Oooh Baby Baby It’s a Mean World: Revisiting the War Between Media Effects & Meanings

Posted on July 25, 2012 by


In my last post, I focused on the interconnections between crime coverage in news media and the media literacy skills that audience members should possess. I did so by interrogating some of the findings presented in an infographic compiled by Infobia, which were made available on this blog by CrimeDime. In that post, I focused my attention on the top two sections of the graphic that detailed the study’s findings. In this post, I will turn my attention to the final section of that graphic that highlights the theoretical foundation for the research that was undertaken.

The final section of the graphic carries a banner reading “Mean World Syndrome.” The mean world syndrom is a phrase popularized by media scholar George Gerbner. Gerbner’s work spanned several decades in the latter half of the 20th century, but he was most associated with cultivation theory.

Cultivation theory is one of a number of theories that are grouped together under the broad heading of media effects theories. These theories focus on what media do to audiences, but these theories often underestimate the power and intelligence of the audience. On the other side of this equation you will find theoretical approaches that are rooted in historical, literary, and cultural traditions. Some scholars refer to this theoretical body as cultural studies. In contrast to effects theories, cultural studies are more likely to focus on what media do with audiences. If you want to learn more about this distinction then I recommend Henry Jenkins’ essay “The War Between Effects and Meanings,” which can be found in his book Fans, Bloggers & Gamers.

In this essay, Jenkins endeavors to clearly articulate the distinctions between the two approaches. Understanding these distinctions is one way to recognize the importance of developing media literacy skills. To summarize Jenkins’ position I will briefly outline the characteristics of effects and meanings below:

  • Characteristics of Effects
    • Passive (effects happen to us)
    • Largely subconscious (we don’t know effects are happening)
    • Inaccessible to self-evaluation and critical examination
    • Do not build on prior knowledge
    • More uniform and individual (acultural)
    • Cannot be taught
    • What media do to audiences
    • Social Scientific Tradition (Scientific—Stimulus/Response)
  • Characteristics of Meanings
    • Active (meanings happen with us)
    • Conscious (we work to create meanings and know we are doing so)
    • Accessible to self-evaluation and critical examination
    • Build on prior knowledge
    • More varied and socially-influenced (culturally-rooted)
    • Can be taught
    • What media do with audiences
    • Literary or Historical Traditions (Humanist—Reflection-based)

Jenkins’ work also attempts to highlight some of the weaknesses associated with effects research. Cultivation theory, and by extension the mean world syndrome, suffer from some of these weaknesses. As mentioned above, effects theories may simply underestimate the role audience members play in creating their own understandings of the world. This theory is often tested through the use of a methodology called content analysis.

Content analysis, at its most basic level, is a process of counting (see the top half of the infographic). In order to count something, one must also define that thing. In this case, what must be defined is violence. While the infographic in question here is fairly straightforward–since it uses true crime stories in newspapers–not all studies using this theory are quite as clear-cut. Violence, as it turns out, is a difficult concept to define. For example, the Three Stooges and Tom & Jerry are both quite violent but most reasonable people would not confuse this type of violence for what is seen in a Quentin Tarantino film or what we read about in a news story involving murder.

However, depending on the way that the term (violence) is defined these representations could be counted together, and when this happens we must realize that the counting strips the context from the specific representation. Context matters because audiences recognize context and that context helps the audience form their interpretations of the event. Everything we read, hear, or see is interpreted in some way and oftentimes different people interpret the same message differently. Ultimately, any study employing content analysis as a methodology must also make some interpretive leaps in order to explain what was counted. It is here where the “scientific” methodology becomes a bit less-than scientific.

While it may be true that heavy consumption of crime media may have some impact on the ways that people view the world, the theory falls short of establishing that media are the primary cause of this belief or that this belief is uniformly held. It could be just as likely that people who believe the world is a dangerous place are prone to select stories involving crime thereby confirming their beliefs. Or as Daniel Chandler writes, “More recent theories stressing the active viewer downplay the power of television to influence viewers which is assumed by cultivation theory. Cultivation theory focuses on the amount of television viewing or ‘exposure’, and does not allow for differences in the ways in which viewers interpret television realities.” Put differently, the correlation that is often revealed when applying this theory does not necessarily indicate causation.

More importantly, a theory like this one lends itself to promoting a belief that audience members are powerless and the media are all powerful. Note the ways that Jenkins describes the assumptions of effects theories. Audiences are assumed to be passive receptacles incapable of realizing what is happening to them and unable to learn from their experiences. In contrast, a more media literate audience takes on an active role. A media literate audience realizes that the senders of the messages have certain wants and desires, and they are able to learn from past experiences–many of us realize that violent crime stories sell newspapers. More importantly, the development of media literacy skills and the corresponding ability to learn from prior experiences may help to insulate audiences from the potential of harmful effects. Put simply, media education may be the answer to some of the potential problems often associated with media consumption.

There is no doubt that certain types of crimes are more widely covered than other types of crimes. Or, that violent crimes receive a disproportionate amount of media and audience attention. What is in doubt is whether this imbalance really matters much. One thing that I know for certain is that if the audience is savvy and literate, then the imbalance matters less.

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