article was published (as 'Ten things wrong with the "effects model"') in Roger Dickinson, Ramaswani Harindranath & Olga Linné, eds (1998), Approaches to Audiences – A Reader, published by Arnold, London.
The article is
by © David Gauntlett, 1998. Not to be republished
without permission. May be used for educational purposes, provided that the author
and source are acknowledged.
This essay provides an overview and restatement of what I was trying to say in
Moving Experiences. The book examines all of the
studies in detail, and generally concludes that the research has failed to show
that the media has any kind of direct or predictable effects on people. This essay
takes a slightly different approach, setting out ten reasons why 'effects research'
as we have seen it so far seems to be fundamentally flawed and is often surprisingly
poor. This leads to a slightly different (implicit) conclusion, that media influences
are something that we still know very little about, because the research hasn't
been very good or imaginative... and so, therefore, it's still an open question.
At the same time, it remains true that no research is going to find direct or
predictable effects. Viewers wondering what other approaches to media influences
there might be, may want to look at Video Critical,
which demonstrates a new audience research method using video production, and
discusses other alternative approaches.
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 the time comes 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?
There is, as I
see it, a choice of two conclusions which can be drawn from any detailed analysis
of the research. The first is that if, after over sixty years of a considerable
amount of research effort, direct effects of media upon behaviour have not been
clearly identified, then we should conclude that they are simply not there
to be found. Since I have argued this case, broadly speaking, elsewhere (Gauntlett,
1995a), I will here explore the second possibility: that the media effects research
has quite consistently taken the wrong approach to the mass media, its
audiences, and society in general. This misdirection has taken a number of forms;
for the purposes of this chapter, I will impose an unwarranted coherence upon
the claims of all those who argue or purport to have found that the mass media
will commonly have direct and reasonably predictable effects upon the behaviour
of their fellow human beings, calling this body of thought, simply, the 'effects
model'. Rather than taking apart each study individually, I will consider the
mountain of studies - and the associated claims about media effects made by commentators
- as a whole, and outline ten fundamental flaws in their approach.
1. The effects
model tackles social problems 'backwards'
To explain the
problem of violence in society, researchers should begin with that social violence
and seek to explain it with reference, quite obviously, to those who engage in
it: their identity, background, character and so on. The 'media effects' approach,
in this sense, comes at the problem backwards, by starting with the media
and then trying to lasso connections from there on to social beings, rather than
the other way around.
This is an important
distinction. Criminologists, in their professional attempts to explain crime and
violence, consistently turn for explanations not to the mass media but to social
factors such as poverty, unemployment, housing, and the behaviour of family and
peers. In a study which did start at what I would recognise as the correct
end - by interviewing 78 violent teenage offenders and then tracing their behaviour
back towards media usage, in comparison with a group of over 500 'ordinary' school
pupils of the same age - Hagell & Newburn (1994) found only that the young
offenders watched less television and video than their counterparts, had
less access to the technology in the first place, had no particular interest in
specifically violent programmes, and either enjoyed the same material as non-offending
teenagers or were simply uninterested. This point was demonstrated very
clearly when the offenders were asked, 'If you had the chance to be someone who
appears on television, who would you choose to be?':
felt particularly uncomfortable with this question and appeared to have difficulty
in understanding why one might want to be such a person... In several interviews,
the offenders had already stated that they watched little television, could not
remember their favourite programmes and, consequently, could not think of anyone
to be. In these cases, their obvious failure to identify with any television characters
seemed to be part of a general lack of engagement with television' (p. 30).
Thus we can see
that studies which take the perpetrators of actual violence as their first point
of reference, rather than the media, come to rather different conclusions (and
there is certainly a need for more such research). The point that effects studies
take the media as their starting point, however, should not be taken to suggest
that they involve sensitive examinations of the mass media. As will be noted below,
the studies have typically taken a stereotyped, almost parodic view of media content.
In more general
terms, the 'backwards' approach involves the mistake of looking at individuals,
rather than society, in relation to the mass media. The narrowly individualistic
approach of some psychologists leads them to argue that, because of their belief
that particular individuals at certain times in specific circumstances may be
negatively affected by one bit of media, the removal of such media from society
would be a positive step. This approach is rather like arguing that the solution
to the number of road traffic accidents in Britain would be to lock away one famously
poor driver from Cornwall; that is, a blinkered approach which tackles a real
problem from the wrong end, involves cosmetic rather than relevant changes, and
fails to look in any way at the 'bigger picture'.
2. The effects
model treats children as inadequate
of the psychological discipline has also had a significant impact on the way in
which children are regarded in effects research. Whilst sociology in recent decades
has typically regarded childhood as a social construction, demarcated by attitudes,
traditions and rituals which vary between different societies and different time
periods (Ariés, 1962; Jenks, 1982, 1996), the psychology of childhood - developmental
psychology - has remained more tied to the idea of a universal individual who
must develop through particular stages before reaching adult maturity, as established
by Piaget (e.g. 1926, 1929). The developmental stages are arranged as a hierarchy,
from incompetent childhood through to rational, logical adulthood, and progression
through these stages is characterised by an 'achievement ethic' (Jenks, 1996,
then, children are often considered not so much in terms of what they can
do, as what they (apparently) cannot. Negatively defined as non-adults, the research
subjects are regarded as the 'other', a strange breed whose failure to match generally
middle-class adult norms must be charted and discussed. Most laboratory studies
of children and the media presume, for example, that their findings apply only
to children, but fail to run parallel studies with adult groups to confirm this.
We might speculate that this is because if adults were found to respond to laboratory
pressures in the same way as children, the 'common sense' validity of the experiments
would be undermined.
In her valuable
examination of the way in which academic studies have constructed and maintained
a particular perspective on childhood, Christine Griffin (1993) has recorded the
ways in which studies produced by psychologists, in particular, have tended to
'blame the victim', to represent social problems as the consequence of the deficiencies
or inadequacies of young people, and to 'psychologize inequalities, obscuring
structural relations of domination behind a focus on individual "deficient"
working-class young people and/or young people of colour, their families or cultural
backgrounds' (p. 199). Problems such as unemployment and the failure of education
systems are thereby traced to individual psychology traits. The same kinds of
approach are readily observed in media effects studies, the production of which
has undoubtedly been dominated by psychologically-oriented researchers, who -
whilst, one imagines, having nothing other than benevolent intentions - have carefully
exposed the full range of ways in which young media users can be seen as the inept
victims of products which, whilst obviously puerile and transparent to adults,
can trick children into all kinds of ill-advised behaviour.
is clearly exposed by research which seeks to establish what children can and
do understand about and from the mass media. Such projects have shown that children
can talk intelligently and indeed cynically about the mass media (Buckingham,
1993, 1996), and that children as young as seven can make thoughtful, critical
and 'media literate' video productions themselves (Gauntlett, 1997).
within the effects model are characterised by barely-concealed conservative ideology
derision of children's resistant capacities can be seen as part of a broader conservative
project to position the more contemporary and challenging aspects of the mass
media, rather than other social factors, as the major threat to social stability
today. American effects studies, in particular, tend to assume a level of television
violence which - as Barrie Gunter shows in this volume - is simply not applicable
in other countries such as Britain. George Gerbner's view, for example, that 'We
are awash in a tide of violent representations unlike any the world has ever seen...
drenching every home with graphic scenes of expertly choreographed brutality'
(1994, p. 133), both reflects his hyperbolic view of the media in America and
the extent to which findings cannot be simplistically transferred across the Atlantic.
Whilst it is certainly possible that gratuitous depictions of violence might reach
a level in American 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 obviously '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).
of generalised screen 'violence' by conservative critics, supported by the 'findings'
of the effects studies - if we disregard their precarious foundations - can often
be traced to concerns such as 'disrespect for authority' and 'anti-patriotic sentiments'
(most conspicuously in Michael Medved's well-received Hollywood vs. America:
Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values (1992)). Programmes which
do not necessarily contain any greater quantity of violent, sexual or other
controversial depictions than others, can be seen to be objected to because they
take a more challenging socio-political stance (Barker, 1984, 1989, 1993). This
was illustrated by a study of over 2,200 complaints about British TV and radio
which were sent to the Broadcasting Standards Council over an 18 month period
from July 1993 to December 1994 (Gauntlett, 1995c). This showed that a relatively
narrow range of most complained-of programmes were taken by complainants to characterise
a much broader decline in the morals of both broadcasting in particular and the
nation in general.
This view of a
section of the public is clearly reflected in a large number of the effects studies
which presume that 'antisocial' behaviour is an objective category which can be
observed in numerous programmes and which will negatively affect those children
who see it portrayed. This dark view is constructed with the support of content
analysis studies which appear almost designed to incriminate the media. Even today,
expensive and avowedly 'scientific' content analyses such as the well-publicised
US National Television Violence Study (Mediascope, 1996; run by the Universities
of California, North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin), for example, include odd
tests such as whether violent acts are punished within the same scene -
a strange requirement for dramas - making it easier to support views such as that
'there are substantial risks of harmful effects from viewing violence throughout
the television environment' (p. ix). [Footnote: Examination of programmes in full,
sensibly also included in this study, found that ‘punishments occur by the end
of the program (62%) more often than not for bad characters’, however (Mediascope,
1996, p. 15). Despite this finding, and the likelihood that a number of the remaining
38% would be punished in subsequent programmes, much is made of the finding that
‘violence goes unpunished (73%) in almost three out of four scenes’ (point repeated
on p. x, p. 15, p. 25; my emphasis)]. This study also reflects the continuing
willingness of researchers to impute effects from a count-up of content.
4. The effects
model inadequately defines its own objects of study
The flaws numbered
four to six in this list are more straightforwardly methodological, although they
are connected to the previous and subsequent points. The first of these is that
effects studies have generally taken for granted the definitions of media material,
such as 'antisocial' and 'prosocial' programming, as well as characterisations
of behaviour in the real world, such as 'antisocial' and 'prosocial' action. The
point has already been made that these can be ideological value judgements; throwing
down a book in disgust, smashing a nuclear missile, or - to use a Beavis and
Butt-Head example - sabotaging activities at one's burger bar workplace, will
always be interpreted in effects studies as 'antisocial', not 'prosocial'.
such as verbal aggression or hitting an inanimate object are recorded as acts
of violence, just as TV murders are, leading to terrifically (and irretrievably)
murky data. It is usually impossible to discern whether very minor or extremely
serious acts of 'violence' depicted in the media are being said to have led to
quite severe or merely trivial acts in the real world. More significant, perhaps,
is the fact that this is rarely seen as a problem: in the media effects field,
dodgy 'findings' are accepted with an uncommon hospitality.
5. The effects
model is often based on artificial studies
sociological studies of media effects require amounts of time and money which
limit their abundance, they are heavily outnumbered by simpler studies which are
usually characterised by elements of artificiality. Such studies typically take
place in a laboratory, or in a 'natural' setting such as a classroom but where
a researcher has conspicuously shown up and instigated activities, neither of
which are typical environments. Instead of a full and naturally-viewed television
diet, research subjects are likely to be shown selected or specially-recorded
clips which lack the narrative meaning inherent in everyday TV productions. They
may then be observed in simulations of real life presented to them as a game,
in relation to inanimate objects such as Bandura's famous 'bobo' doll, or as they
respond to questionnaires, all of which are unlike interpersonal interaction,
cannot be equated with it, and are likely to be associated with the previous viewing
experience in the mind of the subject, rendering the study invalid.
Such studies also
rely on the idea that subjects will not alter their behaviour or stated attitudes
as a response to being observed or questioned. This naive belief has been shown
to be false by researchers such as Borden (1975) who have demonstrated that the
presence, appearance and gender of an observer can radically affect children's
6. The effects
model is often based on studies with misapplied methodology
Many of the studies
which do not rely on an experimental method, and so may evade the flaws mentioned
in the previous section, fall down instead by applying a methodological procedure
wrongly, or by drawing inappropriate conclusions from particular methods. The
widely-cited longitudinal panel study by Huesmann, Eron and colleagues (Lefkowitz,
Eron, Walder & Huesmann, 1972, 1977), for example, has been less famously
slated for failing to keep to the procedures, such as assessing aggressivity or
TV viewing with the same measures at different points in time, which are necessary
for their statistical findings to have any validity (Chaffee, 1972; Kenny, 1972).
[Footnote: A longitudinal panel study is one in which the same group of people
(the panel) are surveyed and/or observed at a number of points over a period of
time]. The same researchers have also failed to adequately account for why the
findings of this study and those of another of their own studies (Huesmann, Lagerspetz
& Eron, 1984) absolutely contradict each other, with the former concluding
that the media has a marginal effect on boys but no effect on girls, and the latter
arguing the exact opposite (no effect on boys, but a small effect for girls).
They also seem to ignore that fact that their own follow-up of their original
set of subjects 22 years later suggested that a number of biological, developmental
and environmental factors contributed to levels of aggression, whilst the mass
media was not even given a mention (Huesmann, Eron, Lefkowitz & Walder, 1984).
These astounding inconsistencies, unapologetically presented by perhaps the best-known
researchers in this area, must be cause for considerable unease about the effects
model. More careful use of the same methods, such as in the three-year
panel study involving over 3,000 young people conducted by Milavsky, Kessler,
Stipp & Rubens (1982a, 1982b), has only indicated that significant media effects
are not to be found.
of method occurs when studies which are simply unable to show that one thing causes
another are treated as if they have done so. Correlation studies are typically
used for this purpose. Their finding that a particular personality type is also
the kind of person who enjoys a certain kind of media, is quite unable to show
that the latter causes the former, although psychologists such as Van Evra
(1990) have casually assumed that this is probably the case. There is a logical
coherence to the idea that children whose behaviour is antisocial and disruptional
will also have a greater interest in the more violent and noisy television programmes,
whereas the idea that the behaviour is a product of these programmes lacks
both this rational consistency, and the support of the studies.
7. The effects
model is selective in its criticisms of media depictions of violence
In addition to
the point that 'antisocial' acts are ideologically defined in effects studies
(as noted in section three above), we can also note that the media depictions
of 'violence' which the effects model typically condemns are limited to fictional
productions. The acts of violence which appear on a daily basis on news and serious
factual programmes are seen as somehow exempt. The point here is not that depictions
of violence in the news should necessarily be condemned in just the same, blinkered
way, but rather to draw attention to another philosophical inconsistency which
the model cannot account for. 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
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. This view is taken to extremes by researchers
and campaigners whose work brings them into regular contact with the supposedly
corrupting material, but who are unconcerned for their own well-being as they
implicitly 'know' that the effects will only be on 'other people'. Insofar as
these others are defined as children or 'unstable' individuals, their approach
may seem not unreasonable; it is fair enough that such questions should be explored.
Nonetheless, the idea that it is unruly 'others' who will be affected - the uneducated?
the working class? - remains at the heart of the effects paradigm, and is reflected
in its texts (as well, presumably, as in the researchers' overenthusiastic interpretation
of weak or flawed data, as discussed above).
and his colleagues, for example, write about 'heavy' television viewers as if
this media consumption has necessarily had the opposite effect on the weightiness
of their brains. Such people are assumed to have no selectivity or critical skills,
and their habits are explicitly contrasted with preferred activities: 'Most viewers
watch by the clock and either do not know what they will watch when they turn
on the set, or follow established routines rather than choose each program as
they would choose a book, a movie or an article' (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan &
Signorielli, 1986, p.19). This view, which knowingly makes inappropriate comparisons
by ignoring the serial nature of many TV programmes, and which is unable to account
for the widespread use of TV guides and VCRs with which audiences plan and arrange
their viewing, reveals the kind of elitism and snobbishness which often seems
to underpin such research. The point here is not that the content of the mass
media must not be criticised, but rather that the mass audience themselves are
not well served by studies which are willing to treat them as potential savages
or actual fools.
9. The effects
model makes no attempt to understand meanings of the media
A further fundamental
flaw, hinted at in points three and four above, is that the effects model necessarily
rests on a base of reductive assumptions and unjustified stereotypes regarding
media content. To assert that, say, 'media violence' will bring negative consequences
is not only to presume that depictions of violence in the media will always be
promoting antisocial behaviour, and that such a category exists and makes sense,
as noted above, but also assumes that the medium holds a singular message which
will be carried unproblematically to the audience. The effects model therefore
performs the double deception of presuming (a) that the media presents a singular
and clear-cut 'message', and (b) that the proponents of the effects model are
in a position to identify what that message is.
The meanings of
media content are ignored in the simple sense that assumptions are made based
on the appearance of elements removed from their context (for example, woman hitting
man equals violence equals bad), and in the more sophisticated sense that even
in context the meanings may be different for different viewers (woman hitting
man equals an unpleasant act of aggression, or appropriate self-defence,
or a triumphant act of revenge, or a refreshing change, or
is simply uninteresting, or any of many further alternative readings).
In-depth qualitative studies have unsurprisingly given support to the view that
media audiences routinely arrive at their own, often heterogeneous, interpretations
of everyday media texts (e.g. Buckingham, 1993, 1996; Hill, 1997; Schlesinger,
Dobash, Dobash & Weaver, 1992; Gray, 1992; Palmer, 1986). Since the effects
model rides roughshod over both the meanings that actions have for characters
in dramas and the meanings which those depicted acts may have for the audience
members, it can retain little credibility with those who consider popular entertainment
to be more than just a set of very basic propaganda messages flashed at the audience
in the simplest possible terms.
10. The effects
model is not grounded in theory
Finally, and underlying
many of the points made above, is the fundamental problem that the entire argument
of the 'effects model' is substantiated with no theoretical reasoning beyond the
bald assertions that particular kinds of effects will be produced by the
media. The basic question of why the media should induce people to imitate
its content has never been adequately tackled, beyond the simple idea that particular
actions are 'glamorised'. (Obviously, antisocial actions are shown really
positively so infrequently that this is an inadequate explanation). Similarly,
the question of how merely seeing an activity in the media would be translated
into an actual motive which would prompt an individual to behave in a particular
way is just as unresolved. The lack of firm theory has led to the effects model
being based in the variety of assumptions outlined above - that the media (rather
than people) is the unproblematic starting-point for research; that children will
be unable to 'cope' with the media; that the categories of 'violence' or 'antisocial
behaviour' are clear and self-evident; that the model's predictions can be verified
by scientific research; that screen fictions are of concern, whilst news pictures
are not; that researchers have the unique capacity to observe and classify social
behaviour and its meanings, but that those researchers need not attend to the
various possible meanings which media content may have for the audience. Each
of these very substantial problems has its roots in the failure of media effects
commentators to found their model in any coherent theory.
So what future
for research on media influences?
The effects model,
we have seen, has remarkably little going for it as an explanation of human behaviour,
or of the media in society. Whilst any challenging or apparently illogical theory
or model reserves the right to demonstrate its validity through empirical data,
the effects model has failed also in that respect. Its continued survival is indefensible
and unfortunate. However, the failure of this particular model does not
mean that the impact of the mass media can no longer be considered or investigated.
The studies by
Greg Philo and Glasgow University Media Group colleagues, for example, have used
often imaginative methods to explore the influence of media presentations upon
perceptions and interpretations of factual matters (e.g. Philo, 1990; Philo, ed.,
1996). I have realised rather late that my own study (Gauntlett, 1997) in which
children made videos about the environment, which were used as a way of understanding
the discourses and perspectives on environmentalism which the children had acquired
from the media, can be seen as falling broadly within this tradition. The strength
of this work is that it operates on a terrain different from that occupied by
the effects model; even at the most obvious level, it is about influences
and perceptions, rather than effects and behaviour. However,
whilst such studies may provide valuable reflections on the relationship between
mass media and audiences, they cannot - for the same reason - directly challenge
claims made from within the 'effects model' paradigm (as Miller & Philo (1996)
have misguidedly supposed). This is not a weakness of these studies, of course;
the effects paradigm should be left to bury itself whilst prudent media researchers
move on to explore these other areas.
Any paradigm which
is able to avoid the flaws and assumptions which have inevitably and quite rightly
ruined the effects model is likely to have some advantages. With the rise of qualitative
studies which actually listen to media audiences, we are seeing the advancement
of a more forward-thinking, sensible and compassionate view of those who enjoy
the mass media. After decades of stunted and rather irresponsible talk about media
'effects', the emphasis is hopefully changing towards a more sensitive but rational
approach to media scholarship.
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