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Media Slinky Effect   Leave a comment

My copy of my Masters thesis has been trapped on a hard drive of a long defunct computer for a long time, but a good friend recovered it for me so I could mine it for this series. After recognizing that it is the sort of geeky research you do when a committee requires you to, I have decided to use it only as a guide.

 

Media influence on society has been extensively researched and for me, revisiting this topic after the rise of social media, it has been overwhelming to sift through all the material. When I was writing my thesis in the 1980s, there were still only a handful of channels to choose from and most people got their news and analysis either from CNN and/or the network channels and/or the newspapers and news magazines. Today, you can literally find thousands of media outlets across the Internet to choose from and you can self-select your very own opinion bubble.

Some studies suggestt that audiences choose their media content, channel and genres because of factors that already exist in their lives – age, experience, social identity, but there are also studies that indicate that media influences those choices, supplementing the personal preferences of the audience.

A prime example would be the studies that focused on media effects on adolescent aggression. Some of those studies showed an apparently correlative relationship between violent media content and aggression in teen audiences. Other studies found independent variables such as gender, age, substance use and prior victimization were contributing factors. In other words, teens who are drug users and/or come from an abusive household and also watch violence in media are more likely to be violent, while teens without these exascerbating factors appear much less affected by violence in the media. A child psychiatrist I once worked with in the social work agency suggested that substance-using teens with violent upbringings self-select violent media more than straight-edge kids. The studies are inconclusive, but I trust his 40 years of boots-on-the-ground experience more.

Similarly, there is apparently correlation between sexual content in media and sexualization of pre-adolescents within the audience, but there is also strong counter evidence to suggest that parental attitudes toward sexualization influences whether children watch sexual content in media and, therefore, is at least a contributing factor. In other words, if parents who think it’s okay for junior high kids to have sex tend to allow their children to watch sexual content on television and their kids are more likely not only to watch sexual content in media, but also to engage in sexualized behavior at a younger age. Is this the result of media influence or parental attitude? Well, parents who object to their kids having sex in junior high tend to restrict their children’s access to sexual content in media and their children appear to be sexualized at an older age. Again, what is the correlation? Which came first?

My 1980s self, pre-kiddos, thought it was a reciprocal relationshp, that media selectivity and media effects are mutually influencing process. It can be argued that media content serves to reinforce existing beliefs, but it can also be asserted that increased exposure to certain contenet through media can lead to additional informationg-seeking  behavior.  Exposure to online pornography, for example, seems to lead to seeking more online pornography, which is perhaps an indication that this media reciprocity moves forward with time, each cycle reinforcing the previous cycle.

 

What I watch influences me, so I watch more of it, until I believe what I watch, so I watch even more of it and because I believe it, I reject alternative channels of media that might disabuse me of my beliefs.

 

Media influence reciprocity may be described as a spiral in which the role of prior beliefs and media influence moves foreward, changing and/or reinforcing beliefs, leading to more selectivity, which leads to more influence and more changing or reinforcement of beliefs. It is not a static relationship. Sometimes media has the greater influence and sometimes pre-existing beliefs do, but generally, these spirals of influence reinforce one another over time.

So, for example, let me introduce you to a liberal friend. She is an aggregate of several coworkers from my former place of employment in touchy-feely, wishy-washing social work land. I’m going to call her “Ashley” because in all the years I worked there, there was never an Ashley employed there. Ashley is a Democrat who went to a liberal liberal arts college and holds a masters degree in Social Work. She took consumer economics in high school and the History of Women in college. She believes President Obama is perhaps the greastest president since FDR and maybe the greatest one since George Washington … if George Washington had not been a racist homophobe slave-owner. She can’t name even one article of the Constitution and has never read the Federalist Papers let alone the Anti-Federalist Papers. She watches PBS, listens to NRP and is a regular reader of the Huffington Post. When you suggest she might find a greater depth of knowledge by broadening her media intake, she insists that you’re a right-wing idiot who only watches Fox News network and probably has nothing more than an 8th grade education. When you point out that you have a Masters degree and have read the Constitution, the Wealth of Nations, the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, Frederick Bastiat, Lysander Spooner and Das Capital and  and also ocassionally watch PBS and listen to NPR while also turning into Fox News and other media, she insists that it’s all because you watch Fox News that you believe such “lies” as there is “no such thing as a free lunch” and the US Constitution restrains the government from abusing the people and not the other way around.

Reinforcing spirals strengthened by self-selection of media.

Of course, we do not live in a closed system … unless we want to. I can and do tune into many media channels that do not necessarily support my presuppositions. Sometimes what I learn there influences me at least to the point of causing me to examine some beliefs. There are beliefs that warrant examination from  time to time and divergent media content can be an influence in that reevaluation, but ultimately our most closely held beliefs are unlikely to be dislodged by mere influence by media.

The question is — should they be?

Jacquie Biggar-USA Today Best-selling author

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