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Hypodermic Needle and Limited Effects Theories

The concern for the potential social effects of mass media has been present since the advent of the press, television, film, radio and now the Internet. Researchers have developed various interpretations and theories addressing the impact of media on the audience, in an attempt to explain this relationship, which is still in debate.

The Magic Bullet Theory originated in the 1930’s, believes that the audience is impressionable, passive and equally susceptible to media messages. This notion of mass audience is highly influenced by the definition of mass society, at the time, with the increase of modernization, industrialization and urbanization believed to be the culprits of rising criminality (Reis, 1998). The media is assumed to have the ability to influence the masses and persuade public opinion toward any given subject, depending on the author of the text. The belief is that messages are like “magic bullets”, they strike all members of the audience uniformly, creating even effects among them. Likewise, the “Hypodermic Needle Theory” shared the same premise. Audiences are injected with a “shot” of information, which is believed to be capable of equally affecting audience’s thinking and behavior. The classical example that illustrates this theory is the Orson Welles’s radiobroadcast “The Invasion from Mars” in 1938. In the eve of Halloween, a radio broadcast is interrupted with information that Martians have begun an invasion of earth in Grovers Mill, New Jersey. People actually believe that a serious invasion is in progress, establishing panic in households and in the streets. The effect of this broadcast suggestes how the theory works; a shot of information by the media is able to influence a more vulnerable audience in a uniform manner. Studying the panic provoked from this broadcast Hadley Cantril (1947) surveys listeners of the program in an attempt to understand why some listeners confused the fictional program with a real news bulletin. Results indicate that the reason some listeners do not verify the authenticity of what they are listening to on the radio is their preexisting mind sets, which make it possible for them to understand what is being broadcasted. High religiosity and beliefs about the end of the world are some of the factors that are raised about what made the program believable.

A prominent critic of the “Hypodermic Needle” model is Paul Lazarsfeld, an Austrian born scholar who arrives in the United States in 1933, and has a decisive role in the development of communication and social studies (Katz, 1987). Lazarsfeld and his colleagues at the Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia University develop the “limited effects theory” based on studies about opinion formation in the presidential elections in the United States and about the influence of opinion leaders in the communication process. Their theory posites that media messages have only indirect and limited effects on the public; to be more effective these messages need to be mediated by opinion leaders. Therefore, the idea of the powerful media is debunked, and it is concluded that there are several intervening variables that mediated the media-audience connection. Lazarsfeld and his group then created the “two-step flow of communication” model, which states that ideas flow from the media to opinion leaders and from them to less active sections of the population. In this relationship, the tendency of the media is to reinforce predispositions, rather than change them. Therefore, individuals only search for information that goes with their beliefs, avoiding media content that challenge their position, determining a process of “selective exposure” (Czitrom, 1982).

Critics of the limited effects model link Lazersfeld’s research to the media industry and to government money as important financial sources, which according to them, might have an influence on the selection of the respondents and questions asked to them (Noelle-Neuman, 1983; Simpson, 1993).





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