Media Effects: Definition, Effects & Beliefs

Instructor: Mary Matthiesen-Jones

Mary has worked around the world for over 30 years in international business, advertising, and market research. She has a Master's degree in International Management and has taught University undergraduate and graduate level courses .

How much are you really affected by what you see, hear, and read in the media? Learn about media effects and some different theories on just how much we are influenced by media.

The Consequences of Our Media Habits

Whether we realize it or not, what we read, see, and hear in the media does affect us. Media effects refers to the influence of media exposure on people, and these effects can be positive or negative. An environmental documentary may enlighten us about an important issue, so the effect is positive as its intent was to educate. A news story promoting negative information about a person may have a negative effect as it may damage someone's reputation. Media effects can also be both intended and unintended. The documentary specifically intends to raise public awareness. The negative news story, while intending to create a negative view of a person, might have the unintended consequence of evoking sympathy for its subject.

These two examples represent two types of core effects that can occur from media exposure.

Core Effects

The environmental documentary, The Age of Stupid, exemplifies the boomerang effect. Its message about managing carbon emissions generated a favorable outcome because it generated positive feedback. The result was that it helped to cause 46 countries to launch the 10:10 carbon cutting initiative and raise $1.5 million to sustain the effort. The documentary's positive message boomeranged back with positive results.

The negative news story is an example of the reciprocal effect. This refers to the effects of past and anticipated media coverage on the subject of a news story. These effects can include emotional, social, or financial. The 1998 scandal involving Monica Lewinsky and President Bill Clinton demonstrates the reciprocal effect. Clinton's job approval rating rose 10 points in the first 10 days of coverage about the scandal. He ultimately was able to survive impeachment, and to this day he has many defenders. Lewinsky, on the other hand, was subjected to massive negative publicity and is still an object of ridicule and public shaming. Lewinsky remained silent for many years about her treatment, and only in 2015 in her TED talk, The Price of Shame, did she reveal the reciprocal effects of media coverage on her life.

So why does media have these effects? There are several theories.

Direct Versus Indirect Effects

The direct effects theory is based on several assumptions:

  • Media messages overpower other influences
  • People are passive consumers of media and have predictable responses.
  • People are naturally irrational and instinctive
  • Media has immediate and universal effects on people and contributes to society's ills.

The 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds is an example of the overpowering effect of mass media when nationwide hysteria ensued over a believed alien attack.

Later studies, however, began to discount the direct effects theory. Today media researchers see the theory as outdated. Why, they ask, doesn't everyone who plays violent video games then go on killing sprees?

The indirect effects or conditional effects theory proposes that individuals vary in how they perceive and retain information. For example, the different ways that people perceive Clinton and Lewinsky (reciprocal effect) after seeing the same news stories is an indirect effect.


The agenda setting theory states that mass media determines the issues of concern rather than the public. As a consequence, issues with heavy media focus take precedence in the minds of the public and other issues are marginalized. We see this theory when there are claims that a news outlet has a particular bias for one political candidate and that it only present stories from that perspective. The positive public reaction to Age of Stupid is another example; it presents one side of the issue and convinced viewers that it is correct (boomerang effect).

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