Limited-effects notions have undergone important transformations, partially because of pressures from cultural studies, but also because of the emergence of new communication technologies that have forced a rethinking of traditional assumptions about how people use (and are used by) media. We are in the early stages, then, of what may well become the fourth era of mass communication theory. These new perspectives are transforming how we think about media effects.

For example, framing theory and the media literacy movement offer compelling and cogent arguments concerning the way mass communication influences individuals and plays an important role in the social world. We are again living in an era when we are challenged by the rise of powerful new media that clearly are altering how most of us live our lives and relate to others. And we have developed new research strategies and methods that provide us with better measures of media influence and that have already identified a number of contexts in which media can have powerful effects (for example, Iyengar and Kinder, 1986; Wartella, 1997).

At the heart of these new perspectives are notions about an active audience that uses media content to create meaningful experiences. These perspectives acknowledge that important media effects can occur over longer periods and often are a direct consequence of viewer or reader intent. People can make media serve certain purposes, such as using media to learn information, manage moods, and seek excitement. When we use media in these ways, we are intentionally working to induce meaningful experiences. The various “meaning-making perspectives” assert that when people use media to make meaning—when they are able to intentionally induce desired experiences—there often are significant results, some intended and others unintended. So when young adults download billions of songs from the net in order to alter or sustain a mood, there will be consequences. Some of these consequences are intended, but sometimes the results are unanticipated and unwanted.

Have you ever sought thrills from a horror movie and then been troubled afterward by disturbing visual images? Factors that intrude into and disrupt this making of meaning can have unpredictable consequences. These meaning-making perspectives imply that future research should focus on people’s successes or failures in their efforts to make meaning using media, and on intended and unintended consequences. These consequences should be considered both from the point of view of individuals and from the point of view of society. You can read about one view of meaning-making theory in the box entitled “Semiotic Democracy.”

The limited-effects perspective was unable to understand or make predictions about media’s role in cultural change. By flatly rejecting the possibility that media can play an important role in such change, theorists were unable to make sense of striking instances when the power of media appeared to be obvious. For example, limited-effects theorists were forced to deny that media could have played a significant role in the civil rights, anti–Vietnam War, women’s, and 1960s counterculture movements. More recently, they cannot account for the media’s role in such highprofile public debates as the rush to war in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the Obama administration’s campaign to reform the American healthcare system. These theorists are equally at a loss to explain the social transformations that are linked to the rise of the Internet. One possible cause of the limited-effects perspective’s failure to account for these obvious examples of large-scale media influence rests in the idea of levels of analysis.

Social research problems can be studied at a number of levels, from the macroscopic “down” to the microscopic. Researchers, for example, can study media impact on cultures, societies, or nations; organizations or groups; small groups; and individuals. It should be possible to approach the issue of media effects at any of these levels and discover comparable results. But the limited-effects researchers tend to focus their attention on the microscopic level, especially on individuals, from whom they can easily and efficiently collect data. When they have difficulty consistently demonstrating effects at the micro level, they tend to dismiss the possibility of effects at the cultural, or macroscopic, level.

For example, the limited-effects perspective denies that advertising imagery can lead to significant cultural changes. Instead, it argues that advertising merely reinforces existing social trends. At best (or worst), advertisers or politicians merely take advantage of these trends to serve their purposes. Thus, political candidates might be successful in seizing on patriotism and racial backlash to promote their campaigns in much the same way that product advertisers exploit what they think are attitude trends among the baby boom generation or soccer moms. But who would deny the significant cultural changes of running political campaigns in this manner? Surely political leaders’ appeals to our baser tendencies must have some effect on our democracy and our culture? Can you speak kindly of the quality of discourse exhibited in today’s politics?

The limited-effects/reinforcement arguments might have been valid, but in their early forms they were unnecessarily limited in scope. Today’s meaning-making theorists have developed reinforcement notions into a broader theory that identifies important new categories of media influence. These argue that at any point in time there are many conflicting or opposing social trends. Some will be easier to reinforce using the marketing techniques available to advertisers. Potentially useful trends can be undermined as public attention is drawn toward opposing ones. From among the trends that can be easily reinforced by existing marketing techniques, advertisers and political consultants are free to base their promotional communication on those that are likely to best serve their short-term self-interests rather than the long-term public good.

Thus, many potentially constructive social trends may fail to develop because existing techniques can’t easily reinforce them or because opposing trends are reinforced by advertisers seeking immediate profits (or candidates seeking immediate votes). The very same Saturday morning cartoons promoting the sale of sugared cereals could instead just as effectively encourage child viewers to consume healthier food. The very same political spot that sets race against race might just as effectively raise important issues of diversity and community. Or to return to this chapter’s opening, the very same wireless Internet that can encourage the creation of new and important intellectual, cultural, and social communities unfettered by time and geography, the same technology that can provide us with virtually unlimited control over our mediated communication, can be overwhelmed by more advertising, greater commercialization, and increasing sponsor control.

For example, here, from the trade group Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), is a common view of our new digital media environment: “Early adopters of the Internet were driven by a desire to capture, build, and share knowledge. It was all about capturing and sharing information.” This situation has evolved for the better, proclaims the CTIA, now that we are constantly connected: “In a mobile environment, it is not about research. It is about instant gratification” (CTIA, 2004). The CTIA offered as an example of this instant gratification discount coupons sent directly to your cell phone as you walk by a store. Time and money saved as your phone alerts you to nearby bargains; what a great idea! But do you like the idea of advertisers (or the government) knowing precisely where you are every minute of the day? And just what does it mean to you as a person, to us as a people, when the Internet fully evolves from that old-fashioned medium for capturing and sharing knowledge into a new, more modern means of instant gratification? We hope that you can add dozens more questions to these two. If you do, they will be based in your experience, raised by your expectations, framed by your values. And this is exactly how questions about mass communication have always been raised and answered. This is exactly how mass communication theory has always been developed and advanced.

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