Effect of Media on Audiences & Society

After studying this section, you should be able to understand:

  • the evidence relating to the relationship between screen violence and violence in real life
  • active audience approaches
  • the process of moral panics

Mass media effects: the relationship between screen violence and real-life violence

Influential psychologists, pressure groups, religious leaders and politicians have suggested that there is a direct causal link between violence in films, television programmes and computer games and violent real-life crime. It is argued that such media content exerts an overwhelmingly negative effect on impressionable young audiences. These beliefs have led to increased state control over and censorship of the media in Britain.

KEY POINT - Sociologists have argued that media content can have a direct effect upon their audiences and trigger particular social responses in terms of behaviour and attitudes.

  • Gerbner (2002) sees a cause-effect relationship between screen violence and real-life violence.
  • Some feminist sociologists, e.g. Dworkin (1988) and Morgan (1980) have suggested that there is a strong relationship between the consumption of pornography and sexual crime.
  • Orbach (1991) and Wolf (1990) argue that there is a causal link between representation of (US) size zero models in magazines and eating disorders.
  • Norris (1996), claims that media coverage of political issues can influence voting behaviour.
  • Some early Marxist commentators, particularly those belonging to the Frankfurt School, such as Marcuse (1964), believed that the media transmitted a mass culture which was directly injected into the hearts and minds of the population making them more vulnerable to ruling class propaganda.

The hypodermic model of media violence

The hypodermic syringe approach to media effects believes that a direct correlation exists between the violence and anti-social behaviour portrayed in films, on television, in computer games, in rap lyrics, etc. and violence and antisocial behaviour such as drug use and teenage gun/knife crime found in real life. The model suggests that children and teenagers are vulnerable to media content because they are still in the early stages of socialisation and therefore very impressionable.

Believers in this hypodermic syringe model (also known as the ‘magic bullet’ theory) point to a number of films which they claim have resulted in young people using extreme violence.

Imitation or copycat violence

Early studies of the relationship between the media and violence focused on conducting experiments in laboratories, e.g. Bandura et al. (1963) carried out an experiment on young children which involved exposing them to films and cartoons of a self-righting doll being attacked with a mallet. They concluded on the basis of this experiment that violent media content could lead to imitation or copycat violence.

McCabe and Martin (2005) concluded that media violence has a disinhibition effect – it convinces children that in some social situations, the ‘normal’ rules that govern conflict and difference can be suspended, i.e. discussion and negotiation can be replaced with violence with no repercussions.


Newson argued that sadistic images in films were too easily available and that films encouraged viewers to identify with violent perpetrators rather than victims. Furthermore, Newson noted that children and teenagers are subjected to thousands of killings and acts of violence as they grow up through viewing television and films. Newson suggested that such prolonged exposure to media violence may have a drip-drip effect on young people over the course of their childhood and result in their becoming desensitised to violence. Newson argues that they see violence as a normal problem-solving device and concluded that, because of this, the latest generation of young people subscribe to weaker moral codes and are more likely to behave in anti-social ways than previous generations.


Newson’s report led directly to increased censorship of the film industry with the passing of the Video Recordings (Labelling) Act 1985, which resulted in videos and DVDs being given British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) age certificates. The BBFC also came under increasing pressure to censor films released to British cinemas by insisting on the film makers making cuts relating to bad language, scenes of drug use and violence.

Television too was affected by this climate of censorship. All the television channels agreed on a nine o’clock watershed, i.e. not to show any programmes that used bad language or contained scenes of a sexual or violent nature before this time. Television channels often resorted to issuing warnings before films and even edited out violence themselves or beeped over bad language.

Critique of the hypodermic syringe model

A number of critiques have developed of the imitation-desensitisation model of media effects, e.g. some media sociologists claim that media violence can actually prevent real-life violence.

  • Fesbach and Sanger (1971) found that screen violence can actually provide a safe outlet for people’s aggressive tendencies. This is known as catharsis. They suggest that watching an exciting film releases aggressive energy into safe outlets as the viewers immerse themselves in the action.
  • Young (1981), argues that seeing the effects of violence and especially the pain and suffering that it causes to the victim and their families, may make us more aware of its consequences and so less inclined to commit violent acts. Sensitisation to certain crimes therefore may make people more aware and responsible so that they avoid getting involved in violence.

The methodological critique of the hypodermic syringe model

Gauntlett (2008) argues that people, especially children, do not behave as naturally under laboratory conditions as they would in their everyday environment, e.g. children’s media habits are generally influenced and controlled by parents, especially when they are very young.

The media effects model fails to be precise in how ‘violence’ should be defined. There are different types of media violence such as in cartoons, images of war and death on news bulletins and sporting violence. It is unclear whether these different types of violence have the same or different effects upon their audiences or whether different audiences react differently to different types and levels of violence. The effects model has been criticised because it tends to be selective in its approach to media violence, i.e. it only really focuses on particular types of fictional violence.

The effects model also fails to put violence into context, e.g. it views all violence as wrong, however trivial, and fails to see that audiences interpret it according to narrative context. Research by Morrison suggests that the context in which screen violence occurs affects its impact on the audience.

Some sociologists believe that children are not as vulnerable as the hypodermic syringe model implies, e.g. research indicates that most children can distinguish between fictional/cartoon violence and real violence from a very early age, and generally know that it should not be imitated. Sociologists are generally very critical of the hypodermic syringe model because it fails to recognise that audiences have very different social characteristics in terms of age, maturity, social class, education, family background, parental controls, etc. These characteristics will influence how people respond to and use media content.

Cumberbatch (2004) looked at over 3500 research studies into the effects of screen violence, encompassing film, television, video and more recently, computer and video games. He concluded that there is still no conclusive evidence that violence shown in the media influences or changes people’s behaviour.

Active audience approaches

KEY POINT - Active audience approaches see the media as far less influential. They believe that people have considerable choice in the way they use and interpret the media. There are various versions of this view, outlined on the next page.

The two-step flow model

Katz and Lazarsfeld (1965) suggest that personal relationships and conversations with significant others, such as family members, friends, teachers and work colleagues, result in people modifying or rejecting media messages. They argue that social networks are usually dominated by opinion leaders, i.e. people of influence whom others in the network look up to and listen to. These people usually have strong ideas about a range of matters. Moreover, these opinion leaders expose themselves to different types of media and form an opinion on their content. These interpretations are then passed on to other members of their social circle. Katz and Lazarsfeld suggest that media messages have to go through two steps or stages.

  • The opinion leader is exposed to the media content.
  • Those who respect the opinion leader internalise their interpretation of that content.


Consequently, media audiences are not directly influenced by the media. Rather, they choose to adopt a particular opinion, attitude and way of behaving after negotiation and discussion with an opinion leader. The audience is, therefore, not passive, but active.

However, critics of this model point out two problems.

  • There is no guarantee that the opinion leader has not been subjected to an imitative or desensitising effect, e.g. a leader of a peer group, such as a street gang, might convince other members that violence is acceptable because he has been exposed to computer games that strongly transmit the message that violence is an acceptable problem-solving strategy.
  • People who may be most at risk of being influenced by the media may be socially isolated individuals who are not members of any social network and so do not have access to an opinion leader who might help interpret media content in a healthy way.

The selective filter model

In his selective filter model, Klapper (1960) suggests that, for a media message to have any effect, it must pass through three filters.

  • Selective exposure – the audience must choose to view, read or listen to the content of specific media. Media messages can have no effect if no one sees or hears them. However, what the audience chooses depends upon their interests, education, work commitments and so on.
  • Selective perception – the audience may not accept the message; some people may take notice of some media content, but decide to reject or ignore others.
  • Selective retention – the messages have to ‘stick’ in the mind of those who have accessed the media content. However, research indicates that most people have a tendency to remember only the things they broadly agree with.

The uses and gratifications model

Blumler and McQuail (1968) and Lull (1995) see media audiences as active. Their uses and gratifications model suggests that people use the media in order

to satisfy particular social needs that they have, e.g. Wood (1993) illustrated how teenagers may use horror films to gratify their need for excitement. Blumler and McQuail identify four basic needs which people use the media to satisfy.

  • Diversion – people may immerse themselves in particular types of media to make up for the lack of satisfaction at work or in their daily lives, e.g. women may compensate for the lack of romance in their marriages by reading Mills and Boon romantic novels. Some people even have alternative lives and identities as avatars on websites such as Second Life.
  • Personal relationships – media products such as soap operas may compensate for the decline of community in our lives, e.g. socially isolated elderly people may see soap opera characters as companions they can identify with and worry about in the absence of interaction with family members. Cyber-communities on the Internet may also be seen by users as alternative families.
  • Personal identity – people may use the media to ‘make over’ or to modify their identity. Social networking websites, such as Facebook, allow people to use the media to present their particular identities to the wider world in a way that they can control.
  • Surveillance – people use the media to obtain information and news in order to help them make up their minds on particular issues.

Marxists are critical of this model because they suggest that social needs may be socially manufactured by the media and may therefore be ‘false needs’.

The reception analysis model

The reception analysis model suggests that media content is not passively accepted as truth by audiences. Morley’s (1980) research into how audiences interpreted the content of a well-known 1970s evening news programme called Nationwide examined how the ideological content of the programme (i.e. the messages that were contained in the text and images) were interpreted by 29 groups made up of people from a range of educational and professional backgrounds. Morley found that audiences were very active in their reading of media content and did not automatically accept the media’s perspective on a range of issues. Morley concluded that people choose to read or interpret media content in three ways.

  • The preferred (or dominant) reading accepts the media content as legitimate, e.g. the British people generally approve of the Royal Family, so very few people are likely to interpret stories about them in a critical fashion. This dominant reading is often shared by journalists and editors, and underpins news values.
  • The oppositional reading opposes the views expressed in media content.
  • The negotiated reading whereby the audience reinterpret the media content to fit in with their own opinions and values, e.g. they may not have any strong views on the Royal Family, but enjoy reading about celebrity lives.

Morley argues that the average person belongs to several sub-cultural groups and this may complicate a person’s reading of media content in the sense that they may not be consistent in their interpretation of it. Reception analysis theory therefore suggests that audiences are not passive, impressionable and homogeneous. They act in a variety of subcultural ways and, for this reason, media content is polysemic, i.e. it attracts more than one type of reading or interpretation.

The cultural effects model

The Marxist cultural effects model sees the media as a very powerful ideological influence that is mainly concerned with transmitting capitalist values and norms. Marxists argue that media content contains strong ideological messages that reflect the values of those who own, control and produce the media. They argue that the long-term effect of such media content is that the values of the rich and powerful come to be unconsciously shared by most people – people come to believe in values such as ‘happiness is about possessions and money’, ‘being a celebrity is really important’, etc. Marxists believe that television content, in particular, has been deliberately dumbed down and this has resulted in a decline in serious programmes such as news, documentaries and drama that might make audiences think critically about the state of the world. Consequently, there is little serious debate about the organisation of capitalism and the social inequalities and problems that it generates.

However, in criticism of the cultural effects model, these ‘cause’ and ‘effects’ are very difficult to operationalise and measure. It also implies that Marxists are the only ones who can see the ‘true’ ideological interpretation of media content, which suggests that most members of society are ‘cultural dopes’.

The post-modernist model

(1995) argues that the media today are the most influential shapers of identity and offer a greater range of consumption choices in terms of identities and lifestyles. Moreover, in the post-modern world, the media transmit the idea that the consumption of signs and symbols for their own sake is more important than the goods they represent. In other words, the media encourages the consumption of logos, designer labels and brands, and these become more important to people’s sense of identity than the physical clothes and goods themselves.

Other post-modernists have noted that, since 2000, the globalisation of communication has become more intensive and extensive, and this has had great significance for local cultures, in that all consumers of the global media are both citizens of the world and of their locality. Seeing other global experience allows people to think critically about their own place in the world. However, Thompson notes that the interaction between global media and local cultures can also create tensions and hostilities, e.g. the Chinese authorities have attempted to control and limit the contact that the Chinese people have with global media, whilst some Islamic commentators have used global media to convince their local populations of the view that Western culture is decadent and corrupt.

Moral panics

Every now and then, the media, particularly the tabloid news media, focus on particular groups and activities and, through the style of their reporting, define these groups and their activities as a problem. This focus creates public anxiety and official censure and control.

What is a moral panic?

The term moral panic was popularised by Cohen (1972) in his classic work Folk Devils and Moral Panics. It refers to media reactions to particular social groups and activities that are defined as threatening social consensus. The reporting creates anxiety or moral panic amongst the general population which puts pressure on the authorities to control the problem and discipline the group responsible. However, the media concern is usually out of proportion to any real threat to society posed by the group or activity.

Both the publicity and social reaction to the panic may create the potential for further crime and deviance in the future. In other words, the social reaction may lead to the amplification of deviance by provoking more of the same behaviour.

There have been a number of moral panics in the last 30 years including:

  • Ravers and ecstasy use – Redhead notes that a moral panic in regard to acid house raves in the late 1980s led to the police setting up roadblocks on motorways, turning up at raves in full riot gear and the Criminal Justice Act (1990) which banned illegal parties.
  • Refugees and asylum seekers – in 2003 there was a moral panic focused on the numbers of refugees and asylum seekers entering Britain and their motives. Elements of the tabloid press, particularly the Daily Mail and The Sun, focused on the alleged links between asylum seekers and terrorism which created public anxiety.
  • HoodiesFawbert (2008) examined newspaper reports and found that ‘hoodies’ became a commonly used term, especially between 2005 and 2007, to describe young people involved in crime.

Why do moral panics occur?

  • Furedi argues that moral panics arise when society fails to adapt to dramatic social changes and it is felt that there is a loss of control, especially over powerless groups such as the young. Furedi therefore argues that moral panics are about the wider concerns that the older generation have about the nature of society today – people see themselves (and their families) as at greater risk from a variety of groups. They believe that things are out of control. They perceive, with the media’s encouragement, that traditional norms and values no longer have much relevance in their lives. Furedi notes that people feel a very real sense of loss, which makes them extremely susceptible to the anxieties encouraged by media moral panics.
  • Some commentators argue that moral panics are simply a product of news values and the desire of journalists and editors to sell newspapers – they are a good example of how audiences are manipulated by the media for commercial purposes. However, after a while, news stories exhaust their cycle of newsworthiness and journalists abandon interest in them because they believe their audiences have lost interest too. The social problems, however, do not disappear – they remain dormant until journalists decide at some future date that they can be made newsworthy again and attract a large audience.
  • Marxists, such as Hall, see moral panics as serving an ideological function. His study of the media coverage of Black muggers in the 1970s (Hall et al., 1978) concluded that it had the effect of labelling all young African-Caribbeans as criminals and a potential threat to White people. This served the purpose of diverting attention away from the mismanagement of capitalism by the capitalist class, as well as justifying the introduction and use of more repressive laws and policing.
  • Left Realists argue, however, that moral panics should not be dismissed as a product of ruling class ideology or news values. Moral panics have a very real basis in reality, i.e. the media often identifies groups who are a real threat to those living in inner-city areas. Portraying such crime as a fantasy is naïve because it denies the very real harm that some types of crime have on particular communities or the sense of threat that older people feel.


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