AUDIENCE THEORIES: USES, RECEPTION, AND EFFECTS

AUDIENCE THEORIES: USES, RECEPTION, AND EFFECTS

Chapter#9: AUDIENCE THEORIES: USES, RECEPTION, AND EFFECTS

Audience Theories: From Source-Dominated to Active-Audience

Propaganda theories are concerned with audiences. The power of propaganda resides in its ability to quickly reach vast audiences and expose them to the same simple but subversive messages. In these theories, the propagandist dominates the audience and controls the messages that reach it. The focus is on how propagandists are able to manipulate audiences using messages that affect them as the propagandist intends. Most are source-dominated theories. They center their attention primarily on message sources and content, not on the audiences the sources want to influence. As media theories have developed, this focus has gradually shifted. As early as the 1940s, the work of people like Herta Herzog, Paul Lazarsfeld, and Frank Stanton reflected at least the implicit concern for studying an active, gratifications-seeking audience. Lazarsfeld and Stanton (1942) produced a series of books and studies throughout the 1940s that paid significant attention to how audiences used media to organize their lives and experiences. For example, they studied the value of early-morning radio reports to farmers. As part of the Lazarsfeld and Stanton series, Bernard Berelson (1949) published a classic media-use study of the disruption experienced by readers during a newspaper strike. He reported convincing evidence that newspapers formed an important part of many people’s daily routine. Herta Herzog is often credited as the originator of the uses-and-gratifications approach, although she most likely did not give it its label. Interested in how and why people listened to the radio, she studied fans of a popular quiz show (1940) and soap opera listeners (1944). This latter work, entitled “Motivations and Gratifications of Daily Serial Listeners,” provides an in-depth examination of media gratifications. She interviewed one hundred radio soap opera fans and identified “three major types of gratification.” First, listening was “merely a means of emotional release”; “a second and commonly recognized form of enjoyment concerns the opportunities for wishful thinking”; and the “third and commonly unsuspected form of gratification concerns the advice obtained from listening to daytime serials.” Herzog wanted to understand why so many housewives were attracted to radio soap operas. In contrast with the typical effects research conducted in Lazarsfeld’s shop, her work didn’t try to measure the influence that soap operas had on women. She was satisfied with assessing their reasons and experiences— their uses and gratifications. One of the first college mass communication textbooks, The Process and Effects of Mass Communication, offered an early active-audience conceptualization. Author Wilbur Schramm (1954) asked this question, “What determines which offerings of mass communication will be selected by a given individual?”. The answer was the fraction of selection:

Expectation of Reward / Effort Required

His point was that people weigh the level of reward (gratification) they expect from a given medium or message against how much effort they must make to secure that reward.

Fraction of selection Schramm’s graphic description of how individuals make media and content choices based on expectation of reward and effort required

Limitations of Early Audience-Centered Research

We have seen how mass society theory exaggerated the influence of media and centered widespread public concern on negative media effects. Since the 1930s, government agencies, private foundations, and the media industry all have been willing to provide funding to study a broad range of positive and negative effects, but little money was provided to study audience activity. Researchers also thought that it was possible to study effects more objectively than media uses could be studied. For example, behavioral or attitudinal effects might be observed in a laboratory following exposure to media content. On the other hand, studying gratifications meant asking people to report on their subjective experience of content. Herzog (1940) recommended using qualitative research to study media gratifications. During the 1940s and 1950s, postpositivist researchers were determined to avoid approaches that were unparsimonious and didn’t meet what they regarded as scientific standards. They chose to focus their efforts on developing what they thought would be definitive, powerful explanations for the consequences of media use. They didn’t see as much purpose or value in describing and cataloging people’s subjective reasons for using media.

Confusion of Media Functions and Media Uses

By the 1960s, notions of an active and gratification-seeking audience had been absorbed into and confused with functional analysis. Failure to adequately differentiate media uses from media functions impeded the design and interpretation of audience-centered research. Charles Wright explicitly linked the active audience to functionalism in his 1959 textbook. This linkage to functions had a detrimental influence on the development of active-audience theories. Although Wright cautioned his readers to distinguish “between the consequences (functions) of a social activity and the aims or purposes behind the activity” (p. 16), functions were assumed by most communication theorists to be equivalent to (synonymous with) the aims or goals of the media industries themselves. To some extent this confusion over audience uses and societal functions also involves confusion about levels of analysis. As an audience member you may have certain purposes for reading a newspaper, and this activity will gratify some of these purposes.

Wright, realizing how his conceptualization of media functions was misinterpreted, later wrote:

Our working quartet of communications—surveillance, correlation, cultural transmission, and entertainment—was intended to refer to common kinds of activities that might or might not be carried out as mass communications or as private, personal communications. These activities were not synonymous for functions, which … refer to the consequences of routinely carrying out such communication activities through the institutionalized processes of mass communications. (1974, p. 205)

Revival of the Uses-and-Gratifications Approach

Interest in studying the audience’s uses of the media and the gratifications the audience receives from the media had two revivals. The first occurred during the 1970s, partly as a response to the inconsequential and overqualified findings of run-of-the-mill effects research. As we discussed earlier, by the 1960s most of the important tenets of the limited-effects perspective had been worked out and demonstrated in study after study. In all this research, media’s role was found to be marginal in comparison with other social factors. But how could this be true when media audiences were so vast and so many people spent so much time consuming media? Why were advertisers spending billions to purchase advertising time if their messages had no effect? Why were network television audiences continuing to grow? Didn’t any of this media use have important consequences for the people who were engaging in it? If so, why didn’t effects research document this influence? Was it overlooking something—and if so, what?

This first revival of interest in the uses-and-gratifications approach can be traced to three developments—one methodological and two theoretical:

  1. New survey research methods and data analysis techniques allowed the development of important new strategies for studying and interpreting audience uses and gratifications.
  2. During the 1970s, some media researchers developed increasing awareness that people’s active use of media might be an important mediating factor making effects more or less likely. They argued that a member of an active audience can decide whether certain media effects are desirable and set out to achieve those effects.
  3. Some researchers began expressing growing concern that effects research was focusing too much on unintended negative effects of media while intended positive uses of media were being ignored. By 1975, we knew a lot about the influence of television violence on small segments of the audience (most notably preadolescent boys) but much less about how most people were seeking to make media do things that they wanted.

This first revival of interest in the uses-and-gratifications approach can be traced to three developments—one methodological and two theoretical:

  1. New survey research methods and data analysis techniques allowed the development of important new strategies for studying and interpreting audience uses and gratifications.
  2. During the 1970s, some media researchers developed increasing awareness that people’s active use of media might be an important mediating factor making effects more or less likely. They argued that a member of an active audience can decide whether certain media effects are desirable and set out to achieve those effects.

 

  1. Some researchers began expressing growing concern that effects research was focusing too much on unintended negative effects of media while intended positive uses of media were being ignored. By 1975, we knew a lot about the influence of television violence on small segments of the audience (most notably preadolescent boys) but much less about how most people were seeking to make media do things that they wanted.

Thomas Ruggiero (2000, p. 3) identified three characteristics of computer-mediated mass communication that “offer a vast continuum of communication behaviors” for uses-and-gratifications researchers to examine:

  • Interactivity “significantly strengthens the core [uses-and-gratifications] notion of active user” (Ruggiero, 2000, p. 15) because interactivity in mass communication has long been considered “the degree to which participants in the communication process have control over, and can change roles in their mutual discourse” (Williams, Rice, and Rogers, 1988, p. 10).
  • Demassification is “the ability of the media user to select from a wide menu …. Unlike traditional mass media, new media like the Internet provide selectivity characteristics that allow individuals to tailor messages to their needs” (Ruggiero, 2000, p. 16).
  • Asynchroneity means that mediated messages “may be staggered in time. Senders and receivers of electronic messages can read mail at different times and still interact at their convenience. It also means the ability of an individual to send, receive, save, or retrieve messages at her or his convenience. In the case of television, asynchroneity meant the ability of VCR users to record a program for later viewing. With electronic mail [e-mail] and the Internet, an individual has the potential to store, duplicate, or print graphics and text, or transfer them to an online Web page or the e-mail of another individual. Once messages are digitized, manipulation of media becomes infinite, allowing the individual much more control than traditional means” (Ruggiero, 2000, p. 16).

The Active Audience Revisited

Critics of uses-and-gratifications research have long charged that the theory exaggerates the amount of active use. They contend that most media use is so passive and habitual that it makes no sense to ask people about it.

Jay G. Blumler (1979) claimed that one problem in the development of a strong uses-and-gratifications tradition is the “extraordinary range of meanings” given to the concept of activity. He identified several meanings for the term, including the following:

  • Utility: Media have uses for people, and people can put media to those uses.
  • Intentionality: Consumption of media content can be directed by people’s prior motivations.
  • Selectivity: People’s use of media might reflect their existing interests and preferences.
  • Imperviousness to influence: Audience members are often obstinate; they might not want to be controlled by anyone or anything, even mass media. Audience members actively avoid certain types of media influence.

Uses-and-Gratifications Research and Effects

Strengths Weakness
1. Focuses attention on individuals in the mass communication process

2. Respects intellect and ability of media consumers

3. Provides insightful analyses of how people experience media content

4. Differentiates active uses of media from more passive uses

5. Studies the use of media as a part of everyday social interaction

6. Provides useful insight into adoption of new media

1. Relies on functional analysis, which can create a bias toward the status quo

2. Cannot easily address the presence or absence of effects

3. Many of its key concepts are criticized as unmeasurable

4. Is too oriented toward the micro-level

 

Development of Reception Studies: Decoding and Sensemaking

Stuart Hall arguing that researchers should direct their attention toward

(1) analysis of the social and political context in which content is produced (encoding), and

(2) the consumption of media content (decoding). Researchers shouldn’t make unwarranted assumptions about either encoding or decoding, but instead should conduct research permitting them to carefully assess the social and political context in which media content is produced and the everyday life context in which it is consumed.

Reception Theory

Strengths Weakness
1. Focuses attention on individuals in the mass communication process

2. Respects intellect and ability of media consumers

3. Acknowledges range of meaning in media texts

4. Seeks an in-depth understanding of how people interpret media content

5. Can provide an insightful analysis of the way media are used in everyday social contexts

1. Is usually based on subjective interpretation of audience reports

2. Cannot address presence or absence of effects

3. Uses qualitative research methods, which preclude causal explanations

4. Has been too oriented toward the microlevel (but is attempting to become more macroscopic)

Reception studies Audience centered theory that focuses on how various types of audience members make sense of specific forms of content (sometimes referred to as reception analysis)

Polysemic The characteristic of media texts as fundamentally ambiguous and legitimately interpretable in different ways

Preferred (or dominant) reading In reception studies the producerintended meaning of a piece of content; assumed to reinforce the status quo (sometimes referred to as the dominant reading)

Negotiated meaning In reception studies when an audience member creates a personally meaningful interpretation of content that differs from the preferred reading in important ways

Oppositional decoding In reception studies when an audience member develops interpretations of content that are in direct opposition to a dominant reading

Feminist Reception Studies

Janice Radway (1984) She argued that romance characters and plots are derived from patriarchal myths in which a male-dominated social order is assumed to be both natural and just. Men are routinely presented as strong, aggressive, and heroic, whereas women are weak, passive, and dependent. Women must gain their identity through their association with a male character.

She was surprised to find that many readers used these books as part of a silent rebellion against male domination. They read them as an escape from housework or child rearing. Many of them rejected key assumptions of the patriarchal myths. They expressed strong preferences for male characters who combined traditionally masculine and feminine traits.

Another feminist cultural studies researcher Linda Steiner (1988) offers evidence that women routinely engage in oppositional decoding of popular media content. She concluded that young girls’ “passion” for these films “had far more to do with their own desire for physical autonomy than with any simple notion of acculturation to a patriarchal definition of feminine desirability”

New Directions in Audience Effects Research: The Rise of Moderate-Effects Theories

Moderate-effects theories Mass communication theories that conceptualize media as capable of inducing important effects under certain conditions

Model of information processing that seeks to explain the level of elaboration, or effort, brought to evaluating messages

Information-Processing Theory

Information processing theory Theory that uses mechanistic analogies to describe and interpret how people deal with all the stimuli they receive elaboration likelihood model

 

Drawing on the same metaphors as systems theory (Chapter 7), informationprocessing theory uses mechanistic analogies to describe and interpret how each of us takes in and makes sense of the flood of information our senses encounter every moment of each day. It assumes that individuals operate like complex biocomputers, with certain built-in information-handling capacities and strategies. Each day we are exposed to vast quantities of sensory information. We filter this information so only a small portion of it ever reaches our conscious mind. Only a tiny fraction of this information is singled out for attention and processing, and we finally store a tiny amount of this in long-term memory. We are not so much information handlers as information avoiders—we have developed sophisticated mechanisms for screening out irrelevant or useless information. Our capacity to cope with sensory information is easily overwhelmed so that we make mistakes by failing to take in and process critical information.

Limited cognitive resources In information processing theory, idea that as more resources are directed toward one task, another will suffer

 

Information-Processing Theory

Strengths Weakness
1. Provides specificity for what is generally considered routine, unimportant behavior

2. Provides objective perspective on learning; mistakes are routine and natural

3. Permits exploration of a wide variety of media content

4. Produces consistent results across a wide range of communication situations and settings

1. Is too oriented toward the micro-level

2. Overemphasizes routine media consumption

3. Focuses too much on cognition, ignoring such factors as emotion

 

Processing Television News

Information-processing theory has been used most extensively in mass communication research to guide and interpret research on how people decode and learn from television news broadcasts.

Schemas More or less highly structured sets of categories or patterns; sets of interrelated conceptual categories

Information-processing theory has great potential to permit exploration of a wide variety of media content. Researchers apply it to such diverse topics as advertising (Lang, 1990), televised political content, and children’s programming (Young, 1990). This research is rapidly revealing how we tailor our innate cognitive skills to make sense of and use media content. Our ability to do this is most strikingly demonstrated by children as they learn to watch television. Within a few years, children move from being dazzled by shifting colors and sound on the screen to making complex differentiations (good/bad, strong/weak, male/female) about program characters and making accurate predictions about the way story lines will unfold. For example, children come to recognize that Disney stories will have happy endings despite the efforts of evil characters. But underlying these seemingly simple and routine acts of meaning-making are complex cognitive processes that have been adapted to the task of watching television.

Elaboration Likelihood Model

Social psychologists Richard Petty and John Cacioppo (1981) developed a model of information processing they called the elaboration likelihood model (ELM), which rested on the assumption that for social reasons, people are motivated to hold “correct” attitudes. Not everyone, however, is willing or able to process information in a way that will get them to that correct attitude, at least not all the time. Sometimes they work through an argument or issue; sometimes they take an easier, more automatic route to their opinion. You can hear echoes of dissonance theory and social categories from our earlier discussion of attitude change. This is because this peripheral route of information processing does not rely on elaboration (scrutiny) of the message as much as it does on cues unrelated to the information—for example, attractive sources, catchy jingles, or political party labels—exactly as dissonance theory and social categories suggest. However, when motivated by the relevance of the information, a need for cognition, or a sense of responsibility, people will use the central route of information processing in which they bring as much scrutiny to the information as possible. Attitudes that are the product of this more stringent elaboration tend to be more deeply held, more enduring, and more predictive of subsequent behavior. Attitudes developed through the peripheral route tend to be less deeply held, less enduring, and less predictive of behavior.

Peripheral Route In ELM, information processing that relies on cues unrelated to the issue at hand

Central Route In ELM, information processing characterized by heightened scrutiny of information related to the issue at hand

Strengths Weakness
1. Focuses attention on individuals in the mass communication process

2. Respects intellect and ability of media consumers

3. Provides specificity in describing process of information processing

4. Provides exploration of a wide variety of media information

5. Provides consistent results across a wide range of communication situations and settings

1. Too oriented toward micro-level

2. Dismisses possibility of simultaneous, parallel information processing

3. Sacrifices testable causal relationships in favor of multiple cues present in messages

 

Entertainment Theory

Entertainment theory Theory that conceptualizes and explicates key psychological mechanisms underlying audience use and enjoyment of entertainment oriented media content

Strengths Weakness
1. Stresses media’s pro-social influence

2. Assesses cognitive, affective, and behavioral effects

3. Provides cogent multivariate explanations for why people seek entertainment from media

4. Is grounded in an expanding body of media effects research

5. Provides a useful basis for conducting experiments

1. Tends to accept status quo uses of entertainment media as a starting point for research

2. Has so far found effects that are mostly limited and minimal

3. Tends to ignore and doesn’t provide a good basis for assessing cumulative effects

4. Tends to consider entertainment effects in isolation from other types of effects

 

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