In addition to the structures and- functions, uses and gratifications, and play theories discussed so far, several other contemporary approaches to mass communication should be noted. Like the foregoing studies conducted since mid-century, these new theories hold that the media have important but difficult to measure long-term effects, and that information seeking and discriminating audiences are active and important participants in the mass communication process. The theories to be singled out at this juncture have been called political socialization and agenda setting theories
Socialization describes how people become functioning members of society, how they adapt to the values and norms of their communities and institutions. Political socialization is a special category in the process, explaining how political awareness is produced. Because political values begin at childhood, media researchers have studied children’s mass media usage and have conducted extensive content analyses of media particularly television-to determine the relationship between values conveyed by media and values adopted by children. How individuals learn about and participate in the political process what they think of the use and misuse of power, law and order, economics, and the like-ds subject to inquiry. Building upon the political studies of the 1930s and 1940s, cited earlier, researchers have combined insights into media usage with insights into children’s peer’ and reference group behavior: their families, their schools and other socializing influences. The studies are necessarily of a long-term nature, for only a reckless scientist .
would claim a direct cause-effect relationship between a particular media message and specific subsequent political behavior. Nevertheless, evidence is accumulating from such studies that the media are an important, though subtle, influence in children’s definitions of political reality and subsequent political behavior
The process of political socialization is largely one of social learning, and depends upon a combination of direct experience and observational learning. Much of that learning is based on imitation or modelling of successful (i.e., functional) behaviors depicted in media. From informative, persuasive, and .entertaining media messages, audiences observe how power is achieved and used, how political and economic decisions are made, and how systems are maintained. (Sometimes, regrettably, they also learn dys-functional messages-for instance, how to misuse power or tear down a viable system.)
Political information is an integral part of the mass media’s contents, whether intended or accidentally incorporated into news, public affairs, or entertainment programmers or even in commercials. An intriguing study of the 1972 presidential campaigns concluded that despite all the evidence of television’s credibility and the heavy reliance voters placed on television news as their window to the world, they actually learned more solid information about campaign issues from watching political commercials than from the network newscasts. The researchers maintained that due to its concentration on exciting visual images rather than substantive issues, the only effect of television news on the American voter is “to cheapen his conception of the campaign process and to stuff his head full of nonsense and trivia.” The study by Patterson and McClure, based on elaborate surveys and content analyses, shed new light on the political socialization process and caused a great deal of consternation among television news operations. It contributed to the field by indicating, that the sources of political insights, values, and behaviors are not as clear-cut and predictable as intuition or traditional research might assume .
This relates directly to the concept of agenda setting, a theory built around the media’s impact on the structure as well as content of audience preceptions. The media are powerful in their ability to create awareness of new ideas or topics, but somewhat limited in revolutionizing deeply held beliefs. Agenda setting theory maintains that the media may not be particularly successful in telling people what to think, but they are stunningly successful in telling people what to think about. Merely by systematically allowing certain issues to appear in the news, gatekeepers give the public a pattern of things to think about
A whole series of studies has found a direct and positive relationship between issues, events, and persons considered by editors to be newsworthy, and the issues, events, and persons . considered by readers, viewers,. and listeners to be newsworthy. Over a period of time, according to the theory, the very priorities for news utilized by professional gatekeepers become,’ almost by osmosis, the public’s priorities as well. For evidence, look at the end-of-the-year lists of “Top News Stories of the Past Year” in
your local paper, and see how many of the editors’ choices are similar to readers’ choices.
Fortunately, there is not always a one-to-one correlation between what gatekeepers choose to convey and what audiences think is important. Indeed, media critics can take some comfort in recognizing the checks and balances at work between gatekeepers’ and consumers’ priorities. Issues of growing importance to individuals and groups find their way into the media, just 88 the media give their audiences issues to consider. (This was referred to earlier as a multi-step flow of communication, in which audience feed-back influences gatekeepers. and vice versa.) Critics who fault the media for not giving the public what it says it needs would do well to consider this interdependent relationship, and look closely at who is influencing whom and how the influencing
occurs. The fact that such research is difficult to conduct helps perpetuate the myth of powerful media
Intriguing as they are, both the political socialization and agenda setting theories should be accepted only with a grain of salt. As noted, .they generally depend upon longitudinal studies, and are subject to many contaminating variables (including, of course, all the interpersonal communication likely to either contradict or reinforce the mass-mediated messages). However, given the ubiquity of the information environment, it appears likely that in the long run, the nation’s political self-identity and its sense of priorities are being subtly shaped as well as reflected by the mass media. The problem comes with not knowing what is meant by the long run, and being unable to pinpoint the many subtleties.