People on Media Effects: An Exploratory Study of People’s Theorization on the Influence of Mass Media [Reseña]

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Abstract. In the last sixty years there has been an accumulative theoretical progress on communication research, in particular on the effects of media on people (Neuman & Guggenheim, 2011). However, little attention has been paid to the evolution of the perceived influence of media on people, except in the case of the third-person effect (Davison, 1983). By means of focus group method, this study shows how people is capable to reflect on media effects and suggest theorizations that can be linked to almost all of the media effects theories (Neuman and Guggenheim, 2011). We observe how critical perspectives about media manipulation persist across generations. We also demonstrate that people are aware of some of the variables that can moderate the influence of media on people. However, the study also shows that despite being capable of theorizing, people are not aware of their own biases, and the third-person effect. emerges spontaneously.

Keywords: Media influence; perceptions; third-person effect; media manipulation. 

Sobre los efectos de los medios. Un estudio exploratorio de las teorizaciones de los ciudadanos sobre la influencia de los medios de comunicación de masas

Resumen. En los últimos sesenta años se ha producido un gran progreso teórico en la investigación de la comunicación, en particular de los efectos de los medios en la gente (Neuman & Guggenheim, 2011). Sin embargo, se ha prestado poca atención a la evolución de la influencia percibida de los medios sobre las personas, excepto en el caso del efecto de tercera persona (Davison, 1983). Este estudio muestra cómo la gente es capaz de reflexionar sobre los efectos mediáticos y sugerir teorizaciones que pueden estar vinculadas a casi todas las teorías de los efectos de los medios (Neuman y Guggenheim, 2011). Observamos cómo persisten las perspectivas críticas sobre la manipulación de los medios de comunicación entre generaciones. También se demuestra que las personas son conscientes de algunas de las variables que pueden moderar la influencia de los medios de comunicación sobre las personas. Sin embargo, el estudio también muestra que, a pesar de ser capaces de teorizar, las personas no son conscientes de sus propios sesgos, y el efecto de tercera persona surge de manera espontánea.

1. Introduction

Media effects have been one of the core ideas of communication research since its beginning. The corpus in media effects research documents a wide range of influences, from limited to large effects (Neuman & Guggenheim, 2011). However, this research has become fragmented over time and there seems to be no common goals nor general theory that unite scholars in their efforts to analyse the impact of media messages (Craig, 1999). Among the previously mentioned range of
influences, Neuman & Guggenheim (2011) identified 6 stages or clusters and 29 theories of communication.

The first stage included those theories that considered media as having an unmediated influence on people; the second stage was that of the active audience theories, where attention was only paid to individuals and the characteristics that could moderate the impact of media, but not to any characteristic of their role in the social structure; the third stage incorporated social context theories (knowledge gap and third-person effect, among others); the forth was that of societal and media theories and the accumulative effects over long periods of time (cultivation and media hegemony); the fifth was that of interpretative theories such as agendasetting, framing and priming; and, finally, the last one was the still underdeveloped stage of new media theories.

Types of effects have also been classified. Potter (2011) defines nine different issues of media effects research, i. e., type of effect, level of effect, change, influence, pervasiveness, type of media, intentionality, timing of effect and measurability. The same author tries to clarify what do we have to understand by media effect, since there are dozens and even hundreds of different definitions that can be found in the literature of communication research.

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For Potter (2011), a media effect is a change in an outcome, i.e., behaviour, attitude, belief, cognition —within an individual or a social entity— that is due to the influence following exposure to mass media messages. Potter links the issues of media effect with the theories on media effects. For instance, he states that theories such as cultivation, agenda-setting, priming or framing deal with long-term effects that shape people’s behaviours, attitudes, beliefs, cognition; third-person effect deals with conflicting first person and third person beliefs developed over the long term.

Berger and Chaffee (1988) considered that all mass communication studies more or less explicitly try to explain the effects of the media in one form or another, arguing that such concerns are the main driver in the development of the discipline. In fact, the discipline, in how it has traditionally been taught in most universities, is based on conceptions regarding media effects marking differences between theoretical perspectives and historical stages. The first pre-conceptions of a powerful and manipulative media — a hypodermic needle or magic bullet for the so-called society of the masses — came to be replaced by the paradigm of limited media effects, of which Lazarsfeld was the main exponent (Lazarsfeld, Berelson and Gaudet, 1948; Berelson, Lazarsfeld and McFee, 1955). Mass communication research changed academic perceptions of media effects by emphasizing the role of primary groups and opinion leaders in opinion change and decision making processes (Katz, Lazarsfeld, 1956).

Subsequently, new theories such as agenda setting (McCombs and Shaw, 1972) and the spiral of silence (Noelle-Neumann, 1974) called into question assumptions regarding limited media effects. The hegemony of television and its penetration in Western households, in parallel with the burgeoning literature on the long-term effects of media exposure, forced a rethinking of the Lazarsfeld paradigm. However, many scholars still discredited those who argued that media effects were large, since a vast majority of researches failed to show sizeball enough effects to reach the conventionally accepted level of significance (McGuire, 1986).

Finally, technological change in the media, the consolidation of the Internet as a main channel of communication, individuals selfselective exposure to media messages, audience fragmentation and the resulting reinforcement of previous beliefs, attitudes and behaviours have led scholars to wonder whether we might be on the verge of a new era of limited media effects (Bennet and Iyengar, 2008). As already pointed out by Neuman and Guggenheim (2011), the continuous shift between minimal and significant effects approaches has functioned as an impediment for theorizing on communication research, despite its obvious narrative strength.

Despite the evolution observed in the theorization on media effects throughout history and the different perspectives and schools attuned to one or another version or paradigm, there is no evidence to indicate that changes in our understanding of media effects do affect the way people perceive these effects. Experience and, broadly speaking, the scientific literature indicate that a large proportion of the population considers the media to be manipulative; furthermore, estimates as to media effects reflect the hypothesis of a powerful media, in line with what has traditionally been referred to as the hypodermic needle theory.

Perhaps the theory that has most focused on this perception of media influence is the third-person effect, first described by Davison (1983). The third person effect uses variables of perception of the influence of media to explain certain behaviors, mostly aimed at correcting or restricting the alleged adverse effects of media messages on subjects (Sun, Shen and Pan, 2008; Guerrero-Solé, Besalú & López-González, 2014). According to Davison (1983), individuals tend to overestimate media influence on others, and, conversely, to underestimate media influence on themselves; furthermore, one of the first conclusions regarding the third person effect was that this difference in perceptions of the media is universal, that is, it is unaffected by the cultural affiliation of individuals.

In general terms, academic research has shown that the perception gap in media effects occurs for content that is considered socially undesirable. Several factors moderate the intensity of the third person effect. Leaving aside demographic variables, a key factor behind the distinction between perceptions of media influence on self and others is the very definition of the other — what is referred to as social distance. Different studies show that the greater the perceived social distance, the greater the difference in perceptions (Eveland, Nathanson, Detenber and McLeod, 1999; White, 1997; Brosius and Engel, 1996; Scharrer, 2002; Meirick, 2005a; Zhong, 2009). However, studies on the third-person effect are mostly based on surveys in which people is asked about the perceived influence of contents on others and on themselves, but do not care about other kind of perceptions related to media effects theorization.

This paper aims to analyse the emergence of media effects theories among people using focus groups as methodology and social distance between generations as a triggering factor. Following Neuman’s and Guggenheim’s (2011) classification of media effects theories, our objective is to show to what extent people are able to elaborate theorizations that explain the influence of media effects on people, and whether third-person effect perceptions emerge spontaneously.


Acceso al texto completo


Guerrero-Solé, Frederic; Terribas Sala, Mónica; y Gifreu Pinsach, Josep (2018): «People
on Media Effects. An Exploratory Study of People’s Theorization on the Influence of Mass Media». Estudios sobre el Mensaje Periodístico 24 (1), 583-601.

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