jenna, is the idea that New Media isn’t really new – it is just media, whose configuration of attributes happens to be a little different from other media.

    As Glenn Sparks says, “In contrast to an approach that would emphasize that everything must change with a new technology, Eveland likes to think of all media in terms of a common set of attributes. Differences between media can then be discussed in terms of differences in these attributes. For example, he proposes that we might think of some of the common attributes as interactivity, structure, channel, textuality, and content (Sparks 2010).

    I think that this sort of measured, cautious thinking is a response to the “X Changes Everything” sensationalism that seems so prevalent in the tech world. If all you read was tech news, you would be convinced that “everything” changes at least a few times a year. I find it very responsible of academics to temper that sort of thinking.

    That being said, I think that there is a danger in treating Internet-based communication as just an extension of existing media. I believe that Eveland’s argument is wrong for two primary reasons. First, he chooses attributes that are common across all media, but ignores those that are truly novel. A few obvious examples are “digitalness” and decentralization. “Old” media was not digital, and that attribute alone has provided ample evidence of the Internet’s differentness (see, e.g., Chris Anderson’s Free: The Future of a Radical Price or The Long Tail).

    Secondly, Eveland (and by extension Sparks) argues that discussing the “differences in these attributes” is sufficient to encapsulate the differences in media effects. In reality, the exact configuration of attributes that a medium has can greatly determine its effects. Depending on the specific configuration, changing one attribute might or might not change things. For example, the television medium has become more interactive with TiVo, but that interactivity probably did not change the effects much. Adding interactivity to the computer medium, on the other hand, produced the Internet, the Web, Social Media, etc. I would argue that it is the specific configuration of computers as decentralized, digital, and interactive that made that possible.

    The question then becomes whether new configurations require “re-inventing the wheel” (Sparks 2010). I believe that the answer is “maybe”. Much of the framework for studying mass media will certainly apply, but just as radio and television led to Lazarsfeld’s very productive thinking about mass media effects, I believe that new media scholars need to be willing to entertain the idea that new theories and new frameworks are necessary to truly understand the impact of the Internet.

    • August 29, 2012 at 3:53 pm

      Define “digitalness”! In other words, what is it in the digital nature of new media that makes it different, especially with respect to their ability to have “effects” on us…

      • August 30, 2012 at 10:09 am

        I think that the important differences that “digital” artifacts have (versus analog artifacts) are their fidelity and their reproducibility. Kevin Kelly describes the web as a giant copy machine ( His claim is that many analog artifacts had value because they were scarce and difficult to produce – CDs, books, etc. Once they become digital, that scarcity becomes very, very difficult to maintain.

        This idea of the web as a copy machine has some even more direct implications for us. Many of us are starting to realize that our digital footprint isn’t going away. Artifacts can be copied and archived and searched years and years after they are produced. Unlike analog artifacts, the past is just as accessible as the present. I think that as this new reality becomes more and more salient, it will dramatically affect the way that people craft and maintain identity online.

        In a similar vein, because digital artifacts can be reproduced so easily and faithfully, the distinction between public and private becomes blurry. When you know that everything you write on Facebook may make its way to, does that change what and how you write? Similarly, if everything that you do in public could, theoretically, be filmed and put on YouTube, does that change how you interact in public spaces?

        I personally think that we are just now beginning to experience a few of the long-term effects that digitalness will have on how we experience and act in the world.

        • August 30, 2012 at 2:57 pm

          Aren’t analog artifacts “reproducibile” as well? What is truly different about reproduction in the era of digital artifacts (hint, hint – Walter Benjamin)….

          • August 31, 2012 at 2:35 pm

            Reproduction is certainly one of the defining features of mass media. The idea that a radio or television could be created once, and consumed by an unlimited number of viewers was new in important and impactful ways.

            I hadn’t read Benjamin before, and I think that he captures some of the effects of reproducible artifacts. He also anticipates nicely some trends which have found their full realization on the Web. For example, he says, “At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer. As expert, which he had to become willy-nilly in an extremely specialized work process, even if only in some minor respect, the reader gains access to authorship” (Benjamin 1936).

            I think that he also accurately believes that reproduced art is different from the original – it is not, and cannot, be experienced in the same way. Art (like films) that is made with reproduction in mind from the beginning, is similarly different in a fundamental way.

            I think that the primary difference between digitally reproduced artifacts and their analog counterparts is the nature of how they are reproduced. Analog stuff is still stuff – coins have to be minted, newspapers printed, etc. Machinery has to be set up in a specific way to produce that specific artifact.

            For digital artifacts, the consumption medium is the reproduction medium. Every time that you look at a web page, you are copying it to your computer. Every song you buy on iTunes is really just a copy of the song. Copying is a part of consuming.

            Digitalization moves artifacts even further along the continuum that Benjamin discusses. He claims that some (much?) of a work of art’s power comes from its “presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (Benjamin 1936). For mechanical reproductions of art, the reproduction doesn’t have the same history and location as the original piece of art, but at least it has a history and location. Digital artifacts are literally identical to one another – it is impossible to tell whether I downloaded a song from Amazon or iTunes or a torrent. It is similarly impossible to tell if I downloaded it last week or 10 years ago.

            Digitalness also removes the need of expensive tools for copying. This technical egalitarianness of the Internet is what initially excited so many (and still excites some of us). As Clay Shirky argued, when the tools of reproduction are expensive, then filters on content will exist at the site of production (2010). With digital artifacts, copying happens at the site of consumption, meaning that much, much, much more can become accessible. Meaning that we can upload and have accessible 60 hours of new video every minute at YouTube. And, as anyone can tell you, the content on YouTube is different from what made it through the mass media filters (for better and for worse).

            These changes are leading to a completely different media landscape. Web media may be measured using the same adjectives as mass media, but I think that it’s clear that there are some fundamental changes that need new theories in order to be understood. Exciting times.

  • August 23, 2013 at 11:03 am

    Coming from the interpersonal division, I admittedly approach communication with what Earl Babbie (2009) would describe as microtheory. My comments here will reflect that. From the readings for this week, I appreciated Spark’s (2010) explanation in chapter 11 of the various hypotheses about personal effects of the new media: social augmentation, social displacement, and social compensation hypotheses. Incidentally, these hypotheses mirror what Katz and Rice (2002) refer to as utopian, dystopian, and syntopian views of new media.
    Borrowing terminology from Lazarsfeld and Merton (1948) and Klapper (1963), I view the social compensation hypothesis, and subsequently the social information processing theory, as reflective of the limited-effects approach. Incidentally, this approach dovetails nicely with the more relativistic and individualistic focus of the contemporary approaches to social scientific theory as described in Babbie (2009).
    While I appreciate Sparks’ explanation of the hypotheses regarding new media effects, I would like to expand his point a bit further. One aspect of media effects in Walther’s work that Sparks does not address in chapter 11 is the hyperpersonal model of computer-mediated communication (Walther, 1996). The hyperpersonal model of CMC explains how CMC may facilitate stronger and more intimate relationships (or at least the perception and evaluation thereof) than their off-line counterparts. This hyperpersonal connection is facilitated by CMC effects on the sender’s composition of message, effects on the receiver’s reception of the message, attributes of the channel, and effects on feedback. CMC encourages senders to more thoughtfully craft and edit messages, so senders’ messages reflect a more favorable impression. Because of deindividuation effects and an absence of nonverbal cues, receivers “fill in the blanks” about the senders with favorable attributions. The channel of CMC can encourage spending more time in communication which leads to a sense of social entrainment. Finally, CMC feedback encourages increased and idealized reciprocity. I mention these things about the hyperpersonal model of CMC because I feel they illustrate specific effects of the new media at least on an individual level.
    As an aside, Lazarsfeld and Merton (1948) discuss the benefits of societal mobility and access to mediated information. On page 20 they mention that people “today” have more leisure time and greater access to cultural heritage and then ask “what do they do with it?” The answer is “Go to movies and listen to the radio.” I chuckled when I read this because it reminded me of a similar theme in a joke from early 2013. The story goes, “If someone from the 1950’s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about life today?” One person answered, “I possess a device in my pocket that is capable of accessing the entirety of the information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get in arguments with strangers.” ( Somehow I think that Lazarsfeld and Merton would appreciate the irony…

    Babbie, E. (2010). The practice of social research (Twelfth Edition). Belmont: Wadsworth.

    Katz, J. & Rice, R. (2003). Social Consequences of Internet Use: Access, Involvement, and Interaction. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

    Klapper, J. (1963). Mass Communication Research: An old road resurveyed,
    The Public Opinion Quarterly, 27:4, 515-527.

    Lazarsfeld, P., & Merton, R. (1948). “Mass communication, popular taste and organized social action” in L. Bryson, ed. The Communication of Ideas, New York: Harper and Row.

    Sparks, G. (2010). Media Effects Research: A Basic Overview (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Wadsworth.

    Walther, J. B. (1996). Computer-mediated communica¬tion: Impersonal, interpersonal, and hyperpersonal interaction. Communication Research, 23, 3–43.

    • August 26, 2013 at 11:06 am

      Excellent commentary on the readings… Nice touch on the permanence of the “media effects” debate….

  • September 5, 2014 at 11:55 am

    It caught my attention when I sensed a social critique in the publication of the empirically-oriented social scientists Lazarsfeld and Merton. In their 1948 piece, they discuss the power dynamics of mass media, claiming that “he who pays the piper generally calls the tune.” Therefore, if control of mass media rests in the hands of“big business,” they imply that the media disseminated inevitably reflects the interests of its sponsors, not its consumers.

    That is why the German cultural critic Theodor Adorno re-titles mass media as “the culture industry,” explicitly identifying the economic nature/power structure of mass media. According to Adorno (1963), “the customer is not king, as the culture industry would have us believe, not its subject but its object

    Therefore, both Adorno and Lazarsfeld and Merton link social “(dys)functions” of mass media to its power structure. Lazarsfeld and Merton connect social conformism to a mass media that “confirms the status quo” and “fails to raise essential questions about the structure of society.” Adorno reinforces this claim and also indicts the culture industry for its narcotizing effects, arguing that it’s in the interest of those in power to keep an apathetic audience driven by consumption rather than meaningful civic engagement.

    Thus, if Adorno advocates for societal freedom from the monopolistic control of the “culture industry,” and Lazarsfeld and Merton mention that media effects (and therefore dysfunctions) might change when the “systems of ownership and control changes,” does Web 2.0 signal a destabilizing of these power relations?

    I echo Jeremy in that decentralization is distinctive of Web 2.0. Last week’s readings demonstrated that this is true in part (i.e. the “long tail”, “prosumers,” the “hackability” of new software/infoware, etc.). We are, in effect, living in world completely changed by hackers who managed to destabilize (or even almost destroy) traditional powerful industries (Sean Parker and the record/music industry, Mark Zuckerberg in the tech industry).

    Therefore, if Web 2.0 has somewhat shifted traditional power relations, are the dysfunctions of narcotization and conformism no longer prevalent?

    In regards to conformism, I believe that power may have been diluted by “prosumers,” but the social media landscape has still been completely infiltrated by those with economic self-interest. Therefore, I believe social media continues to cause conformity as companies and advertisers now have access to innumerable avenues to market and advertise. Consider Pinterest pages operated completely by retailers who regularly pump out images of their product, have huge influence in “Pinterest culture,” and meticulously track the number of “repins” they see so as to more effectively advertise.
    Furthermore, big companies now use social media as powerful market research. Due to Web 2.0, they have access to incredibly intimate information about their targeted audience, making their advertising even more effective.

    In regards to narcotizing, as computers and social media has become more ubiquitous, this dysfunction would seemingly increase. When I worked at a non-profit, I was particularly put off by “slacktivism.” Before the era of social media, Lazarsfeld and Merton claimed consumers of media passively absorbed information and potentially equated this knowledge with action. Now, social media users could potentially equate “posting” with meaningful action. However, fascinating research quoted by Seay (2014) suggests that this is one step closer to meaningful civic engagement, and “armchair activists” might be the most likely to become real activists.

    Thus, though Web 2.0 may have caused power relations to shift slightly, powerful industries have begun to adapt to these changes. The social media landscape continues to be infiltrated and potentially dominated by those interested in turning a profit. Despite the discouraging flexibility of power structures, one potentially positive result of social media might be an increase in activism and meaningful social engagement.


    Adorno, T. (1963). “Culture industry reconsidered” in The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, London: Routledge.

    Lazarsfeld, P., & Merton, R. (1948). “Mass communication, popular taste and organized social action” in L. Bryson, ed. The Communication of Ideas, New York: Harper and Row.

    Seay, L. (2014, March 12). Does Slacktivism Work? Washington Post. Retrieved September 5, 2014, from

    • September 8, 2014 at 10:06 pm

      Very insightful. The attempt to connect our readings to outside literature and the broader commentaries are very useful.

  • September 5, 2014 at 2:36 pm

    In their article in 1948, Lazarsfeld and Merton proposed that it was virtually impossible to measure mass media’s role in society due to the complexity of such research. They begin by citing several media consumption statistics such as, “Approximately 45 million Americans attend the movies every week…some 46 million American homes are equipped with television, and in these homes the average American watches television for about three hours a day.” (Lazarsfeld, Merton 1948) In their opinion however, simple statistics cannot be used to measure the actual effect that mass media has on its audience. They write, “[These] are merely supply and consumption figures, not figures registering the effect of mass media. They bear only upon what people do, not upon the social and psychological impact of the media.” (Lazarsfeld, Merton 1948) But aren’t an individual’s actions in relation to media, a social effect of that media?
    I am not arguing that a simple statistic can fully explain the complex effects that media has in our lives, but I do believe that Lazarsfeld and Merton were underestimating the power of numbers. It’s true that one cannot explain the psychological effects caused by interaction with media, but the same cannot be said for social effects. Assuming that social effects include society’s behavior and interaction, the simplest way to determine how that has been transformed by media is by examining who uses media and how often.
    Fast forward to 2010 when, in his book Media Effects Research: A Basic Overview, Glenna Sparks gives updated statistics on media use, suggesting that the use alone is directly associated with an individual’s behavior and interaction in society. Sparks writes that, “Some surveys report that more than three-quarters of the U.S. population (80%) uses the Internet daily and the average American spend about 11 hours each week online.” (Sparks 2010, p 221) He links that to the idea of perpetual linkage: as media advances, young people are developing the tendency to be in constant contact with each other via some type of technology. (Sparks 2010)
    The concept of perpetual linkage reminds me of a conversation I had with my mother years ago when Instant Messaging was first becoming commonplace. I had attempted to explain why, even though I had just seen my friends all day at school, it was still necessary to spend hours chatting with them online once I returned home. My mom responded that, when she was a teenager, she would call her friends every few days and that had been enough. She could not comprehend why things had changed. Society had changed because media use had changed.
    Every year, more Americans were gaining access to the Internet at home and therefore spending drastically more time online. Some of our hours online were spent surfing the Web but many more were spent chatting with friends, thus changing the dynamics and expectations of our social groups. In other words, we could be online more so we expected to be in constant contact with each other.
    Increased time online necessarily leads to decreased time spent on other activities. Thus, when Sparks wrote in 2010 that the average American spent approximately 11 hours every week on the Internet or when Lazarsfeld and Merton stated in 1948 that most people spent an average of three hours every day watching TV, it could be inferred that time previously spent on other activities was proportionately reduced. Media use changed behavior and therefore had observable social effects.

    Lazarsfeld, P., & Merton, R. K. (1948). Mass communication, popular taste, and organized social action. The Communication of Ideas, New York City: Harper and Row, 95-118
    Sparks, G. (2010). Media Effects Research: A Basic Overview (3rd ed.). Wadsworth Publishing

  • September 5, 2014 at 5:32 pm

    One of the more interesting readings we had for this week was Lazarfield and Merton’s “Mass communication, popular taste, and organized social action”. Specifically, his take on the three functions of mass media peaked my interest. The first function is mass media’s ability to confer status or importance to an individual via favorable attention. So when The Time’s, seen as an expert, picks a person for a story, they are in actuality giving the individual prestige in the eyes of the readers. Lemert and Nestvold’s (1970) research concluded that status conferral results from television news coverage. This is a powerful weapon that can be used to help or hurt society. I have watched news on television and online report on criminal activity of an individual or group. Several viewers of these news outlets will have convicted the person in their minds, based on the story, before the person ever goes to trial. In effect, mass media has ruined the person’s reputation in the eyes of society without ever giving him/her a chance and this may be very hard to recover from. Thus, while I agree status conferral may be used to benefit society, there are many cases where it can hurt as well.
    The second function of mass media, according to Lazarfield and Merton, is its ability to enforce social norms. There is private tolerance for deviant behavior, but no public tolerance. Thus, if a politicians scandals were to become public knowledge, society would lead the need for change. While, this can be considered a positive in cases of deviant behaviors such as alcohol abuse, use of sex workers and bribery to name a few, what people may not remember is that racism and sexism were social norms at one point in history. In fact, they may still be social norms in other parts of the world that are resistant to change partially due to mass media. Similar to Lazarfield’s first function of mass media, enforcing social norms has benefits but also drawbacks including delaying progressive change within society.
    The last function is the narcotizing effect of mass media. The flood of mass media information enervate viewers instead of energizing them into action. This could be because audiences mistake reading/listening about a problem for actually doing something to solve the crisis thus providing listeners with a clear conscience to do nothing. However, I have doubts about validity of this function. For example, research on voting behavior showed that heavy television viewers were less likely to exercise their right to vote but this was due to socio-demographic factors and party inclination, not television viewing (Morgan & Shanahan, 1992). Other research indicate that heavy television use leads to lower voter turn, but the cause may be due to mass media providing new uses for the available leisure time as oppose to mass media (Gentzkow, 2006). Thus, other factors may be involved societies inaction.
    Overall, the article was very interesting to read and it really made me thinking about the uses and misuses of mass media.

    Gentzkow, M. (2006). Television and Voter Turnout. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 131(3), 931-972.
    Lazarsfeld, P., & Merton, R. (1948). “Mass communication, popular taste and organized social action” in L. Bryson, ed. The Communication of Ideas, New York: Harper and Row.
    Lemert, J. B., & Nestvold, K. J. (1970). Television news and status conferral. Journal of Broadcasting, 14(4), 491-498.
    Morgan, M., & Shanahan, J. (1992). Television viewing and voting 1972–1989. Television viewing and voting 1972–1989, 11(1), 3-20.

    • September 8, 2014 at 9:47 pm

      Excellent summary, but how does this article connect with the other readings and with the overall theme of the week, namely, the “media effects” paradigm in mass comm research? Does this article embrace or reject the media effects paradigm? Each week we need to go pas the specifics of each article. We need to find the common themes between articles and to answer the broader questions of the learning module…


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