Media Effects & Propaganda

War of the Worlds newsprint

October 30th 1938 was one of the most important dates in the history of mass media and its impact on society. Produced by Orson Welles, the radio broadcast of ???War of the Worlds??? created nationwide panic and thus allowed anyone to see the social effects that were made possible by the media. Interestingly, while panic was observed during the broadcast, some people were still able to remain calm and collected. Two years later, this led physiologists Hadley Cantril, Hazel Gaudet, and Herta Herzog to study the phenomenon where some people seemed more susceptible to the effects of the radio broadcast as compared to others. What they found out was that those who were not frightened were not suggestible because they displayed what psychologists called a ???critical faculty??? (pg. 589). The lack of critical faculty was the lack of the ability to create a framework in which to check if the information were true. People who lacked critical faculty included those in the lower income bracket or educational level, as they would have considerably limited sources of information to refer to (pg. 582). Radio was the most accessible media for them and would be a reason why they seemed to exhibit the most panic. The psychologists behind this paper could be likened to early communication researchers who delved into the mind in order to better understand ones behaviors. They performed standard research methodology including interviewing 135 persons as their sample size, and created a working framework of four psychological conditions in which to classify people???s behaviors. This was in a sense an early study of media effects on society.

There seems to be a natural call to study the effects of media that was considered new to the time. Be it radio, motion picture, television, people do realize that the introduction of ???new??? media creates some kind of change. It would be normal for one to desire better understanding of the media effect, and eventually control it if possible. The Payne Fund Studies on the effects of movies on children was a classic example of how important it is to study media effects. Parents of children who frequented movies were concerned over the effects of the content of motion pictures towards their children. While the pressure mounted whether movies were having a negative effect on their children, it became increasingly clear that research was needed (pg. 23). This need gave birth to the scientific study of mass communication and scholars saw this as the perfect opportunity to go deeper into their research. Instead of merely discovering the influential source of propaganda, communication scientists took the first major steps in defining the cause-effect relationships within the framework of science (pg. 24). Of all the scientific work conducted, Herbert Blumer produced the most interesting research consisting of autobiographical accounts from more then 1,800 young men and women, adolescents and children. His work revealed two processes, namely the meaning theory and modeling theory, which accounted for how movies influenced children. With the idea that his research was mostly qualitative, not quantitative, Blumer shows us scholars that there is room for detailed and analytical research in exploratory studies in place of scientific studies alone.

Although these two studies focus on the effects of media on our everyday life, the same research could be applied to the study of propaganda. According to, ???Propaganda is a specific type of message presentation, aimed at serving an agenda. Even if the message conveys true information, it may be partisan and fail to paint a complete and balanced picture. The primary use of the term is in political contexts and generally refers to efforts sponsored by governments and political parties.??? With the study of media effects in mind, governments worldwide employ widespread tactics in order to influence the people of their enemy. On the left, we see the US Marines 350th PSYOPS Company passing out leaflets and broadcasting messages in Al Kut, Iraq on May 2nd, 2003. Note that in place of the heavy weaponry on the top of the vehicle, there is a series of loudhailers instead. The study of media effects has spawned many functional theories today, including Agenda-Setting theory, Cultivation theory, Cultural Imperialism theory, Diffusion theory, Functional Approach to Mass Communication, Human Action Approach theory, Media Dependency, Media Equation, Rules-Based theory, Spiral of Silence theory, Technological Determinism theory, and the Uses and Gratifications theory. The compatibility of such theories to more recent media such as the Internet showcases the utility of these theories. Similar to the two studies mentioned in our readings, media effects research has been conducted on the Internet covering ranges of topics such as Internet censorship and online interest groups. In conclusion, I believe that the study of media effects is an interesting and evolving field with high utilitarian value.

Cantril, H. with Gaudet, H., & Herzog, H. (1940). The invasion from mars: A study in the psychology of panic. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Selection.

Lowery, S. A. & DeFleur, M.L. (1995). The Payne Fund studies. Milestones in mass communication research: Media effects (pp. 21-42). White Plains, N.Y.: Longman.

4 thoughts on “Media Effects & Propaganda

  1. Funny how Propaganda goes in and out of style. A couple of years ago, I included in this course some readings in propaganda specifically. Students complained that while it may have been relevent at the beginning of the century, there really wasn’t any propaganda these days. At the time, I argued that propaganda is interesting as a model of persuasion.

    To argue that there is no such thing as propaganda today seems especially silly lately.

    Like the mixing of images, by the way. Adds some degree of ethos to your response for some reason.

    Nicely done.

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