Revisiting “Ten things wrong with the media effects model” by David Gauntlett

There are no coincidences. Last week I was chairing a session on the “Family Diversity and Gender” conference and a propos of a paper about domestic violence, the discussion progressed to all forms of violence and media’s role: Has the media an important role on exposing violence cases? But, aren’t we perpetuating and exploring violence? Is media turning violence into an ordinary daily issue, that can’t make us feel shocked about it anymore? Globally speaking, what are the media effects?
I was moderating the debate and recalling Gauntlett’s paper on this particular subject. What was interesting, was that in last week’s Obercom’s newsletter, Gustavo Cardoso talks about Gauntlett’s article. He evokes the paper to contextualize the Portuguese summer news, mainly about a growing violence: bank assaults by Brazilians; racial uprisings – gypsies against Africans, physical confronts in the poor neighborhoods. It was a hot summer indeed…although this year, fires where replaced by other forms of human violence. So, as there are no coincidences, I had to revisit the paper.
David Gauntlett’s paper was first published in 1998. This version was re-published with some improvements in “Moving Experiences, Second Edition: Media Effects and Beyond” (2005). This shows that the core ideas are still extremely valid, what reflects little changes in the field.
Media effects are related to the ways media affect their audience. In other words, different models describe how media affect the way people think and behave. It’s generally assumed that the media have an important role in forming the public opinion, although their effects are not consensually proved. Studies on media effects started in the late 30s, and initially mass media were seen as an evil way of blocking individuals’ autonomy. For example, Talcott Parsons explained how they were instruments of social control. The audience was passive to the will of the media. We moved from theories of unlimited effects – like the magic bullet – to the limited effect – like the two step flow of communication. Other models followed: the cognitive effects, agenda-setting, information processing, coding/encoding, etc. The shift changed globally from a passive audience to an active one, moving from simplistic paradigms to more complex ones.
A great number of theorists have been working on media effects: Lazarsfeld (1948) and his opinion leaders and selective exposition; White (1961) and the Gatekeeping perspective; Marshall McLuhan and The Medium is the Message expression (1964) that describes how the medium influences how the message is perceived; McCombs and Shaw (1972) defined the so-called agenda setting of the media; Blumler and Katz (1974) worked on what audiences do with media messages, developing the Uses and Gratifications Theory, also explored by Denis McQuail (1987); Jean Baudrillard and his studies on the consumer society (1970) and the hyperreality concept (1981) where essential for the field, like Noelle-Neumann (1984) spiral of silence; Graber (1988) and the process information theories, among others.
However, “It has become something of a cliché to observe that despite many decades of research and hundreds of studies, the connections between people’s consumption of the mass media and their subsequent behaviour have remained persistently elusive. Indeed, researchers have enjoyed an unusual degree of patience from both their scholarly and more public audiences. But a time must come when we must take a step back from this murky lack of consensus and ask – why? Why are there no clear answers on media effects?” (Gauntlett, 1998).
For Gauntlett, media effects research has been based in the wrong approach to audiences and society:
1. The effects model tackles social problems ‘backwards’
Taking the example of violence in society, researchers should start with that social problem and try to explain it with reference to those who are engaged in it: their background, lifestyles, character profiles, etc. The ‘media effects’ approach comes at the problem backwards, as it starts with the media and then try to develop connections from there on to social beings. It’s the error of looking at individuals, rather than society, in relation to the mass media.
2. The effects model treats children as inadequate
As if children (“negatively seen as non-adults) couldn’t understand or be critical, as children couldn’t cope with the media.
3. Assumptions within the effects model are characterized by barely-concealed conservative ideology
“Whilst it is certainly possible that gratuitous depictions of violence might reach a level in US screen media which could be seen as unpleasant and unnecessary, it cannot always be assumed that violence is shown for ‘bad’ reasons or in an uncritical light. Even the most ‘gratuitous’ acts of violence, such as those committed by Beavis and Butt-Head in their eponymous MTV series, can be interpreted as rationally resistant reactions to an oppressive world which has little to offer them (see Gauntlett, 1997). The way in which media effects researchers talk about the amount of violence in the media encourages the view that it is not important to consider the meaning of the scenes involving violence which appear on screen.”
4. The effects model inadequately defines its own objects of study
Effects studies accept with no discussion media concepts, like “antisocial” and “prosocial” programming, as well, as behaviours definition/characterization in the real world (here we go back to ideological value judgments). It addresses categories as always clear and unambiguous.
5. The effects model is often based on artificial elements and assumptions within studies
The validity of studies in the laboratory or in the classroom is questioned, as neither are typical environments. The researches based in other methods are often simplistic, selective and based on beliefs that subjects will not change their behavior.
6. The effects model is often based on studies with misapplied methodology
The author shows how a majority of studies apply a wrong methodological procedure and draw contestable conclusions. It assumes that researchers have the unique ability to observe and categorize social behavior and its meanings, not considering the diverse possible meanings which media content may have for the audience.
7. The effects model is selective in its criticisms of media depictions of violence
There’s a kind of philosophical inconsistency in the model, as the media representation of ‘violence’ which the effects model classically condemns is limited to fictional productions. However, the acts of violence which appear daily on news and reliable factual programs are seen as exemptions. “If the antisocial acts shown in drama series and films are expected to have an effect on the behaviour of viewers, even though such acts are almost always ultimately punished or have other negative consequences for the perpetrator, there is no obvious reason why the antisocial activities which are always in the news, and which frequently do not have such apparent consequences for their agents, should not have similar effects.”
8. The effects model assumes superiority to the masses
If in one hand, “Surveys typically show that whilst a certain proportion of the public feel that the media may cause other people to engage in antisocial behaviour, almost no-one ever says that they have been affected in that way themselves.” On the other hand, some studies perceive viewers as fools.
9. The effects model makes no attempt to understand meanings of the media
The effects model performs a double deception of presuming (a) that the media presents a singular and clear ‘message’, and (b) that the promoters of the effects model are able to identify what that message is. Theories forget that interpretations and perceptions are heterogeneous.
10. The effects model is not grounded in theory
The essential problem is that the entire argument of the ‘effects model’ is not corroborated by any theoretical reasoning beyond the assumptions that particular kinds of effects will be produced by the media. The basic question of why the media should make people imitate its content has never been sufficiently developed, as well, as the question on how seeing an action in the media would make an individual behave in a specific way.
Therefore, all the ten reasons (check Gauntlett’s paper for examples and a more profound explanation of each reason) emphasize that the media effects model fails, because it is based on simplistic and reductive suppositions and ungrounded stereotypes regarding media content. So, the question is still open, what future for research on media effects?

2 thoughts on “Revisiting “Ten things wrong with the media effects model” by David Gauntlett

  1. Chindu


    Interesting piece… I have always found this debate a bit confusing. From my reading of David’s papers and other works, what stands out is the fact that he does not say that there is no media effect. Essentially he seems to say that there is no media effect to be found the way we are researching now. Again, for the very reasons he elaborates, there is no way one could conclusively argue that there is no media effect. But most times, people — and I mean scholars — cite his work whenever they want to disprove effects model.

    Personally I believe in effects, of some degree. I also think that by its very nature it is difficult to prove things conclusively in social science — and for that reason, indicative findings, especially from a variety of independent sources, are good enough…


  2. Bárbara

    Thanks for your very insightful comment Chindu. In fact, David does not say that there are no effects, they are just not being observed and assessed as they should be….it continues to be a hard task. So I totally agree with you on this point. And I believe, as well, that there are effects….there are always social and psych. effects in any interaction/phenomenon.

    I also agree with the “problem” of proving things in social sciences…even the selection of a specific theme (and not forgetting all the research phases: the definition of a research question, selection of methods, ways of analyzing, etc.) is based on the researcher personal equation and perception of reality (check constructivists for instance). Nevertheless, social sciences are always an approximation to the reality…the only possible with the tools and bias we have. And reality has so many different dimensions…that is why multidisciplinary perspectives and methodological triangulations are so crucial. As Einstein used to say “When we compare research to reality it seems so immature, so incomplete…but that’s all we have”.

    Well, back to the effects discussion, I really think that the key is to acknowledge the complexity of this analysis and of the flaws of the model. It is definitely based on simplistic and reductive suppositions and ungrounded stereotypes regarding media content (and at the end it’s just a paradigm, a possible way of explaining reality). In addition, we need to drive for an interdisciplinary, holistic and more scientific approach.

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