One of the longest-running disputes in communication and media theory is the question of how much the media influence their audiences and how persuasive communication can be. Some academics study the psychology of individuals to understand different responses to messages such as advertisements or health campaigns. Other academics study the connections between violence on television and violence in society. There are those who argue that the media have a powerful role to play in shaping public opinion and others who say it is actually very hard to persuade others, especially via the mass media. This section cannot cover all of these debates but looks at some of the issues most relevant to the student of public relations.
Early theories of media effects evolved between the two world wars and were heavily influenced by the Nazi use of new media such as cinema as propaganda. The Frankfurt School of academics who fled Nazi Germany in the early 1930s carried overwhelming fears that mass media would generate mass effects and that whoever controlled the media would control their society. Their view is sometimes described as the ‘hypodermic model’, suggesting that audiences are passive and react in a uniform manner to a media message. But US social scientists (especially the Yale School) after the Second World War – also concerned about the power of propaganda – conducted extensive research into voter behavior which suggested that people are actually more likely to be influenced by their friends and neighbours or other opinion formers’ than the papers they read. This was called the two-step flow’ theory and was developed by Katz and Lazerfield (1955) (look at the image).
This idea dominated the discussion of the media and communication effects and stimulated more research into the psychology of individuals and how people respond to messages. Questions of attitude formation and change, beliefs, values, and opinions were investigated as part of the research into persuasive communication. However, in the 1970s, some academics (including the Birmingham School) returned to the ideas of the Frankfurt School and re-examined them. They looked at the effect of the media on society and on class and found that the media tended to support the interests of capitalism and its owners, of course). Researchers found negative media images of working people, women, ethnic minorities, and others with less power in society. At this time ideas such as ‘agenda-setting’ were developed, where journalists select what is important to publish according to their implicit or explicit views of society. Unlike the Frankfurt School or the Yale School, this group looked at effects on society as a whole, rather than on individuals. Their more subtle description of effects has gained continuing currency, while questions of effect on individuals – such as those exposed to violence – are still unclear.
The influence of semiotics gave rise to the reception theory of media effects, where meaning is constructed in the reader or viewer (see above). Stuart Hall (1980), a leading member of the Birmingham School, proposed that the media create ‘preferred readings which suggest how reality should be seen. In 2003, many media commentators expressed alarm at the partisan language and images with which US TV reported the Iraqi War. There was no doubt about how the audience was meant to respond (see also spiral of silence, below). Other theorists rejected the idea that the media promotes a particular point of view, but suggested that there might be a more neutral ‘agenda-setting effect, whereby media reporting does not influence what people think, but what they think about. It is certainly true that different issues dominate media debates over the longer term so that coverage of topics like education or health will fluctuate considerably over a decade. But the question still remains – if the media select the topics readers talk about, who sets their agenda?
Others have looked at the way the media, especially television, constructs reality through its use of images. Readers of the Daily Mail and the Guardian, for example, would have very different ideas about the effects and indeed the extent of asylum seekers in the UK. The way the journalist, the media organization and the reader ‘frame’ such stories may affect the way these issues are discussed by individuals, the media, and politicians. Where one reading or frame comes to dominate the way the media handles a story, readers/viewers with dissenting opinions may find no reflection of their views in the mass media. According to public opinion theorist Noelle-Neumann (1991, quoted in McQuail 2000: 461), because society tends to isolate those with different or deviant’ views, and because most people fear social isolation, when a person fears their views are not shared by others they are less likely to express their opinions. This has been called the ‘spiral of silence effect: dominant views gain strength; minority views fall silent. Some US residents who did not support the 2003 war turned to BBC World TV for their sources of information. This illustrates the power the media may accrue where the audience has little information about a subject and are highly dependent on the media for information.
Audiences are not the only groups with problems accessing alternative information The increased deadlines and reduced resources of media organizations, wh produce material round the clock or in many more editions, can in tum make journalists highly dependent on public relations departments. PR people provide a ready supply of material to fill the ever-increasing hours of airtime and acres of newsprint, whether the subject is the latest war or celebrity, and journalists do not always challenge these sources. The management of news by public relations is often called ‘spin’ but is not confined to the political arena. Access to the Beckhams is probably more controlled than that of senior government ministers. Many movie stars only agree to interviews if the list of questions is agreed in advance and no awkward issues are raised.
He says the journalistic view is that (1) events are matched against (2) news criteria which, if satisfied, underpin (3) a news report which generates (4) news interest. He suggests instead that (1) news interest influences (2) news criteria, which lead to (3) events, which are covered in (4) news reports. This perhaps provides a more accurate description of celebrity-driven media and shows how public relations may be involved in creating the (3) events which are covered.
The various theories suggest that the media do have a profound influence but it is not a simple case of cause and effect. Often the most attractive theories are not supported by research evidence (McQuail 2000). However, many public relations practitioners still behave as if the stimulus-response/message-effect links are unchallenged (Windahl et al. 1992). These communicators have not moved on from the linear model and tend to be engaged in publicity or other one-way communications. It is, after all, hard to explain that your campaign may not work because the theories about the effects of communication are unclear. Better to suggest that as long as people receive the message, they’re bound to fall in with it. However, as health campaigners have found over the decades, the reality is very different.
Professional communicators need to be aware of the potential for good and harm contained in their messages – an example is a debate about the effect of the use of very thin models on the rate of eating disorders in young girls. Clearly, those who argue for control of images are not saying that one fashion spread can make a healthy girl ill, but they are saying that through general representations of desirable’ women, girls and young women receive an impression of an ‘ideal’ bodyweight that is actually distorted.
The concepts and theories explored in this chapter suggest ways of looking at communication and at the mass media. Many “how-to” PR books suggest communication is easy; the reality is that it is complicated and involves not only the personalities of the sender and the receiver, the particular requirements of each medium, the public nature of the messages, but also the power to influence, directly or indirectly, society as a whole. Public relations can be a powerful agent – handle it with care.