Speaking Volumes: The Effects of Mass Communication

February 9, 1996

Colin Seymour-Ure on Joseph T. Klapper's The Effects of Mass Communication .

For an academic starting a university job in the mid-1960s, it would have been professional suicide to trade as a lecturer in communications. If you wanted to teach about mass media, as I did, you had to root yourself in a recognised discipline. The very term "mass media" does not appear in the index to The Times (quite a fair indicator) until 1965. It was bad enough teaching an option course called "Politics and mass media". What do you give the students to actually, well, read, colleagues would ask? One answer was The Effects of Mass Communication, by Joseph T. Klapper (The Free Press, 1960).

Klapper was a godsend. You could not get far in an undergraduate course about mass media without addressing the question of "effects". This conventionally meant effects upon the attitudes of mass audiences. Most reasons for wanting to study media at all turned out to be predicated on the assumption that they did have such effects. Why was violent crime rising? It must be the fault of the media. Why was politics being "trivialised"? Because the growth of political television personalised it. Why did the working class refuse to ditch reformist governments? Because of the bourgeois media, stupid.

Klapper summarised audience research, mainly in the United States, up to the end of the 1950s. He presented neat, comprehensible conclusions, with still neater summaries at the end of each chapter. They were not entirely about politics, but looked pretty transferable to British conditions. The central message, chanted in countless student essays like some Orwellian slogan ("Four legs good, two legs bad") was the assertion, "reinforcement, not change!". If the media were mystifying the working class, it was because the working class was predisposed towards bourgeois values and the media were acting largely as reinforcing agents. The explanation for this was another memorable incantation: "selective exposure, selective perception, selective retention!". We chiefly watch and read what we already like; we interpret it to fit our existing beliefs; and we will more quickly forget the bits we do not enjoy.

With rumbles of qualification, these were the simplicities on Klapper's lips. They were consistent, in general, with the research that developed in Britain in the 1960s. They were useful to a teacher because initially they seemed counter-intuitive and so they provoked good discussions. They could be prayed in aid by zealots either to excuse press partisanship (which "wasn't making any difference") or to justify drastic intervention ("no way can a radical government come to power through the present media system"). They enabled TV dramatists to argue that sex, violence and bad language were not corrupting viewers.

The limited helpfulness of these findings to an understanding of the world in the 1970s and beyond became increasingly clear. If electoral partisanship was becoming more volatile, for example, then maybe media could shift opinion decisively over a month-long election campaign - with or without manipulative intent. Electoral studies pay much more attention now to the role of media. Moreover, "effects" do not happen only to mass audiences: what about effects on parties, parliament, interest groups and prime ministers themselves? Increasingly scholars turned their attention away from the audience to this kind of question.

Degrees in "communication studies" have bred rabbit-like in the 1990s. The subject remains, to my mind, a field not a discipline. Reading lists are thick with reputable work. But I have a fondness for Klapper. He represented scholarship at a time when academics were beginning to ask political science questions about mass media in Britain but had barely started providing scholarly answers. Mind you, it is still not easy to give a direct answer to that crucial question about influence on voters, posed by The Sun's famous headline after the 1992 election: was it THE SUN WOT WON IT?

Colin Seymour-Ure is professor of government, University of Kent at Canterbury.

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