*Last updated on June 26, 2013
Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora and Newtown where all home to tragedies that most of us would like to forget. These incidents were unimaginably horrific and difficult for many to comprehend.
However, it is just like human beings to always seek answers. It is in our nature to ask the question why, to find a reason, to explain or make sense of what happens around us.
Yet, it is difficult to explain why these tragedies occurred and why those responsible would so insensibly kill. In their search for answers to difficult and complex questions, people tend to lean toward the simplest explanation. In the case of these tragedies, the simplest explanation is that these blights were brought on by the influence of violent media.
Since the creation of books, people have blamed mass media for society’s problems, claiming media negatively influence people. This continues to be the case today as illustrated by the reaction to these more recent tragedies , in which violent video games and films are often blamed.
So why is it that media is consistently blamed for society’s ills? Why do people believe it is so influential? The answer may be in what is known as the Direct Effects Model of Mass Media Theory.
Let us travel back in time to the early twentieth century. The printing press was the top of the line technology and newspapers made the bulk of the mass media. Sigmund Freud’s and Charles Darwin’s Psychoanalysis and Evolution theories were all the rage among scientists. Radio and film were getting ready to make their impression in the world of media.
According to media theorist Melvin L. DeFleur, the Direct Effects Model of Mass Media Theory, also known as the Hypodermic Needle Theory or Magic Bullet Theory, was first brought forth during this time. There was a concern that the newspapers , and radio and film soon after, were promoting “personally and socially destructive behaviors” through their reporting of crime, scandal and violent acts.
The Hypodermic Theory name came from the idea that media directly infused or injected itself into its audiences
In the wake of these concerns, early social scientists and media researchers like Harold Lasswell began studying the media and its perceived powerful effects. Media researchers Dennis K. Davis and Stanley J. Baron suggest that this early research led to assumptions that people were easily susceptible to influential messages subconsciously and it was concluded that media had powerful, universal and immediate effects on its audience.
The Direct Effects Model became increasingly accepted by the public and social scientists of the time. This was due in part to the belief that humans were naturally irrational and instinctive as theorized by Freud and Darwin. These perceptions and theories fit the Direct Effects Model perfectly.
Sigmund Freud believed humans were naturally irrational
This perception was also heavily supported by early media research studies. The success of World War I propaganda is often regarded as one of the reasons why the direct effects model was so well accepted at the time.
During World War I, the United States, and other countries, used the mass media to continuously communicate pro-war messages to their citizens. Imagine walking through the streets of Boston and seeing posters with Uncle Sam’s face plastered on every wall, post, billboard and newspaper. In short, the propaganda was incredibly successful and many citizens lined up at recruitment offices or went to work in supply factories
Uncle Sam was the product of World War I propaganda
Early research studies on the effects of films had on audiences also seemed to support the direct effects theory. Films of the 1920s were thought to be risqué with depictions gangsters running from the cops, teens smoking and couples sharing a single bed. Studies such as the Payne Fund Studies found that these films had strong influences on children and their behavior. The Payne studies and others like them eventually led the film industry to adopt the Motion Picture Production Code, a precursor to the MPAA rating system.
Despite this strong evidence, the Direct Effects Model came to be criticized as new research and studies were conducted in communication and the social sciences. Psychologists and social scientists were changing the way they perceived human behavior during the early 1940s.
The perception of people as being unique and self-motivated individuals was the new trend. It soon became clear that attention to, perception of and retention of information varied among individuals. DeFleur explains that this led to the development of the Indirect Effects Model of Mass Media Theory, also known as the Selective and Limited Influences Theory or Conditional Effects Model.
There were also many criticisms brought against the research methods used by earlier media researchers and the conclusions they made using that research. In the article “Ten Things Wrong With the Media ‘Effects Model’,” author David Gauntlett states that early studies conducted research based on the assumption that the media was the cause of the social problems of the time, studying the media exclusively rather than other factors that may contribute to these perceived problems.
Gauntlett also states that early studies suggested that the researchers or supporters of the Direct Effects theory were somehow immune to the universal and immediate effects of media. If these researchers were constantly exposed to these murders, drug use and deviant behavior during these studies, why were they left unaffected? Additionally, critics believed that researchers and supporters of the direct effects theory were generally conservative and/or religious in their viewpoints and saw anything that challenged these views as unacceptable or corrupting.
Ultimately, the Direct Effects Model of Mass Media Theory was discredited and is rarely used by researchers today. According to DeFleur, the Indirect Effects Model became accepted as a more reliable theory, offering more flexibility in explaining media effects. Despite all of this, the Direct Effects Theory still continues to be relevant among a large portion of the general public and, as recent examples show, the public continues to place the blame on media.
So why do so many people still continue to believe in an outdated theory?
It is possible that these assumptions are the result of how widely known and accepted the direct effects theory was. The idea that the media directly and powerfully influences individuals may have been considered common knowledge and have been passed down as such. Additionally, it is rarely disputed that media does indeed affect its audiences. What is disputed is to what extent that influence occurs and how powerful it is. This may be lost to the general public as they may assume all media effects are universal.
It also doesn’t help that the mainstream news media feeds this perception with coverage about the effects of violent media. The Aurora theater shooting was sure to make headlines. It is only natural that the news media also shed light on other content surrounding these incidents. If a victim’s family member blames the latest Batman film for the Aurora shooting in an interview for CNN, it is sure to grab some attention.
“Music, films and literature have always been the target of many news stories,” explains Luis Hernandez, reporter for Hispanic Link News Service. “These news stories are usually a response to some other group’s action against a particular outlet and it’s the news media’s job is to cover such interactions.”
However, there are also instances where the news media investigate the effects of mass media themselves. Features such as Katie Couric’s special “Are Video Games Ruining Your Life?” quickly place the blame on media. Stories such as this one often solely blame media rather than explore other possible factors that might also have contributed to the tragedies or issues in question such as mental illness or upbringing.
Katie Couric and other news personalities continue to feed the perception that media effects are immediate and universal
Steve Butts, editor at IGN Entertainment, points out these stories also tend to ignore the fact that not every single person who subscribes to these violent media are affected in the same manner. Why don’t all people who play “Call of Duty” or watch “The Dark Knight” go on killing sprees? These stories continue to paint the picture that all people are immediately influenced by the media in the same manner.
All of this comes back to humans seeking the simplest and easiest answer. Many among the general population don’t question the news media and take what is presented to them at face value. In short, a large portion of the public simply does not care enough to seek their own answers.
As my friend James Maddux puts it, “We the people are self-interested fools whose only exposure to the outside world from our narrow one is by hearing the ones who vocalize theirs. That being said, since we are so self-interested, we do not care enough to discredit them as it would just be easier to accept their perception as truth and be on our merry way.”
While the Direct Effects Model of Mass Media Theory is largely seen as outdated by media researchers, the general public continues to assume that the mass media is to blame for society’s problems and the mainstream news media continues to feed the perception that media strongly affect its audiences.
This is not likely to change soon. In people’s quest to find answers to our problems, they often look for the quickest and most convenient answer. In many cases, it is all too convenient to use a scapegoat rather than find real answers.
If history has taught us anything, it is that mass media will always be blamed for tragedies like the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting that claimed young lives, with the newest form of media on the front lines.
Melvin L. DeFleur, Mass Communication Theories: Explaining Origins, Processes, and Effects (Boston: Pearson, 2010). 122-132.
Dennis K. Davis and Stanley J. Baron, “A History of our Understanding of Mass Communication,” Mass Communication and Everyday Life: A perspective on Theory and Effects (Wadsworth, 1981) 19-51.
David Gauntlett, “Ten Things Wrong With the Media ‘Effects Model’,” Approaches to Audiences, ed. Roger Dickinson, Ramaswani Harindranath and Olga Linné (Hodder Education Publishers, 1998) 120-129.
Katie Couric, “Are Video Games Ruining Your Life?,” Katie (2013). http://www.katiecouric.com/on-the-show/2013/05/01/daniel-petric-video-games/
Steve Butts, “Katie Couric and the Problem of Violence: The media’s quest for easy answers does no one any favors,” IGN (2013). http://www.ign.com/articles/2013/05/04/katie-couric-and-the-problem-of-violence