Approaches to Mass Media Research

Instructor: Nathan Hurwitz

Dr. Nathan Hurwitz is a tenured Associate Professor in Theatre and has three books in print, two textbooks and a coffee table book.

This lesson describes mainstream approaches to mass media as well as the shift from mainstream to critical approaches. This is followed by an overview of critical approaches and cultural studies approaches to mass media research.

What is Mass Media?

Anytime we encounter a message addressed to an 'at-large' audience, it's a form of mass media. Since the 1940s, mass media has referred to a large array of media technologies that reach a large audience through mass communication. This array now includes print, film, television, radio, recorded music, internet, social media, and more.

Scholars have been studying mass media for as long as it has been around, but what models have they used to study this phenomenon? Initially the approaches that scholars took are what we now refer to as mainstream approaches.

Originally, mass media was seen as a tool to help unify people by shaping us into a single culture. But while some scholars saw mass media as positive, others feared it as a propaganda tool. Studies also showed that not everyone responded the same way to mass media messages. For instance, one study found that responses to violent films differed, but those responses could be predicted based on the subjects' psychological and cultural difference.

Mainstream Approaches to Studying Mass Media

When researchers realized that not all people responded to mass media the same way, scholars began studying it by examining it directly; these scholars were said to be taking mainstream approaches to mass media. These examinations led to theories, including:

  • The hypodermic needle theory - proposed that mass media's effect on its audience was immediate and powerful, like the injection of a drug.
  • The two-step flow model of media influence - developed in the 1940s by Paul Lazarsfeld, this theory proposed that mass media spreads messages in two steps:
    1. Messages is received by avid media consumers (whether they are magazine readers, news junkies, or Facebook trollers).
    2. These avid consumers become 'opinion-leaders', who disseminate the message.
  • The gratifications model - people shape the meaning of media messages to meet their own needs.
  • The limited effects theory of mass communication - claimed that mass media success in delivering messages was limited at best and could rarely change attitudes on controversial topics.

By the 1950s, mainstream researchers had reached three separate (and sometimes conflicting) conclusions:

  • Mass media could shift opinions and behaviors. For example, one study showed that extensive exposure to television violence desensitized viewers to real-world violence.
  • Those with a lack of access to media have knowledge gaps that fall directly along the lines of socio-economic class. Therefore, mass media is a tool that inherently keeps power (and wealth) in the hands of those already powerful.
  • Mass media is not just a universal message sent out at large, but is targeted to and defined by its niche audience, their education, income, and culture.

Mainstream Approaches Lead to Critical Approaches

The various mainstream studies and approaches had taken scholars from the thought that mass media would save society to the thought that it had very little effect. Clearly, examining this phenomenon by looking directly at it was bearing little fruit. And so scholars began to examine mass media in a different way.

Critical approaches studied mass media by placing it within a context. Some scholars chose traditional critical approaches such as Marxism or feminism, while others created new critical models to use as a means of comparing mass media.

Critical Approaches

Critical work had begun in Germany as early as the 1920s by the Frankfurt School of researchers. They studied the cultural implications of Marxism on mass media and explored mass media's ability to control a culture's worldviews. Ultimately these studies led to concerns that mass media messages did not always serve the best interests of society as much as the best interests of the wealthy and powerful.

More recently, analysts taking a critical, political-economic approach, developed concerns that the United States, by importing its media worldwide, might erode other cultures. These fears of cultural colonialism represent a conquest not by armed conflict, but by media.

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