The topic of influence and power of mass media has become important among researchers of communication field since the moment it appeared. It is difficult to underestimate the potential and the role which mass media plays in people’s lives, still some of the researchers are concerned with relatively limited media’s control and impact on society. They claim that the content of a message is just one factor which defines the reaction of audiences; therefore, in order to decrease the chance of unexpected response to the message these factors have to be taken into account.
The review is going to examine three studies, which are written by Fearing (1954), Tichenor, Donohue & Olien (1970) and Noelle-Neemann (1974). Fearing was the first out three who came up with “paradoxes of communication effects” (p. 191). Tichenor et al. discovered a difference in acquiring information by people with higher socioeconomic status and those with lower and as a result created a concept of a knowledge gap. Finally, Noelle-Neemann explored the way public opinion forms and changes over the time and came up with a model of the spiral of silence. The mass media undoubtedly has a huge potential for widespread influence.
Both Noelle-Neemann and Fearing agree on its power and abilities. Fearing (1954, p. 166) seems to be astonished saying that a message emanating from a “single source” is potentially able to reach millions of people and shape their minds. Noelle-Neemann (1974, p. 87) echoes the colleague 20 years later considering that the mass media actively participates in a process of creating a public opinion by providing a certain environment. Before analyzing the main points offered by the researchers it is interesting to pay attention to the way the different theorists structured their work and reached the findings.
Both Fearing and Tichenor et al. combined and analyzed the data of other researchers in the field, which allowed them to cover several aspects and develop broader discussion on a topic, and that, of course, made their articles richer in content and full of supporting examples. Whereas Noelle-Neemann advanced a hypothesis and conducted her own research in order to test it; therefore, discussion she raised is more narrow and specific but not of less importance. It is also important to mention the nature of the topics which were chosen to test the theories.
Noelle-Neemann and Tichenor et al. selected topics which controversy was clearly on the surface, such as political issues, social problems, etc. In contrast, Fearing analyzes the examples where controversy is at a deeper level – hidden; sometimes there is no place for dispute at all. For instance, he refers to the example of the famous radio broadcast “War of the Worlds” which portrayed fictional landing of aliens’ in New Jersey. The format of the program was the same with the news flash – it interrupted the musical program and a concert in order to forewarn citizens.
The majority of the audience was just entertained, whereas a certain segment – at the minimum a million – felt scared. The fear was demonstrated by calling to ambulances, warnings, information centers, neighbours, etc. (Fearing, 1954, p. 167). In fact, Fearing is more concerned not with a topic controversy but with personal factors that determine whether the issue is controversial or not. The main difference between the three researchers is that Fearing focuses on individual’s perception, whereas Tichenor et al. nd Noelle-Neemann explore how these individuals interact and make the whole picture. Fearing refers to “two-way” communication model, which implies perceiving a message in a situation, where he emphasizes the importance of need-motivational-value-belief system. Therefore Fearing says that it is extremely difficult for communicator to transmit ideas, because people decode them according to their values and believes. Tichenor et al. , nevertheless, also came up with several factors which determine person’s exposure to information. In that way Fearing and Tichenor et al. gree on the following points that influence the way a person interprets a message: socioeconomic status, existing knowledge, cognitive structures and the nature of the medium. Socioeconomic status stands for education and the existing knowledge implies perceiving a message according to already stored information and experience. Cognitive structures allow a person to perceive information selectively according to his/her values and beliefs. And, finally, the nature of the medium is seen as helping to strengthen the content. Even though Fearing and Tichenor et al. ave much in common, still the latter put educational background at the heart of their position, while Fearing has education as just one of the factors; he also refers to need-value-motivational system and situational factors. One of the Fearing situational factors is concerned with a climate of opinion, which is the main focus of the research for Noelle-Neemann. She found that before people express their own views they first observe opinion trends – which are the most popular, which are less; based on that people decide whether to express themselves publicly or not.
If their opinion coincides with the prevailing view then they are more willing to expose themselves and vice versa. What is also very important is that this situation changes over the time – the majority becomes minority and is less likely to speak up. Noelle-Neemann proves that the public opinion mirrors the view of the majority, not the whole public, while the minority keeps silence being afraid of isolation; hence, the prevailing view swallows up the rest. And at the point when more and more people adjust their opinions the prevailing ones the spiraling process starts.
Consequently, the communication professionals have to take into consideration that people will not act and respond to the content the way they feel before a safe environment will be assured, where people may feel their confidence and willingness to expose themselves, otherwise they will respond with silence. Speaking about effects of mass media, Fearing believes that the effects of mass media cannot be predicted. Even if an interpreter is in a harmony with content and situational factors the reaction can be absolutely unexpected, such as overt action. He refers to an example of Kate Smith, popular U.
S. singer, asking listeners during the radio programme to buy war bonds. Her one or two minute speech resulted in 39 million dollars in one day time (Fearing, 1954, p. 168). Noelle-Neemann also thinks that the influence of the mass media is difficult to measure and when studying it the concept of the spiral of silence has to be kept in mind. To conclude, the three studies reviewed above confirmed media’s limited control despite the potential power. Media’s ability to control comes down because of the fact that the effects are difficult and sometimes even impossible to predict.
There is a huge amount of factors which have to be taken into account while trying to shape audiences’ desired response, such as people’s characteristics, situational factors, etc. Looking to the future, message creators and distributors have to pay more attention to variety of factors which influence people’s perception. In addition, the whole population cannot be reached at once, because of different educational backgrounds, hobbies, perception patterns; therefore splitting the desired audience into groups and exploring and reaching them separately will make the communication more effective and predictable. Word count: 1 187) References: Fearing, F. (1954). Social impact of the mass media of communications, in, N. B. Henry (Ed. ) Mass media and education: The fifty-third yearbook of the national society for the study of education part II (pp. 166-191). Chicago, University of Chicago. Noelle-Neemann, E. (1974). The spiral of silence: A theory of public opinion. Journal of Communication, 24(2), 43-51. Tichenor, P. J. , Donohue, G. A. & Olien, C. N. (1970). Mass media flow and differential growth in knowledge, Public Opinion Quarterly, 34, 159 -170.