The Media

Media Effects and Bias

Concerns about the effects of media on consumers and the existence and extent of media bias go back to the 1920s. Reporter and commentator Walter Lippmann noted that citizens have limited personal experience with government and the world and posited that the media, through their stories, place ideas in citizens’ minds. These ideas become part of the citizens’ frame of reference and affect their decisions. Lippmann’s statements led to the hypodermic theory, which argues that information is “shot” into the receiver’s mind and readily accepted.[15]

Yet studies in the 1930s and 1940s found that information was transmitted in two steps, with one person reading the news and then sharing the information with friends. People listened to their friends, but not to those with whom they disagreed. The newspaper’s effect was thus diminished through conversation. This discovery led to the minimal effects theory, which argues the media have little effect on citizens and voters.[16]

By the 1970s, a new idea, the cultivation theory, hypothesized that media develop a person’s view of the world by presenting a perceived reality.[17] What we see on a regular basis is our reality. Media can then set norms for readers and viewers by choosing what is covered or discussed.

In the end, the consensus among observers is that media have some effect, even if the effect is subtle. This raises the question of how the media, even general newscasts, can affect citizens. One of the ways is through framing: the creation of a narrative, or context, for a news story. The news often uses frames to place a story in a context so the reader understands its importance or relevance. Yet, at the same time, framing affects the way the reader or viewer processes the story.

Episodic framing occurs when a story focuses on isolated details or specifics rather than looking broadly at a whole issue. Thematic framing takes a broad look at an issue and skips numbers or details. It looks at how the issue has changed over a long period of time and what has led to it. For example, a large, urban city is dealing with the problem of an increasing homeless population, and the city has suggested ways to improve the situation. If journalists focus on the immediate statistics, report the current percentage of homeless people, interview a few, and look at the city’s current investment in a homeless shelter, the coverage is episodic. If they look at homelessness as a problem increasing everywhere, examine the reasons people become homeless, and discuss the trends in cities’ attempts to solve the problem, the coverage is thematic. Episodic frames may create more sympathy, while a thematic frame may leave the reader or viewer emotionally disconnected and less sympathetic.

An image of an old person. In the background are an adult and a child in a tent.
Figure 4. The civil war in Syria has led many to flee the country, including this woman living in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan in September 2015. The episodic framing of the stories of Syrian refugees, and their deaths turned government inaction into action. (credit: Enes Reyhan)

Framing can also affect the way we see race, socioeconomics, or other generalizations. For this reason, it is linked to priming: when media coverage predisposes the viewer or reader to a particular perspective on a subject or issue. If a newspaper article focuses on unemployment, struggling industries, and jobs moving overseas, the reader will have a negative opinion about the economy. If then asked whether he or she approves of the president’s job performance, the reader is primed to say no. Readers and viewers are able to fight priming effects if they are aware of them or have prior information about the subject.