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Agenda-Setting, Cultivation Analysis, and Uses and Gratifications

A new perspective in media effects research starts to develop after the dominance of the “limited effects” paradigm. The new approaches emphasize long-term effects, instead of short-term campaign periods, a move from behavior and persuasion to cognition, and a transition from minimal to more significant media effects (Katz, 1980). One of the major developments in media effects is the emergence of theories about the agenda-setting role of the media. McCombs & Shaw (1972) present a hypothesis that the mass media establish the agenda for each political campaign, influencing the prominence of attitudes toward political issues. Drawing from Bernard Cohen’s theory, the authors posit that the press may not be successful most of the time in telling people what to think, but they are very successful in telling readers what to think about. This approach intends to investigate how the media set the agenda of subjects that are considered relevant by the public in political and electoral decisions, therefore attempting to mold the political process. Critics of this approach contest that nobody can tell people what to think about. The initial position fails to consider how diverse forms information is presented might affect the process of opinion formation (Williams et al., 1991).

The agenda setting approach contributes to broaden the horizons of media effects research. However, another theory develops that emphasized more long-term effects and proposes an even more powerful media effects in the form of cultivation analysis (Gerbner et al., 1994). George Gerbner (1982, 1984) and his colleagues propose the theory that mass media, specifically television, plays a dominant role in defining people’s cultural and social values. They argue that television “cultivates” those values, opinion, and concepts over an extended period of time; therefore studies of exposure to television effects should always be analyzed on a long-term basis instead of short-term response. They conducted studies on how exposure to television’s dramatic content will shape a viewer’s worldview. This exposure will lead to the cultivation of shared understanding of reality, mainly among heavy viewers, that otherwise will have little in common besides television. Cultivation effects were established by comparing social perceptions of reality by light and heavy viewers of television with media representation of violence and crime. The cultivation perspective is criticized at the methodological and conceptual levels. Some of the criticism is for its simplistic understanding of television reception, translated in terms of “exposure”, that is, the number of hours people report to stay in front of the screen. Missing from this approach is a more comprehensive understanding of the process by which people interpret television programs and elaborate their own meanings (Livingstone, 1998).




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