Disinhibition Theory Media Violence Essay

After studying this section, you should be able to understand:

  • the evidence relating to the relationship between screen violence and violence in real life
  • active audience approaches
  • the process of moral panics

Mass media effects: the relationship between screen violence and real-life violence

Influential psychologists, pressure groups, religious leaders and politicians have suggested that there is a direct causal link between violence in films, television programmes and computer games and violent real-life crime. It is argued that such media content exerts an overwhelmingly negative effect on impressionable young audiences. These beliefs have led to increased state control over and censorship of the media in Britain.

KEY POINT - Sociologists have argued that media content can have a direct effect upon their audiences and trigger particular social responses in terms of behaviour and attitudes.

  • Gerbner (2002) sees a cause-effect relationship between screen violence and real-life violence.
  • Some feminist sociologists, e.g. Dworkin (1988) and Morgan (1980) have suggested that there is a strong relationship between the consumption of pornography and sexual crime.
  • Orbach (1991) and Wolf (1990) argue that there is a causal link between representation of (US) size zero models in magazines and eating disorders.
  • Norris (1996), claims that media coverage of political issues can influence voting behaviour.
  • Some early Marxist commentators, particularly those belonging to the Frankfurt School, such as Marcuse (1964), believed that the media transmitted a mass culture which was directly injected into the hearts and minds of the population making them more vulnerable to ruling class propaganda.

The hypodermic model of media violence

The hypodermic syringe approach to media effects believes that a direct correlation exists between the violence and anti-social behaviour portrayed in films, on television, in computer games, in rap lyrics, etc. and violence and antisocial behaviour such as drug use and teenage gun/knife crime found in real life. The model suggests that children and teenagers are vulnerable to media content because they are still in the early stages of socialisation and therefore very impressionable.

Believers in this hypodermic syringe model (also known as the ‘magic bullet’ theory) point to a number of films which they claim have resulted in young people using extreme violence.

Imitation or copycat violence
Early studies of the relationship between the media and violence focused on conducting experiments in laboratories, e.g. Bandura et al. (1963) carried out an experiment on young children which involved exposing them to films and cartoons of a self-righting doll being attacked with a mallet. They concluded on the basis of this experiment that violent media content could lead to imitation or copycat violence.

McCabe and Martin (2005) concluded that media violence has a disinhibition effect – it convinces children that in some social situations, the ‘normal’ rules that govern conflict and difference can be suspended, i.e. discussion and negotiation can be replaced with violence with no repercussions.

Newson argued that sadistic images in films were too easily available and that films encouraged viewers to identify with violent perpetrators rather than victims. Furthermore, Newson noted that children and teenagers are subjected to thousands of killings and acts of violence as they grow up through viewing television and films. Newson suggested that such prolonged exposure to media violence may have a drip-drip effect on young people over the course of their childhood and result in their becoming desensitised to violence. Newson argues that they see violence as a normal problem-solving device and concluded that, because of this, the latest generation of young people subscribe to weaker moral codes and are more likely to behave in anti-social ways than previous generations.

Newson’s report led directly to increased censorship of the film industry with the passing of the Video Recordings (Labelling) Act 1985, which resulted in videos and DVDs being given British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) age certificates. The BBFC also came under increasing pressure to censor films released to British cinemas by insisting on the film makers making cuts relating to bad language, scenes of drug use and violence.

Television too was affected by this climate of censorship. All the television channels agreed on a nine o’clock watershed, i.e. not to show any programmes that used bad language or contained scenes of a sexual or violent nature before this time. Television channels often resorted to issuing warnings before films and even edited out violence themselves or beeped over bad language.

Critique of the hypodermic syringe model
A number of critiques have developed of the imitation-desensitisation model of media effects, e.g. some media sociologists claim that media violence can actually prevent real-life violence.

  • Fesbach and Sanger (1971) found that screen violence can actually provide a safe outlet for people’s aggressive tendencies. This is known as catharsis. They suggest that watching an exciting film releases aggressive energy into safe outlets as the viewers immerse themselves in the action.
  • Young (1981), argues that seeing the effects of violence and especially the pain and suffering that it causes to the victim and their families, may make us more aware of its consequences and so less inclined to commit violent acts. Sensitisation to certain crimes therefore may make people more aware and responsible so that they avoid getting involved in violence.

The methodological critique of the hypodermic syringe model
Gauntlett (2008) argues that people, especially children, do not behave as naturally under laboratory conditions as they would in their everyday environment, e.g. children’s media habits are generally influenced and controlled by parents, especially when they are very young.

The media effects model fails to be precise in how ‘violence’ should be defined. There are different types of media violence such as in cartoons, images of war and death on news bulletins and sporting violence. It is unclear whether these different types of violence have the same or different effects upon their audiences or whether different audiences react differently to different types and levels of violence. The effects model has been criticised because it tends to be selective in its approach to media violence, i.e. it only really focuses on particular types of fictional violence.

The effects model also fails to put violence into context, e.g. it views all violence as wrong, however trivial, and fails to see that audiences interpret it according to narrative context. Research by Morrison suggests that the context in which screen violence occurs affects its impact on the audience.

Some sociologists believe that children are not as vulnerable as the hypodermic syringe model implies, e.g. research indicates that most children can distinguish between fictional/cartoon violence and real violence from a very early age, and generally know that it should not be imitated. Sociologists are generally very critical of the hypodermic syringe model because it fails to recognise that audiences have very different social characteristics in terms of age, maturity, social class, education, family background, parental controls, etc. These characteristics will influence how people respond to and use media content.

Cumberbatch (2004) looked at over 3500 research studies into the effects of screen violence, encompassing film, television, video and more recently, computer and video games. He concluded that there is still no conclusive evidence that violence shown in the media influences or changes people’s behaviour.

Active audience approaches

KEY POINT - Active audience approaches see the media as far less influential. They believe that people have considerable choice in the way they use and interpret the media. There are various versions of this view, outlined on the next page.

The two-step flow model
Katz and Lazarsfeld (1965) suggest that personal relationships and conversations with significant others, such as family members, friends, teachers and work colleagues, result in people modifying or rejecting media messages. They argue that social networks are usually dominated by opinion leaders, i.e. people of influence whom others in the network look up to and listen to. These people usually have strong ideas about a range of matters. Moreover, these opinion leaders expose themselves to different types of media and form an opinion on their content. These interpretations are then passed on to other members of their social circle. Katz and Lazarsfeld suggest that media messages have to go through two steps or stages.

  • The opinion leader is exposed to the media content.
  • Those who respect the opinion leader internalise their interpretation of that content.

Consequently, media audiences are not directly influenced by the media. Rather, they choose to adopt a particular opinion, attitude and way of behaving after negotiation and discussion with an opinion leader. The audience is, therefore, not passive, but active.

However, critics of this model point out two problems.

  • There is no guarantee that the opinion leader has not been subjected to an imitative or desensitising effect, e.g. a leader of a peer group, such as a street gang, might convince other members that violence is acceptable because he has been exposed to computer games that strongly transmit the message that violence is an acceptable problem-solving strategy.
  • People who may be most at risk of being influenced by the media may be socially isolated individuals who are not members of any social network and so do not have access to an opinion leader who might help interpret media content in a healthy way.

The selective filter model
In his selective filter model, Klapper (1960) suggests that, for a media message to have any effect, it must pass through three filters.

  • Selective exposure – the audience must choose to view, read or listen to the content of specific media. Media messages can have no effect if no one sees or hears them. However, what the audience chooses depends upon their interests, education, work commitments and so on.
  • Selective perception – the audience may not accept the message; some people may take notice of some media content, but decide to reject or ignore others.
  • Selective retention – the messages have to ‘stick’ in the mind of those who have accessed the media content. However, research indicates that most people have a tendency to remember only the things they broadly agree with.

The uses and gratifications model
Blumler and McQuail (1968) and Lull (1995) see media audiences as active. Their uses and gratifications model suggests that people use the media in order

to satisfy particular social needs that they have, e.g. Wood (1993) illustrated how teenagers may use horror films to gratify their need for excitement. Blumler and McQuail identify four basic needs which people use the media to satisfy.

  • Diversion – people may immerse themselves in particular types of media to make up for the lack of satisfaction at work or in their daily lives, e.g. women may compensate for the lack of romance in their marriages by reading Mills and Boon romantic novels. Some people even have alternative lives and identities as avatars on websites such as Second Life.
  • Personal relationships – media products such as soap operas may compensate for the decline of community in our lives, e.g. socially isolated elderly people may see soap opera characters as companions they can identify with and worry about in the absence of interaction with family members. Cyber-communities on the Internet may also be seen by users as alternative families.
  • Personal identity – people may use the media to ‘make over’ or to modify their identity. Social networking websites, such as Facebook, allow people to use the media to present their particular identities to the wider world in a way that they can control.
  • Surveillance – people use the media to obtain information and news in order to help them make up their minds on particular issues.

Marxists are critical of this model because they suggest that social needs may be socially manufactured by the media and may therefore be ‘false needs’.

The reception analysis model
The reception analysis model suggests that media content is not passively accepted as truth by audiences. Morley’s (1980) research into how audiences interpreted the content of a well-known 1970s evening news programme called Nationwide examined how the ideological content of the programme (i.e. the messages that were contained in the text and images) were interpreted by 29 groups made up of people from a range of educational and professional backgrounds. Morley found that audiences were very active in their reading of media content and did not automatically accept the media’s perspective on a range of issues. Morley concluded that people choose to read or interpret media content in three ways.

  • The preferred (or dominant) reading accepts the media content as legitimate, e.g. the British people generally approve of the Royal Family, so very few people are likely to interpret stories about them in a critical fashion. This dominant reading is often shared by journalists and editors, and underpins news values.
  • The oppositional reading opposes the views expressed in media content.
  • The negotiated reading whereby the audience reinterpret the media content to fit in with their own opinions and values, e.g. they may not have any strong views on the Royal Family, but enjoy reading about celebrity lives.

Morley argues that the average person belongs to several sub-cultural groups and this may complicate a person’s reading of media content in the sense that they may not be consistent in their interpretation of it. Reception analysis theory therefore suggests that audiences are not passive, impressionable and homogeneous. They act in a variety of subcultural ways and, for this reason, media content is polysemic, i.e. it attracts more than one type of reading or interpretation.

The cultural effects model
The Marxist cultural effects model sees the media as a very powerful ideological influence that is mainly concerned with transmitting capitalist values and norms. Marxists argue that media content contains strong ideological messages that reflect the values of those who own, control and produce the media. They argue that the long-term effect of such media content is that the values of the rich and powerful come to be unconsciously shared by most people – people come to believe in values such as ‘happiness is about possessions and money’, ‘being a celebrity is really important’, etc. Marxists believe that television content, in particular, has been deliberately dumbed down and this has resulted in a decline in serious programmes such as news, documentaries and drama that might make audiences think critically about the state of the world. Consequently, there is little serious debate about the organisation of capitalism and the social inequalities and problems that it generates.

However, in criticism of the cultural effects model, these ‘cause’ and ‘effects’ are very difficult to operationalise and measure. It also implies that Marxists are the only ones who can see the ‘true’ ideological interpretation of media content, which suggests that most members of society are ‘cultural dopes’.

The post-modernist model
(1995) argues that the media today are the most influential shapers of identity and offer a greater range of consumption choices in terms of identities and lifestyles. Moreover, in the post-modern world, the media transmit the idea that the consumption of signs and symbols for their own sake is more important than the goods they represent. In other words, the media encourages the consumption of logos, designer labels and brands, and these become more important to people’s sense of identity than the physical clothes and goods themselves.

Other post-modernists have noted that, since 2000, the globalisation of communication has become more intensive and extensive, and this has had great significance for local cultures, in that all consumers of the global media are both citizens of the world and of their locality. Seeing other global experience allows people to think critically about their own place in the world. However, Thompson notes that the interaction between global media and local cultures can also create tensions and hostilities, e.g. the Chinese authorities have attempted to control and limit the contact that the Chinese people have with global media, whilst some Islamic commentators have used global media to convince their local populations of the view that Western culture is decadent and corrupt.

Moral panics

Every now and then, the media, particularly the tabloid news media, focus on particular groups and activities and, through the style of their reporting, define these groups and their activities as a problem. This focus creates public anxiety and official censure and control.

What is a moral panic?
The term moral panic was popularised by Cohen (1972) in his classic work Folk Devils and Moral Panics. It refers to media reactions to particular social groups and activities that are defined as threatening social consensus. The reporting creates anxiety or moral panic amongst the general population which puts pressure on the authorities to control the problem and discipline the group responsible. However, the media concern is usually out of proportion to any real threat to society posed by the group or activity.

Both the publicity and social reaction to the panic may create the potential for further crime and deviance in the future. In other words, the social reaction may lead to the amplification of deviance by provoking more of the same behaviour.

There have been a number of moral panics in the last 30 years including:

  • Ravers and ecstasy use – Redhead notes that a moral panic in regard to acid house raves in the late 1980s led to the police setting up roadblocks on motorways, turning up at raves in full riot gear and the Criminal Justice Act (1990) which banned illegal parties.
  • Refugees and asylum seekers – in 2003 there was a moral panic focused on the numbers of refugees and asylum seekers entering Britain and their motives. Elements of the tabloid press, particularly the Daily Mail and The Sun, focused on the alleged links between asylum seekers and terrorism which created public anxiety.
  • HoodiesFawbert (2008) examined newspaper reports and found that ‘hoodies’ became a commonly used term, especially between 2005 and 2007, to describe young people involved in crime.

Why do moral panics occur?

  • Furedi argues that moral panics arise when society fails to adapt to dramatic social changes and it is felt that there is a loss of control, especially over powerless groups such as the young. Furedi therefore argues that moral panics are about the wider concerns that the older generation have about the nature of society today – people see themselves (and their families) as at greater risk from a variety of groups. They believe that things are out of control. They perceive, with the media’s encouragement, that traditional norms and values no longer have much relevance in their lives. Furedi notes that people feel a very real sense of loss, which makes them extremely susceptible to the anxieties encouraged by media moral panics.
  • Some commentators argue that moral panics are simply a product of news values and the desire of journalists and editors to sell newspapers – they are a good example of how audiences are manipulated by the media for commercial purposes. However, after a while, news stories exhaust their cycle of newsworthiness and journalists abandon interest in them because they believe their audiences have lost interest too. The social problems, however, do not disappear – they remain dormant until journalists decide at some future date that they can be made newsworthy again and attract a large audience.
  • Marxists, such as Hall, see moral panics as serving an ideological function. His study of the media coverage of Black muggers in the 1970s (Hall et al., 1978) concluded that it had the effect of labelling all young African-Caribbeans as criminals and a potential threat to White people. This served the purpose of diverting attention away from the mismanagement of capitalism by the capitalist class, as well as justifying the introduction and use of more repressive laws and policing.
  • Left Realists argue, however, that moral panics should not be dismissed as a product of ruling class ideology or news values. Moral panics have a very real basis in reality, i.e. the media often identifies groups who are a real threat to those living in inner-city areas. Portraying such crime as a fantasy is naïve because it denies the very real harm that some types of crime have on particular communities or the sense of threat that older people feel.

In media studies, media psychology, communication theory and sociology, media influence and media effects are topics relating to mass media and media culture effects on individual or audience thought, attitudes and behavior.

Media influence is the actual force exerted by a media message, resulting in either a change or reinforcement in audience or individual beliefs. Media effects are measurable effects that result from media influence or a media message. Whether that media message has an effect on any of its audience members is contingent on many factors, including audience demographics and psychological characteristics. These effects can be positive or negative, abrupt or gradual, short-term or long-lasting. Not all effects result in change: some media messages reinforce an existing belief. Researchers examine an audience after media exposure for changes in cognition, belief systems, and attitudes, as well as emotional, physiological and behavioral effects.[1]

There are several scholarly definitions of media. Bryant and Zillmann defined media effects as "the social, cultural, and psychological impact of communicating via the mass media".[2] Perse stated that media effects researchers study "how to control, enhance, or mitigate the impact of the mass media on individuals and society".[3] Lang stated media effects researchers study "what types of content, in what type of medium, affect which people, in what situations".[4]


Media effects studies have undergone several phases, often corresponding to the development of mass media technologies.

Powerful media effects phase[edit]

From the early 20th century to the 1930s, developing mass media technologies, such as radio and film, were credited with an almost irresistible power to mold an audience's beliefs, cognition and behaviors according to the communicators' will.[5][6] The basic assumption of strong media effects theory was that audiences were passive and homogeneous. This assumption was not based on empirical evidence but on assumptions of human nature. There were two main explanations for this perception of mass media effects. First, mass broadcasting technologies were acquiring a widespread audience, even among average households. People were astonished by the speed of information dissemination, which may have clouded audience perception of any media effects. Secondly, propaganda techniques were implemented during the war time by several governments as a powerful tool for uniting their people. This propaganda exemplified strong-effect communication. Early media effects research often focused on the power of this propaganda (e.g., Lasswell, 1927[7]). Combing through the technological and social environment, early media effects theories stated that the mass media were all-powerful.[8]

Representative theories:

  • Hypodermic needle model, or magic bullet theory: Considers the audience to be targets of an injection or bullet of information fired from the pistol of mass media. The audience are unable to avoid or resist the injection or bullets.

Limited media effects phase[edit]

Starting in the 1930s, the second phase of media effects studies instituted the importance of empirical research, while introducing the complex nature of media effects due to the idiosyncratic nature of audience individuals.[5] The Payne Fund studies, conducted in the United States during this period, focused on the effect of media upon young people. Many other separate studies focused on persuasion effects studies, or the possibilities and usage of planned persuasion in film and other media. Hovland et al. (1949) conducted a series of experimental studies to evaluate the effects of using films to indoctrinate American military recruits.[9]Lazarsfeld (1944) and his colleagues' effectiveness studies of democratic election campaigns launched political campaign effect studies.[10]

Researchers uncovered mounting empirical evidence of the idiosyncratic nature of media effects on individuals and audiences, identifying numerous intervening variables, such as demographic attributes, social psychological factors, and different media use behaviors. With these new variables added to research, it was difficult to isolate media influence that resulted in any media effects to an audience's cognition, attitude and behavior. As Berelson (1959) summed up in a widely quoted conclusion: "Some kinds of communication on some kinds of issues have brought to the attention of some kinds of people under some kinds of conditions have some kinds of effect."[11] Though the concept of an all-powerful mass media was diluted, this did not determine that the media lacked influence or effect. Instead, the pre-existing structure of social relationships and cultural contexts were believed to primarily shape or change people's opinions, attitudes and behaviors, and media merely function within these established processes. This complexity had a dampening effect upon media effects studies.[8]

Representative theories:

  • Two-step flow of communication: Discusses the indirect effects of media, stating that people are affected by media through the interpersonal influence of opinion leaders.
  • Klapper's selective exposure theory: Joseph T. Klapper asserts in his book, The Effects Of Mass Communication, that audiences are not passive targets of any communication contents. Instead, audiences selectively choose content that is aligned with previously held convictions.

Rediscovered powerful media effects phase[edit]

Limited media effect theory was challenged by new evidence supporting that mass media messages could indeed lead to measurable social effects.[5] Lang and Lang (1981) argued that the widespread acceptance of limited media effect theory was unwarranted, and that "the evidence available by the end of the 1950s, even when balanced against some of the negative findings, gives no justification for an overall verdict of 'media importance.'"[12]

In the 1950s and 1960s, widespread use of television indicated its unprecedented power on social lives. Meanwhile, researchers also realized that early investigations, relying heavily on psychological models, were narrowly focused on only short-term and immediate effects. The "stimuli-reaction" model introduced the possibility of profound long-term media effects. The shift from short-term to long-term effect studies marked the renewal of media effects research. More attention was paid to collective cultural patterns, definitions of social reality, ideology and institutional behavior. Though audiences were still considered in control of the selection of media messages they consumed, "the way media select, process and shape content for their own purposes can have a strong influence on how it is received and interpreted and thus on longer-term consequences" (Mcquail, 2010).[8]

Representative theories:

  • Agenda-setting theory: Describes how topics selection and the frequencies of reporting by the mass media affected the perceived salience of those topics within the public audience.
  • Framing: Identifies the media's ability to manipulate audience interpretation of a media message through careful control of angles, facts, opinions, amount of coverage.
  • Knowledge-gap theory: States the long-term influence of mass media on people's socioeconomic status with the hypothesis that "as the infusion of mass media information into a social system increases, higher socioeconomic status segments tend to acquire this information faster than lower socioeconomic status population segments causing the gap in knowledge between the two to increase rather than decrease".[13]
  • Cultivation theory: As an audience engages in media messages, particularly on television, they infer the portrayed world upon the real world.

Negotiated media effects phase[edit]

In the late 1970s, researchers examined the media's role in shaping social realities, also referred to as "social constructivist" (Gamson and Modigliani, 1989).[5][14] This approach evaluated the media's role in constructing meaning, and corresponding social realities. First, the media formats images of society in a patterned and predictable way, both in news and entertainment. Second, audiences construct or derive their perception of actual social reality—and their role in it—by interacting with the media-constructed realities. Individuals in these audiences can control their interaction and interpretation of these media-constructed realities. However, when media messages are the only information source, the audience may implicitly accept the media-constructed reality. Alternatively, they may choose to derive their social reality from other sources, such as first-hand experience or cultural environment.

This phase also added qualitative and ethnographic research methods to existing quantitative and behaviorist research methods. Additionally, several research projects focused on media effects surrounding media coverage of minority and fringe social movements.[8]

Representative research:

  • Van Zoonen's research (1992): Examines the mass media contribution to the women's movement in The Netherlands.[15]

New media environment phase[edit]

As early as the 1970s, research emerged on the effects of individual or group behavior in computer-mediated environments.[5] The focus was on the effect of computer-mediated communication (CMC) in interpersonal and group interaction. Early research examined the social interactions and impressions that CMC partners formed of each other, given the restrictive characteristics of CMC—such as the anonymity or lack of nonverbal (auditory or visual) cues.[16] The first generation of CMC researches simply compared existing "text-only" internet content (e.g. emails) to face-to-face communication (Culnan & Markus,1987).[17] For example, Daft and Lengel (1986) developed the media richness theory to assess the media's ability of reproducing information.[18]

The internet was widely adopted for personal use in the 1990s, further expanding CMC studies. Theories such as social information processing (Walther, 1992)[19] and social identification/deindividuation (SIDE) model (Postmes et al. 2000)[20] studied CMC effects on users' behavior, comparing these effects to face-to-face communication effects. With the emergence of dynamic user-generated content on websites and social media platforms, research results are even more conducive to CMC studies. For instance, Valkenburg & Peter (2009) developed the internet-enhanced self-disclosure hypothesis among adolescents, stating that social media platforms are primarily used to maintain real-life friendships among young people. Therefore, this media use may enhance the friendships.[21] New CMC technologies are evolving at a rapid pace, calling for new media effects theories.[8]


The broad scope of media effects studies creates an organizational challenge. Organizing media effects by their targeted audience type, either on an individual (micro-level) or an audience aggregate (macro-level), is one effective method. Denis McQuail, a prominent communication theorist, organized effects into a graph.

Micro- versus macro-level media effects[edit]

Media effects studies target either an individual (micro-level) or an audience aggregate (macro-level).


Theories that base their observations and conclusions on individual media users rather than on groups, institutions, systems, or society at large.[22]
Representative theories: Elaboration likelihood model, Social cognitive theory of mass communication, Framing theory, Priming theory, etc.

On a micro-level, individuals can be affected six different ways.

  1. Cognitive This is the most apparent and measurable effect: includes any new information, meaning or message acquired through media consumption. Cognitive effects extend past knowledge acquisition: individuals can identify patterns, combine information sources and infer information into new behaviors.
  2. Beliefs We cannot validate every single media message, yet we might choose to believe many of the messages, even about events, people, places and ideas that we have never encountered first-hand.
  3. Attitudes Media messages, regardless of intention, often trigger judgments or attitudes about the presented topics.
  4. Affect Refers to any emotional effect, positive or negative, on an individual from media exposure.
  5. Physiological Media content may trigger an automatic physical reaction, often manifested in fight-or-flight response or dilated pupils.
  6. Behaviors Researchers measure an individual's obvious response and engagement with media content, measuring any change or reinforcement in behaviors.[1]


Theories that base their observations and conclusions on large social groups, institutions, systems or ideologies.
Representative theories: Knowledge gap theory, Risk communication, Public sphere theory in Communication, etc.

McQuail's typology[edit]

Denis McQuail, a prominent communication theorist, organized effects into a graph according to the media effect's intentionality (planned or unplanned) and time duration (short-term or long-term). See Figure 1.[8]

Key media effects theories[edit]

Micro-level media effects[edit]

The following are salient examples of media effects studies which examine media influence on individuals.


Individuals often mistakenly believe that they are less susceptible to media effects than others. About fifty percent of the members in a given sample are susceptible to the third-person effect, underestimating their degree of influence.[23] This can allow an individual to complain about media effects without taking responsibility for their own possible effects.[24] This is largely based on attribution theory, where "the person tends to attribute his own reactions to the object world, and those of another, when they differ from his own, to personal characteristics."[25] Standley (1994) tested the third-person effect and attribution theory, reporting people are more likely offer situational reasons for television's effect upon themselves, while offering dispositional reasons for other members of an audience.[26]


This is a concept derived from a network model of memory used in cognitive psychology. Information is stored in this model as nodes, clustered with related nodes by associated pathways. If one node is activated, nearby nodes are also activated. This is known as spreading activation. Priming occurs when a node is activated, causing related nodes to stand by for possible activation. Both the intensity and amount of elapsed time from the moment of activation determine the strength and duration of the priming effect.[8]

In media effects studies, priming describes how exposure to media can alter an individual's attitudes, behaviors, or beliefs. Most media violence research, a popular area of discussion in media effects studies, theorizes that exposure to violent acts may prime an individual to behave more aggressively while the activation lingers.[16]

Social learning[edit]

Miller and Dollard (1941) pioneered social learning theory by their findings that individuals do not need to personally act out a behavior to learn it; they can learn from observation.[27] Bandura (1977) expanded upon this concept, stating that audiences can learn behaviors from observing fictitious characters.[28]

Media violence[edit]

The effects of media violence upon individuals has many decades of research, starting as early as the 1920s. Children and adolescents, considered vulnerable media consumers, are often the target of these studies. Most studies of media violence surround the media categories of television and video games.

The rise of the motion picture industry, coupled with advances in social sciences, spurred the famous Payne Fund studies and others. Though the quality of the research has been called into question, one of the findings suggested a direct role between movies depicting delinquent adolescents and delinquent behaviors in adolescents. Wertham (1954) later suggested that comic books influenced children into delinquent behaviors, provided false worldviews and lowered literacy in his book Seduction of the Innocent. This research was too informal to reach a clear verdict, and a recent study suggests information was misrepresented and even falsified, yet it led to public outcry resulting in many discontinued comic magazines.[29]

Television's ubiquity in the 1950s generated more concerns. Since then, studies have hypothesized a number of effects.

Behavioral effects include disinhibition, imitation and desensitization.

  1. Disinhibition, a theory that exposure to violent media may legitimize the use of violence, has found support in many carefully controlled experiments. Men exposed to violent pornography behave more aggressively towards women in certain circumstances.[30]
  2. Imitation theory states individuals may learn violence from television characters. Bandura's Bobo doll experiment, along with other research, seems to indicate correlation even when controlling for individual differences.[31]
  3. Desensitization refers to an individual's habituation to violence through exposure to violent media content, resulting in real-life implications. Studies have covered both television and video game violence.[32]Desensitization has become an issue with Hollywood adaptations in regard to crimes. It is very easy for a movie to become caught up in making its films look artistic that they begin to make their audiences indifferent to the true horror that is taking place on screen.[33]

Cognitive effects include an increased belief of potential violence in the real world from watching violent media content, leading to anxiety about personal safety.[34]

Macro-level media effects[edit]

The following are salient examples of media effects studies which examine media influence on an audience aggregate.


Not all media effects are instantaneous or short-term. Gerbner (1969) created cultivation theory, arguing that the media cultivates a "collective consciousness about elements of existence."[35] If audiences are exposed to repetitive themes and storylines, over time, they may expect these themes and storylines mirrored in real life.[16]

Agenda setting in the news[edit]

There are two primary areas of media agenda-setting: (i) the media tells us the news and (ii) tells us what to think about the news. Press coverage sends signals to audiences about the importance of mentioned issues, while framing the news induces the unsuspecting viewer into a particular response. Additionally, news that is not given press coverage often dissipates, not only because it lacks a vehicle of mass communication, but because individuals may not express their concerns for fear of ostracization; this further creates the spiral of silence effect.


News outlets can influence public opinion by controlling variables in news presentation. News gatherers curate facts to underscore a certain angle. Presentation method—such as time of broadcast, extent of coverage and choice of news medium—can also frame the message; this can create, replace or reinforce a certain viewpoint in an audience. Entman (2007) describes framing as "the process of culling a few elements of perceived reality and assembling a narrative that highlights connections among them to promote a particular interpretation." Not only does the media identify supposed "causes of problems," it can "encourage moral judgments" and "promote favored policies."[16][36]

One long-term implication of framing, if the media reports news with a consistent favorable slant, is that it can lend a helping hand to certain overarching institutions of thought and related entities. It can reinforce capitalism, patriarchy, heterosexism, individualism, consumerism, and white privilege.[37] Some theorize this bias may reinforce the political parties that espouse these thought paradigms, although more empirical research is needed to substantiate these claims.[36]

Media outlets contend that gatekeeping, or news filtering that may result in agenda-setting and specifically framing, is inevitable. With a never-ending, near-limitless amount of information, filtering will occur by default. Subcultures within news organizations determine the type of published content, while editors and other news organization individuals filter messages to curate content for their target audience.[38]

The rise of digital media, from blogs to social media, has significantly altered the media's gatekeeping role. In addition to more gates, there are also more gatekeepers. Google and Facebook both cater content to their users, filtering though thousands of search results and media postings to generate content aligned with a user's preferences.[39] In 2015, 63 percent of Facebook and Twitter users find news on their feeds, up from 57% from the previous year.[40] With some many "gates" or outlets, news spreads without the aid of legacy media networks. In fact, users on social media can act as a check to the media, calling attention to bias or inaccurate facts.There is also a symbiotic relationship between social media users and the press: younger journalists use social media to track trending topics.[39]

Legacy media outlets, along with newer online-only outlets, face enormous challenges. The multiplicity of outlets combined with downsizing in the aftermath of the 2008 recession makes reportage more hectic than ever. One study found that journalists write about 4.5 articles per day. Public relations agencies play a growing role in news creation: "41 percent of press articles and 52 percent of broadcast news items contain PR materials which play an agenda-setting role or where PR material makes up the bulk of the story."[41] Stories are often rushed to publication and edited afterwards, without "having passed through the full journalistic process." Still, audiences seek out quality content—whichever outlet can fulfill this need may acquire the limited attention span of the modern viewer.[39]

Spiral of silence[edit]

Individuals are disinclined to share or amplify certain messages because of a fear of social isolation and a willingness to self-censor. As applies to media effects studies, some individuals may silence their opinions if the media does not validate their importance or viewpoint. This spiral of silence can also apply to individuals in the media, who may refrain from publishing controversial media content.[42]

Features of current studies[edit]

After entering the 21st century, the rapid development of the Internet and Web 2.0 technology is greatly reforming media use patterns. Media effects studies also are more diverse and specified. After conducting a meta-analysis on micro-level media effects theories, Valkenburg, Peter & Walther (2016) identified five main features:[16]

Selectivity of media use[edit]

There are two propositions of this selectivity paradigm: (a) among the constellation of messages potentially attracting their attention, people only go to a limited portion of messages; (b) people are only influenced by those messages they select (Klapper 1960,[43] Rubin 2009[44]). Researchers had noticed the selectivity of media use decades ago, and considered it as a key factor limiting media effects. Later, two theoretical perspectives, uses-and-gratifications (Katz et al. 1973,[45] Rubin 2009[44]) and selective exposure theory (Knobloch-Westerwick 2015,[46] Zillmann & Bryant 1985[47]), had been developed based on this assumption, and aimed to pinpoint the psychological and social factors guiding and filtering audience's media selection. Generally, these theories put media user in the center of the media effect process, and conceptualize media use as a mediator between antecedents and consequences of media effects. In other words, users (with intention or not), develop their own media use effects.

Media properties as predictors[edit]

The inherent properties of media themselves are considered as predictors in media effects.

  • Modality: Media formats have been evolving ever since the very beginning, whether the modality is text, auditory, visual or audiovisual is assumed to be affecting the selection and cognition of the users when they are engaging in media use. Known for his aphorism of "The medium is the message," Marshall McLuhan (1964) is one of the best-known scholars who believe it is the modality rather than the content of media that is affecting individuals and society.[48]
  • Content properties: The majority of media effects studies still focus on the impact of content (e.g., violence, fearfulness, type of character, argument strength) on an audience. For example, Bandura's (2009) social cognitive theory postulates that media depictions of rewarded behavior and attractive media characters enhance the likelihood of media effects.[49]
  • Structural properties: Besides of modality and content, structural properties such as special effects, pace, visual surprises also play important roles in affecting audiences. By triggering the orienting reflex to media, these properties may initiate selective exposure (Knobloch-Westerwick 2015).[46]

Media effects are indirect[edit]

After the all-power assumption of mass media was disproved by empirical evidence, the indirect path of the media's effect on audiences has been widely accepted. An indirect effect indicates that an independent variable (e.g., media use) affecting the dependent variables (e.g., outcomes of media use) via one or more intervening (mediating) variables. The conceptualization of indirect media effects urges us to pay attention to those intervening variables to better explain how and why media effects occur. Besides, examining indirect effects can lead to a less biased estimation of effects sizes in empirical research (Holbert & Stephenson 2003).[50] In a model including mediating and moderating variables, it is the combination of direct and indirect effects that makes up the total effect of an independent variable on a dependent variable. Thus, "if an indirect effect does not receive proper attention, the relationship between two variables of concern may not be fully considered" (Raykov & Marcoulides 2012)[51]

Media effects are conditional[edit]

In correspondence with the statement that media effect is the result of a combination of variables, media effects can also be enhanced or reduced by individual difference and social context diversity. Many media effects theories hypothesize conditional media effects, including uses-and-gratifications theory (Rubin 2009),[36]reinforcing spiral model (Slater 2007),[52] the conditional model of political communication effects (McLeod et al. 2009),[53] the elaboration likelihood model (Petty & Cacioppo 1986).[54] Take the elaboration likelihood model as an example: the variable of "need for cognition", indicating users' tendency to enjoy effortful information processing, is considered as a moderator of media effects on attitudes.

Media effects are transactional[edit]

Many theories assume reciprocal causal relationships between different variables, including characteristics of media users, factors in environment, and outcomes of media (Bandura 2009).[39] Transactional theories further support the selectivity paradigm (Feature 1), which assumes that audience somehow shapes their own media effects by selectively engaging in media use; transactional theories make an effort to explain how and why this occurs. Transactional media effects theories are the most complex among the five features. There are three basic assumptions. First, communication technologies (e.g., radio, television, internet) function as reciprocal mediators between information producers and receivers. They engage in transactions through these technologies (Bauer 1964).[55] Second, the effect of media content are reciprocal between producers and receivers of media content. They influence each other. Producers can be influenced by receivers because they learn from what the audience needs and prefer (Webster 2009).[56] Third, transactions can be distinguished as interpersonal.

However, these features are only limited within micro-level media effects studies, which are mostly focused on short-term, immediate, individual effects. We look forward to more syntheses on macro-level research.[57]

Political importance of mass media and how mass media influence political decisions[edit]

The images that media create and carry the weight of social responsibility and the right side of social value. Audiences learn and conduct their political sights of view from reading, listening to the political analysis and evaluation. The mass media are powerful guardians of proper political behavior because audience tends to trust the press who should inform them about government wrongdoing and providing proper suggestions. All of the mass media are politically important because of their potential to reach large groups of audiences. However, the influence of each media varies depending on their characteristics, ease of access and the quantity of the audience reached.[58] Print media, including newspaper, article and news on internet webpage usually reach to those readers who are literate at appropriate levels and understand the factual political environment. Electronic media especially television broadcasts provide a greater sense of reality which sometimes provide more credibility than others and stronger influence to the audiences. Moreover, large segments of the U.S. population have limited reading skills, they usually find better understanding from conveying physical images, conversation and interviews between people from electronic media. They are especially well suited to attract viewers’ attention and arouse their emotions.[59]

Since now it is the era of the Internet, the effect of Internet has extended every area. Politics is no exception, the relationship between organization and public opinion has been influenced by new media. New media includes online newspaper, blogs, social media and so on. More and more people prefer new media than traditional media because of the less limitation of new media, such as time limitation and space limitation. Most people have a cell phone or a computer. They can catch the news anytime in anyplace. As a result, new media has a greater impact on people. Politicians also notice new media is a more effective way to convey their message, and they use it to attract supporters. For example, both Barack Obama and The White House have Facebook page and Twitter. They can easily communicate with the public and gather them together by “share” and “like it”, which will benefit their political activities especially for presidential campaigns, because social media can help the candidate get their vote. Public opinion also affect politics through the new media. New media provides a two-way communication, which achieves an interactive role. People can directly send message to government and politicians can comment online.[60] If people are dissatisfied with the government, they can express their thought through social media and discuss with other people online. When those comments gather together, it will draw public opinion to focus on the wrongdoings of government. Since new media has a large user base, the political activity is followed by more people than before. New media lets people can better supervise government behavior. Also, governments can know public opinion through new media as reference for decision making. Although new media has both positive and negative effect on politics, it narrows the relationship between the public and politics. Public is not only an information receiver anymore. People also can give their advice and opinion to the government. Government also have a chance to get to know the thought of citizens.[61]

The media play an indispensable role in the proper functioning of a democracy. Without mass media, openness and accountability are very tough to reach in contemporary democracies. The media can inform the public of how effectively the current government or candidates have performed in the past and help them to account. Nevertheless, mass media can also hinder political transparency as well as help it. Politicians and political operatives can simulate the political virtues of transparency through rhetorical and media manipulation. There are three major societal functions that mass media perform to the political decisions raised by the political scientist Harold Lasswell: surveillance of the world to report ongoing events, interpretation of the meaning of events, and socialization of individuals into their cultural settings. The mass media regularly present politically crucial information on huge audiences and it also represents the reaction from the audience rapidly through the mass media. The government or the political decision-makers have the chance to have a better understanding of the real reaction from the public of those decisions they have made.[62]

See also[edit]


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Figure 1: McQuail's typology of media effects

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