Arguing for a General Framework for Mass Media Scholarship

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W. James Potter

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    Preface

    Developing a scholarly field is like solving a puzzle while at the same time designing it. Scholars start with a fuzzy, naive vision for what their phenomenon of interest is, that is, what they are trying to explain. To sharpen that vision, they work piece by piece to provide a good explanation for the components of the overall phenomenon. Using reason, insight, speculation, and observation, they must create the pieces that will reveal the full picture. Over time, they work on refining each piece, which leads them to break the components of the full phenomenon down into subcomponents and sub-subcomponents. This produces a greater and greater number of smaller and smaller pieces. This quest to create more pieces results in greater precision and refinement of the micro units, but it tends to draw the focus away from the big picture that tells us which pieces are more important and where the gaps are.

    The generating argument in this book is that the scholarship about the mass media has grown so large and become so fragmented that it is very difficult for scholars to understand, much less appreciate, the incredible array of great ideas and findings that have been produced. This difficulty has less to do with the scatter of forums for this information—across a dozen scholarly associations with their own journals and conferences; dozens of book publishers; hundreds of citizen action groups with their own reports and Web sites; and reports to funding agencies. Instead, I argue that the difficulty in making sense of all this information can be traced to a lack of perspective. By perspective, I mean a common platform from which to observe all this scholarship. A well-known illustration of perspective is the Saul Steinberg sketch that appeared as a cover of the New Yorker magazine and on posters throughout the country. The artist takes the perspective of a New Yorker living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. In the sketch, this neighborhood takes up about a third of the picture and has a lot of detail for landmarks in the Upper East Side. Another third of the sketch is the rest of Manhattan with its border of the Hudson River. The remaining third of the sketch depicts what lies west of the Hudson River, which is a squiggly line for the Mississippi River, a few bumps for the Rocky Mountains, and then the Pacific coastline. The sketch depicts the idea that Upper East Siders care most about their own neighborhood and know a fair amount about the rest of Manhattan, but, while they know there is something else to the United States, all that something else is relatively unimportant or at least unknown to them.

    The more I read the mass media literature, the more I have come to see our field as a large number of distinct neighborhoods each with a few scholars who understand their home neighborhood very well. The scholars in a particular neighborhood get so engrossed in a few theories, research questions, and methods that the familiar grows so large that it blocks the view of other neighborhoods. Scholars lose sight of the overall phenomenon of the mass media.

    This perception of our field started becoming clear to me several years ago. In the everyday conversations I was having with my media colleagues, I developed a sensitivity to what scholars felt they knew and what they did not talk about when it came to the mass media. In short, I was trying to understand the perspective from which they viewed our scholarly phenomenon of interest. For example, one colleague, who was trained in experimental psychology, saw the media in terms of particular content elements that could be treatments to generate differences in groups of participants; he knew very little about many other mass media areas such as content narratives or audience construction. Another colleague regarded the media as something that consumes people's time, so she conducted research only on motives for using the media; she knew very little about other mass media areas, such as physiological responses and structures of the mass media industries. Other colleagues who were critical mass media scholars saw the media primarily in terms of something that causes harm to society in one or two ways (such as negative images of certain groups of people); they knew little about many areas of mass media such as their positive effects or cognitive processing of information. Each scholar had become fixed in a perspective that foregrounded his or her special area of interest and blocked out a view of the larger phenomenon.

    New scholarly fields are typically built from the ground up; we need to start with exciting, vital neighborhoods. The field of mass media scholarship has built many of these. But a field needs larger structures that are required for more general tasks that scholars within one neighborhood cannot accomplish by themselves. We need cities, states, and regions, but we have little comprehension of these in our field. For example, reviews of the literature are typically at the neighborhood level. This is because most of the research is at the neighborhood level, so it is relatively easy to summarize research on most topics. However, we need more reviews of the literature that synthesize the summaries from across neighborhoods. We need to leverage our findings to higher levels of generality by knitting together the best thinking from across many neighborhoods. This is needed to add conceptual strength to a field that has been built primarily on empirical strength. Until we can build greater conceptual strength, we will continue in a state of fragmentation where there is little sharing of definitions for key constructs, little sharing of measurement instruments, and little acknowledgment of—much less testing of and building onto—existing theories. Because of this fragmentation, scholars who attempt to read beyond their neighborhoods will continue to feel fatigue when trying to figure out what the meanings of key terms are, the validity of different methods, and the value of different theories. This is a significant barrier to building a scholarly field as defined by a community of scholars with common goals and a sharing of knowledge.

    It is my goal in this book to energize mass media scholars to think well beyond their home neighborhood of expertise and to think more globally about the entire phenomenon of the mass media. In the first chapter, I make a case for why this is so vital. The remainder of the book, beginning with Chapter 2, lays out a picture of what such a general framework would look like. In that chapter, I use the metaphor of a bicycle wheel as a device to illustrate the nature of scholarly fields and to organize my critique of how the thinking and research about the mass media can be better organized and thereby made more useful.

    The next four parts of the book each deal with one of the facets of mass media scholarship: media organizations, media audiences, media messages, and media effects. The part of the book on media organizations contains four chapters. Chapter 3 introduces a knowledge structure for thinking about mass media organizations. Chapter 4 focuses on business strategies, Chapter 5 on marketing strategies, and Chapter 6 on employment strategies.

    Part III deals with the audience facet of the mass media phenomenon and is composed of five chapters. Chapter 7 presents the big picture perspective on audiences. Chapter 8 focuses on cognitive algorithms and how they are so important as an explanatory device for audience thinking and behavior. The next three chapters each deal with one of the three information tasks of filtering (Chapter 9), meaning matching (Chapter 10), and meaning construction (Chapter 11).

    Part IV shifts attention to the content facet of the mass media phenomenon and is composed of four chapters. Chapter 12 introduces a general knowledge structure for thinking about media content. Chapter 13 presents information on patterns of content found in the mass media and looks at the general conventions underlying the production of that content. Chapter 14 examines message formulas and conventions across major genres. This section concludes with Chapter 15, which presents a critique of the scholarship about mass media messages.

    Part V focuses on the effects facet and is composed of three chapters. Chapter 16 introduces the effects line of thinking. Chapter 17 takes up the issue of how to organize all the hundreds of documented media effects. Chapter 18 presents a critique of the methods used to generate the large literature of media effects.

    Part IV consists of a single chapter. In Chapter 19, I review the major ideas of the general framework in order to leave the reader with the big picture.

    How I Wrote This Book

    The seeds for this book were planted in my mind while I was still in graduate school and reading the mass media scholarly literature for the first time. As every student does, I asked myself, “How does this all fit together? How much of this literature do I really need to read? What are the most important questions and studies?” My initial answers to these questions were very naive and partial, but those intuitively derived answers helped me get through (although not very well) many reading lists. It took a long time to read even the shortest articles, and I was always worried (with good reason) that I was not getting enough out of those readings.

    With more reading came more questions—but better questions. Also, my answers seemed more reasoned, more elaborate, and more useful to me. After finishing my graduate degree and becoming a faculty member, I gradually narrowed my reading to focus on particular topics so that I could design particular research studies. One area of interest was media violence, but after conducting a good deal of research on this topic, I felt I might be losing my perspective because my reading had become more and more focused on sub-sub-areas. So I began to broaden my reading and was amazed at how many good insights had been published on the topic of media violence. I tried to organize this scholarship in my 1999 book, On Media Violence, in which I synthesized from that literature an explanation of why media incorporate violence in their stories and how that violence affects individuals and society. After publishing that book, I wanted to broaden my perspective even more to look at a wider range of harmful effects of mass media exposures. I did a great deal of thinking and reading about media literacy and began working on Theory of Media Literacy, which ended up being published in 2004. As I was writing that book, I became bothered by how fragmented our literatures were and how many scholars typically ignored the research of other scholars working in other sub-areas of mass media scholarship. I myself was not immune from this problem. The more I read across sub-areas, the more I found important publications that I failed to cite in my own published work, although at the time I was writing those manuscripts, I had made every reasonable effort to find all studies published on my topic. The literatures of mass media are spread across so many disciplines, worldviews, journals, publishers of books, monographs, government reports, working papers of consumer groups, and so on that it is very difficult to arrive at a feeling that one has located all relevant materials on a given topic.

    Then with the advent of electronic catalogs of very large numbers of journals, books, and other sources of information along with desktop computerized searches, it seemed that the access problem might be solved. But this is not the case. Electronic searches rely on the skillful use of keywords, and there is such diversity in definitions of key terms used by mass media scholars that the use of a single set of keywords almost always results in the identification of only a partial set of relevant publications. This led me to think about what it is that mass media scholars truly share—or should share. To try answering this question, I attempted to read all the mass media–related research published in journals (at least in the mainstream media journals) in order to form in my mind a picture of what the current topography of that literature looked like. I had done this in another form earlier in my research career when I conducted a content analysis of eight journals with two researchers who were then graduate students at Indiana University—Roger Cooper and Michel Dupagne. That project was a formal content analysis with specific variables and tests for reliability that ended in the publishing of several articles and setting off a debate about whether mass media research was scientific or prescientific (W. J. Potter, Cooper, & Dupagne, 1995; Sparks, 1995a, 1995b).

    Then about a decade later, I wanted to take another broad look at the mass media literature, but this time I wanted a more qualitative feel for the big picture that emerges from the mass media literature rather than precise counts of various features. So over the course of an intense summer, I read through all the mass media articles published in mainstream communication journals over that past decade. I also read several dozen books published on mass media topics over that decade.

    What first struck me as I read through all this work was that there were far more lines of research than I expected to see. Also, certain lines of research (on specific theories or generated by certain named scholars) were a lot smaller than I expected (particularly with cultivation and social cognitive theories), while other lines of research were more extensive than I expected (particularly with the third-person effect). There were new names of scholars that had already generated a fairly impressive line of research. However, most of the literature had the feel of scholars grappling with a very wide variety of theoretical and methodological issues.

    The more I read, the more I came to feel that the mass media literature was still largely exploratory, even beyond 2000, when the research field was more than five decades old. By this I mean that scholars were still struggling with how to define key constructs such as cognitions, emotions, attitudes, beliefs, perceptions, behaviors, exposure, attention, audience, and even the term mass media. Also, a good deal of the research was not guided by a formal theory that could have helped the researchers with definitions of key terms, deduction of tests, and replication of results. Instead, a good deal of the research was question driven, where the authors reviewed a small portion of literature to try to position their study but not enough to build significantly on previous hypotheses, measures, and findings. These studies typically concluded with a call for more research in the area as well as a litany acknowledging the current study's limitations—many of which could have been avoided had the authors reviewed a larger swath of literature and found a closer study to replicate and thus learn from that study's litany of limitations. The value of this large literature lay in the creativeness in the speculations; however, there were very few “rallying points” where scholars built studies on the acceptance of the same definitions of key terms. On the surface, it appeared as if people were using the same definitions when they were using the same terms, but a careful reading of an article usually revealed that each author had his or her own specialized meaning. This was a criticism Steve Chaffee made in the late 1980s, which led him to publish Communication Concepts 1: Explication (1991) and to persuade scholars to explicate several dozen major terms commonly used in communication scholarship so as to build a shared basis of clarified meaning.

    Although much of the literature was exploratory in nature, there were many examples of programmatic research clearly driven by theories. These theory-driven studies tended to arrange themselves according to different research traditions from the more established social sciences. Three of these literatures were fairly substantial—studies from psychological, sociological, and political traditions. Smaller literatures include economics (use of resources by the media industries and people interacting with those industries), education (evaluation of learning outcomes), and anthropology (ethnographies of cultures). There are also literatures developed by scholars from a humanistic worldview who use a different set of research tools, such as critical analysis, textual analysis, and argumentation from a clearly presented ideological position.

    What impressed me the most was the growing size of the literature spread out across so many topics—all related to the mass media. However, at the same time I was concerned about how I could distill all these reading experiences down into a clear map of the literature. I was very concerned that after many months of reading, I did not have any clearer vision of a map than I had before. Over the next year, I thought about what I had read and tried to organize it for myself and for the students I would be encountering in upcoming media courses. I tried to induce patterns, and I tried different forms of comparing and contrasting studies to arrive at some meaningful groupings. Some organizational ideas gradually started forming and continued to form over the next year. Then in the fall of 2004, I went back to reread the same literature, but this time I was more evaluative, that is, I was looking for ideas that were most useful to help shape organizational schemes such that the resulting synthesis would be a good attempt at capturing the breadth of research as well as theorizing and at the same time be able to highlight patterns to illuminate the terrain of that scholarship. I was driven by the following questions: How can all this mass media scholarship be integrated into a meaningful framework that could feature most prominently the best thinking and research? Can a framework emphasize integration over fragmentation to showcase how ideas driving differing lines of research can be used to buttress one another? Can such a framework be constructed to reveal a map of scholarship in a way to direct researchers toward the most pressing topics? Can a framework help move us toward a strong community of shared definitions and shared context of thinking?

    I attempted to synthesize such a framework to see if the questions posed above could be answered in the affirmative. During the next year, I began writing my ideas in book form. This manuscript represents a ninth major revision from that first effort. With each revision, I saw things differently. Throughout this process, I learned a great deal through feedback from students, reviewers, and presentations at various universities around the country. Also, I am amazed that as my context on the scholarly field changes, the reading of a particular article for the sixth time, for example, leads me to see things in a very different way than when I read that article for the fifth time.

    In constructing this general framework, I employed a five-step procedure culminating in a synthesis. First, I analyzed all the scholarly literature I could find that was somehow relevant to the mass media. This came largely from scholarly journals and books. Of course, there is so much written that I am under no illusion that I have read the full inventory. But I am relatively confident that if an idea was important to more than a few isolated people, I was able to note it. By analysis, I mean that I searched each piece of writing for key ideas of definition, prediction, and explanation.

    Second, I grouped those ideas to create a structure. The largest structure focuses attention on what I came to believe were the four major facets of the mass media: organizations, audience, messages, and effects. Within each of these four groups, I continued with subgroupings, and sub-subgroupings. Refer to the outlines at the beginning of each chapter to see those structures.

    The challenge in grouping findings together lay in deciding which elements in a piece of writing to use in the groupings. If I was using a key term to structure the grouping (i.e., if a particular term appears in a study, it is included in a group), I had to be careful that the authors using the same term were attaching the same meaning to it. This forced me to clarify definitions for commonly used terms and also to construct other terms in order to help me organize all of these ideas into coherent groups.

    Third, I evaluated the ideas. Evaluation essentially involves the comparison of something (in this case, an idea from the literature) to a standard. The standard I used was utility; that is, how useful was an idea in illuminating the nature of the mass media phenomenon. Using this evaluation procedure, I screened out a lot of ideas that did not seem to have much utility. I must acknowledge that I had a fairly high standard for utility because there is a limit to the size of the book I could publish. Many ideas that have utility are not acknowledged in this book because my focus here is on providing a general framework. Many of those “screened out” ideas have high utility at a more detailed level, where they serve to elaborate explanations.

    Fourth, I used induction to look for patterns across ideas within each section, and then across sections. Within sections, I was interested in looking for trends and novel patterns across the findings of different studies. Across sections, I was interested in looking for consistency in an arc of explanation. A significant challenge lay in looking for patterns across studies. A good deal of the mass media literature presents equivocal results. While almost all of the published literature presents findings that have been found to be statistically significant, the matter of substantive significance is not so salient in many studies.

    Fifth, I used synthesis to assemble the ideas from the literature (that were evaluated as useful) along with my own insights gained through grouping and induction into a coherent whole. When working on this synthesis, I had to be more than a clerk who cuts out the ideas from different literatures and pastes those various ideas together in a long list. The central challenge of synthesis was to use as many of the most important ideas from the literature as possible and to assemble them into a coherent whole. In constructing the synthesis, I uncovered many gaps in the literatures. Rather than fill these gaps with a statement such as “More research needs to be done in this area,” I tried to bridge over these gaps with reasoned speculation. Therefore, some of the propositions I put forth in this theory have no empirical support. However, that is the nature of theorizing; I hope researchers will find those ideas worthy of testing. If so, this general framework will serve a heuristic function of generating additional research along particular lines of inquiry.

    In creating the synthesis, I was particularly influenced by the ideas of cognitive psychologists (especially John Bargh and Robert Wyer) who have done a great deal of work concerning the human mind and how we process information. I have also relied heavily on the ideas of British sociologists (especially John Thompson and Anthony Giddens) and historians (especially Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan) who take a longer and broader view of the media across history and cultures to examine profound macro effects on the context of our everyday lives. On the more humanistic and critical side of scholarship, I have not been impressed much with the ideas of the major scholars of the Frankfurt school (such as Horkheimer, Adorno, or Marcuse) because they are too focused on a negative criticism of the media industries. The media industries create culture in all sorts of ways, some positive, some neutral, and some negative. I prefer instead the more reasoned approaches of scholars such as Stuart Hall and David Morley. Also, as for semiotics, I have found the work of Saussure, Peirce, Foucault, Eco, and Derrida too abstract and technical for this synthesis, preferring instead the ideas of Volosinov and Propp. And last, but far from least, I have benefitted from the ideas of scores of media scholars who are too numerous to mention here but whose names and ideas are featured prominently in the following chapters.

    What I have presented above might appear to be a linear process progressing from step one through step five to a final product. That was not the case. It was a process of trying to do early steps first, but the steps were performed in every order in mini-cycles of thinking and writing. Every few months, I usually completed a full cycle of drafting out a full set of chapters. At the end of such a long cycle, I had learned so much that the entire project looked very different to me, thus requiring a total revision starting with a major restructuring of approach, altering the sequence of chapters—dropping some, adding some, and combining some with others. This was the hermeneutic approach; in creating a draft of the entire project, I did the best I could in crafting each piece, but once all the pieces were assembled into a whole and I was able to see the “big picture” revealed as all the pieces were put in the puzzle, I wanted to rework the picture. In all, I created nine distinctly different drafts of the manuscript, revising it significantly each time, although the revisions on the later drafts were less major—but still substantial.

    Conclusion

    This general framework attempts to provide an integrated explanation of the mass media as an industry, the messages that are produced and marketed, the audiences for those messages, and the effects of those messages on individuals and larger social structures. This framework attempts to organize past and current thinking in a way that allows us to take stock of where we are and critique those ideas in a way that will help us gain a better understanding of who we are as a scholarly field and what we can do to strengthen our research community as well as our contributions to the general public.

    I hope that the audience of researchers will find three characteristics of this book valuable. First, there is a prescriptive list of key terms and their definitions that form the foundation of this framework. These were derived through a careful analysis and synthesis of the literatures. This can focus researchers’ attention on a common set of definitions. Sharing these definitions widely can serve to build the scholarly field faster. But even if some researchers disagree with certain definitions, their criticism will be clearer building off of those presented here rather than building off of primitive definitions where we inaccurately assume a shared meaning. Second, the patterns presented in this book will show researchers where their efforts will make the greatest impact, that is, important areas where there is yet little research. Third, this framework will present a complex of integrated ideas that can help form a stronger context for positioning their findings.

    I ask that readers of this framework take a look at it in its entirety before making judgments about the value of any of its parts. There are elements in this theory that will appear strange or even anathema to different readers. This is because I have tried to craft a truly general framework, and this required not only the inclusion of a great many findings but also the inclusion of characteristics from different types of theories (covering laws, axiomatic, and systems), purposes (organization, prediction, and explanation), ontological positions (realism to actionalism), epistemological positions (logical positivist to constructivist), and scholarly traditions (experimental psychology, economics, sociology, political science, education, and critical/cultural approaches). At times, my approach is very mechanistic. This is because certain parts of the phenomenon appear to be that way. At other times, my approach is very open to the highly individualistic interpretations made by audience members. I regard humans as complex creatures who at times do process information like machines while at other times are able to take creative paths to completely original readings of messages and subsequent behaviors. Humans exhibit a wide range of potentials; after all, it is humans who have created the great variety of ontological, epistemological, and worldview positions! Therefore, it seems disrespectful of the human condition to wall off some of these options when creating a system of explanation about how people process media messages.

    My ultimate goal for this book is to energize mass media scholars to take the next step in building our scholarly field. This next step emphasizes breadth of perspective in clarifying the big picture. It favors convergence over divergence. It privileges the sharing of definitions, conceptualizations, and operationalizations over the creation of new ones. This is not to say that I do not value divergent and creative thinking; that is essential to building a scholarly field, and this has been the strong point in the development of the mass media scholarly field up until now. But at this point in time, the marginal utility of developing another conceptualization is much smaller than assembling our best conceptualizations into a more powerful system of explanation.

    Some scholars will find the insights presented here helpful and will want to use those definitions and ways of thinking in designing their research studies. For these scholars, this framework will provide a useful map to guide their selection of research topics that will have the greatest leverage on increasing our knowledge about the phenomenon. Other scholars will undoubtedly disagree with my vision; their oppositional stance will serve to challenge the assumptions, definitions, and propositions I present in this framework. The resulting argument and debate will also serve to increase our knowledge about the mass media. I welcome these debates—not only to argue my positions (as I will likely try to do) but also as an opportunity to broaden my perspective.

    SAGE Publications gratefully acknowledges the following reviewers:

    Sahara Byrne (Cornell University)

    Roger Cooper (Ohio University)

    Dennis K. Davis (Pennsylvania State University)

    Dale Kunkel (University of Arizona)

    Dana Mastro (University of Arizona)

    Mary Beth Oliver (Pennsylvania State University)

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    Author Index

    About the Author

    W. James Potter is a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he teaches courses in media literacy, media content, and media effects. A holder of a Ph.D. in Communication and another in Instructional Systems, he has also taught at Western Michigan University, Florida State University, Indiana University, UCLA, and Stanford University. He is a former editor of the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. He is the author of numerous scholarly articles, book chapters, and a dozen books, including the following titles: Media Literacy (4th ed.), On Media Violence, Theory of Media Literacy: A Cognitive Approach, How to Publish Your Communication Research (edited with Alison Alexander), and The 11 Myths of Media Violence.


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