Why media have so little impact on us

By Péter Bajomi-Lázár, Budapest Business School.

Media effects research and reception studies affirm that, contrary to popular belief, and even though we are permanently exposed to media content, legacy media have relatively little impact upon public opinion and voting behaviour in pluralist societies such as the United Kingdom and the United States. For example, Stuart Hall, of the Birmingham School, argues that media users are free to either subscribe to, or reject, or negotiate the dominant meaning encoded in media messages.

But what explains the limited impact of media? Here are three explanations for your consideration.

Early research refers to Leon Festinger’s influential cognitive dissonance theory. For example, Josepf Klapper argues that we use media selectively: we primarily read, listen to and watch outlets that reinforce our pre-existing attitudes and opinions so that we do not need to reconsider our position on issues that construct the very bases of our identity. The ritual theory of communication makes a similar argument. James Carey suggests that media establish a domain “for the creation, representation and celebration of shared … beliefs … This projection of community ideals … creates … symbolic order that operates to provide not information but confirmation.” In other words, we do not only use the media to gather information so that we can form an unbiased opinion, but also use them to reinforce our existing view of the world.

More recently, David Morley, also of the Birmingham School, suggested that the media are but one of many sources of influences that we all are permanently exposed to, including interpersonal communication and personal experience. “Because we all bring to our [television] viewing those other discourses and sets of representations with which we are in contact in other areas of our lives, the messages that we receive from the media do not confront us in isolation. They intersect with other messages … how we respond to messages from the media depends precisely on the extent to which they fit with, or possibly contradict, other messages, other viewpoints that we have come across in other areas of our lives.” In other words, why suppose that the media’s impact is more powerful than other influences such as those by the family, the school, or the church?

There is yet another, perhaps unusual, explanation. John R. Almond et al. suggest in a recent article that political attitudes and behaviours are the result of not only environmental factors (such as media effects or family socialisation), but also of genetic factors. Comparing 50 identical and 50 non-identical twins—all being exposed to largely similar environmental influences—they find that the political attitudes of identical twins are closer than those of non-identical twins, and therefore suggest that “genetic transmission frequently affects clusters of political attitudes.”

These three are, of course, complementary, rather than alternative explanations. But, put together, they may help us better understand what factors might mitigate and modify media effects.

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