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Theories of Media Consumption

Hypodermic Needle Theory

The hypodermic needle theory assumes that the media is a powerful force and that individuals play no role in how the media affects them.

Researchers have proposed various theories about how people consume media and how the media affects people. The hypodermic needle theory sees media messages as injected into the brains of a passive audience. Developed in the early 20th century, it was one of the first theories to seek to understand how audiences consume media.

One incident that is associated with the hypodermic needle theory is a famous radio prank. American actor Orson Welles (1915–85) performed a radio broadcast presented as a news report. Welles adapted a science fiction novel, The War of the Worlds (1898), written by British author H.G. Wells (1866–1946). Using this script, Orson Welles and other radio actors simulated a news broadcast, reporting a Martian attack on New Jersey. It was then widely reported by various media outlets that many listeners believed they were hearing a real news broadcast and panicked. Stories of masses of people attempting to flee or hide proliferated.

The hypodermic needle theory was used in some attempts to understand how Welles's radio prank led people across the country to panic. However, later researchers demonstrated that no evidence of such a panic exists. Some researchers theorize that newspapers played an influential role in spreading the idea that a mass panic occurred because it suited their interests to report on the way a radio prank had misled the public. Radio was fairly new at the time and it is possible that because newspapers saw radio as a competitor, they seized on an opportunity to discredit it, framing radio as an unreliable source of news and information.

The hypodermic needle theory grew out of researchers' attempts to understand how and why propaganda and mass media can shape public opinion and social beliefs. It sees mass media as incredibly powerful forces, while audiences are passive and easy to manipulate. This is how Welles's prank was understood by the people who believed that it led to mass panic. However, this theory is no longer considered valid by researchers. The hypodermic needle theory assumes that all people respond to the messages conveyed by media in the same way and that mass media can automatically sway the public to accept any message it disseminates. Over the course of the 20th century, studies of media consumption led to more nuanced views. The hypodermic needle theory reflects the way that the public and researchers often understand media as dangerous. The notion that media is an overwhelming and manipulative force arises in every generation. However, researchers no longer think of the media as injecting beliefs into the public.

Active Audience Theory and Minimal Effects Theory

The active audience and minimal effect theories argue that media consumers have agency.

In contrast to the hypodermic needle theory, which sees people as passive participants in their media experiences, other theories take into account the agency of the audience. Agency is the capacity of an individual to make choices and act independently. Many theories of media consumption patterns and behavior see people as active consumers of media and assign some situational control to the audience.

Active audience theory assumes that people are actively involved in the experience of consuming media. This audience involvement may involve a conscious, deliberate choice about how to engage with media. It can also be an unconscious action, when individuals automatically interpret media messages in certain ways, without deliberately intending to do so, based on their personal biases, personalities, and knowledge. Both consciously and unconsciously, audiences filter media messages through their personal viewpoint, shaped by influences such as family background, beliefs, values, interests, education, and experiences. Through either deliberate choices or unconscious patterns of thought, people make sense of their media experiences by using personal and social contexts to interpret the messages they receive. Therefore, this interpretation might vary greatly from person to person, as decoding a media message may be influenced by an individual's class and culture. Acknowledging the ways that audiences participate in how they consume and interpret media does not discount the effect or influence of media altogether. However, it does include people's individual approaches and responses to media as an important factor.

The minimal effects theory states that media alone cannot singlehandedly cause people to alter their attitudes or change their behaviors. It argues that a principal role of media is to reinforce people's existing attitudes and beliefs. This happens because people tend to interpret the messages and information they receive from media in ways that strengthen their personal worldview. Theorists call this confirmation bias, people's tendency to interpret information as a confirmation of their existing beliefs. Confirmation bias plays a role in how people choose which media to consume and how they engage with media. Theorists study how people's consumption of media, particularly of social media, leads to the creation of echo chambers. An echo chamber is a social space where people with uniform viewpoints and beliefs circulate a set of ideas. Echo chambers confirm and strengthen participants' views, beliefs, and interpretations through constant repetition. They do not encourage any challenge or critical examination of the prevailing beliefs shared by participants. Nonconforming views are often not tolerated—those who express them may be attacked, censored, or banned.

Interpretive Strategies and Interpretive Communities Theory

Interpretive strategies and the interpretive communities theory hold that consumers interpret content in unique and different ways, creating meaning through interpretation.

American literary critic Stanley Fish (b. 1938) was part of a movement that proposed that the audience has complete power in interpreting the meaning of texts and messages. Fish developed the reader-response theory of interpretation, which is based on the notion that readers decide the meaning of a text. While he was primarily concerned with the interpretation of literary texts, this theory of interpretation can be extended to encompass all forms of communication. A song, movie, advertisement, news program, or anything that is presented to an audience can be understood as a type of "text." Anyone who reads, watches, or listens to a text is a "reader," a person who interprets. Influenced by this development in literary studies, many sociologists also began to consider how people "read" the products and messages conveyed by various forms of media.

Fish also introduced the related concepts of interpretative communities and interpretive strategies. An interpretive community is formed of readers who use similar interpretive strategies based on shared beliefs about what constitutes the most significant elements of a text. The values and beliefs of the community encourage members to understand a text in a particular way. An interpretive strategy is a set of assumptions and approaches to understanding a text. Interpretive strategies set certain parameters, providing a framework that shapes understanding of a text. Fish argues that the meaning of a text is created by the act of interpretation. His view is that interpretive communities produce meaning by engaging with a text in a specific way.

Types of Interpretive Strategies

People take a variety of approaches to understanding or interpreting the meaning of a text or message. Influenced by literary criticism, sociology considers the different ways people can approach "texts" disseminated by media. There are several strategies used by thinkers in many academic disciplines:

  • Formalist: Examines how a text is structured (the form of the text)
  • Biographical: Uses knowledge about the author or creator.
  • Psychological: Draws upon psychoanalytic theories
  • Marxist: Views texts in terms of culture, race, class, and power; influenced by the work of Karl Marx (1818–83)
  • Cultural criticism: Focuses on the social, political, economic, and cultural context of text
  • Gender studies: Considers how the socially constructed concepts of masculine and feminine are used in a text
  • Feminist criticism: Bases interpretations in an understanding of the social and historical role of women
  • Mythological or archetypal: Considers symbolic meanings and the unconscious bias, anxieties, and desires of the author or creator
  • Deconstructionist: Closely analyzes components of a text or message and looks at the judgments and values that contribute to it

Sociologists, as well as thinkers in many other academic disciplines, have been influenced by this approach to interpreting content. Sociologists use many of the interpretive strategies that were developed by literary theorists. They apply them not to literary texts, but to the content of media in general. Sociologists also study how social identity can influence how individuals understand and react to what they see and hear in different forms of media. The texts and messages disseminated throughout society by media can have vastly different meanings to different communities.