Communicating Unreality: Modern Media and the Reconstruction of Reality


Gabriel Weimann

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    Long before the introduction of mass media, before communication scholars started to realize the power of mass media in shaping our perceptions of reality, the Greek philosopher Plato presented the notion of reconstructed reality in his famous Allegory of the Cave. “Imagine,” said Plato, “the condition of men who had always lived deep within a dark cave. There is a fire burning in the cave, and it glows so strongly that it casts shadows on the opposite wall. The people in the cave are chained so they face the wall and the shadows. They cannot see the actual figures moving in the cave but only the puppet show of shadows on the wall.” Plato added sound effects to his shadow show. “Suppose,” he said, “that the people moving in the cave talked freely, but the chained men could hear only the echoes from the walls and imagine that these were the original voices.” Plato's lesson was simple: The chained men in the cave, exposed only to shadows and echoes, would believe that these reflections were reality. Sooner or later, they would develop shared interpretations of the shadows, give them names and meanings, and hate or like some of them, but always accept them as the real things, not their distorted reflections. The sounds, images, and movements reflected on their wall shaped their perception of reality.

    Suppose that one of them was set free and he could see it all: the wall, the true figures, the real movements, the reality. He could learn how distorted his former perceptions were and recognize the true reality. “But then,” asks Plato, “what will happen if we bring him back to the chained men, still facing the shadows on the wall? What will happen when he will try to explain to his former companions that what they were all seeing was not reality at all?” Plato was convinced that the chained men would laugh at him and reject his ideas of the “real” reality out there.

    The wall in the cave was replaced by the screens of television, movies, and computers, by pictures and text in newspapers and magazines, by the sounds of recorded and transmitted voices and sounds on radio sets. We may not be chained, but nevertheless these media “walls” are our main source of information about the world out there.

    This book attempts to break away from the cave, to gather and analyze the findings of numerous studies about mass-mediated realities, and then to return to the cave with the evidence. Equipped with data from various research areas in many societies, cultures, and domains there is, I hope, no real threat that the “return to the cave” will end as Plato predicted: According to him, the returning man, trying to convince the others that they were not seeing true reality, would eventually be killed by them.

    In Chapter 1, we look at the nature of a mediated environment and the early recognition by Walter Lippmann that the media shape “the pictures in our heads” of the “world out there.” We examine the growing dependence on the mass-mediated presentations and interpretations of events, processes, and occurrences, especially in the “global village” we live in, where the technology of modern communication systems has made the world shrink and national or cultural boundaries collapse. In Chapter 2, we examine the lingering debate about the power of media and their impact on our attitudes, values, emotions, and opinions. We examine the evolution of research in the area of media effects. First, we consider what media effects means, then, we briefly trace the evolution in scholars' perspectives on media effects, and finally, we examine selected processes and theories by which media effects are thought to occur. Chapter 3 is devoted to the notion of cultivation and the related concept of mainstreaming. We examine the nature of these processes, the methodology used to study them, and the differences between them and other media effects. In this part, we also learn about the “debate over cultivation”: Cultivation studies have been criticized on conceptual and methodological grounds, including response biases and problems with the measuring instruments. Finally, this chapter looks at cultivation studies after two decades: It has been over 20 years since the first cultivation findings were published. Since then, many studies have explored, enhanced, critiqued, dismissed, or defended the conceptual assumptions and methodological procedures of cultivation analysis. Where is cultivation theory?

    Chapter 4 looks at the psychology of cultivation: What are the various psychological processes that lead us to accept media realities? Who are more vulnerable to the media's cultivation? The chapter reviews the research attempts to identify cognitive trait variables affecting cultivation, subprocesses or stages in the cultivation process, and the intervening impact of psychological factors such as memory accessibility, critical consumption of media, personal involvement, and personal experience. The subsequent part examines evidence of the cultivation process in various areas and various societies and cultures. Chapter 5 starts with the Mean World Syndrome. Modern media, such as video games, computer networks, computer games, Virtual Reality, Internet, and others—and, of course, television and movies—have become popular sites for experiencing, watching, and even activating aggression in various forms. Gerbner argued that we live now in a “charged environment,” in a huge “cult of violence.” This chapter looks at two questions: How mean is the media world, and what is the impact of violent media and violent contents on perceptions of the world as dangerous, mean, and violent.

    In Chapter 6, another dimension of reconstructed reality is examined, that of sex and sexuality. One of the most studied and documented areas of reconstructed realities by the mass media is that of the portrayal of the sexes and its impact on popular stereotypes of sex roles. The role of the media in sex role socialization has become an area of considerable concern and the topic of many studies during the recent decades because of the women's movement's interest, the convincing findings on bias and cultivation within this domain, and the emerging recognition that the media play a crucial role in diffusing, preserving, and cultivating images of sex roles. This chapter reveals the sexist patterns in various media contents such as commercials, TV series, movies, magazines, advertisements, and children's media. How do these mediated images of the sexes affect our perceptions of the sexes, their roles, traits, similarities, and differences? This chapter also looks at the impact of the media on the image of thinness and their impact on eating disorders, especially among women. Finally, the chapter reports the findings on the cultivation of sexuality, perceptions of sexual relationships, and especially the impact of pornography.

    Death and dying are relatively new areas for communication researchers. Chapter 7 reviews the studies on media presentations of death, dying, and suicide. This chapter also reports the impact of these mediated “facts” or images on people's perceptions of death and suicide. Of specific relevance are the findings on the distorted perceptions of who commits suicide and why, as cultivated by media contents. Chapter 8 is devoted to “the world according to MTV,” the music video channel, highly popular among young viewers all over the world. Music videos are distinctive because they present fantasies and dreams rather than the typical contents of television programs. Music video's “dream worlds,” “stories,” and “loose narrative” often depict aggression, violence, conflict, sex, and sex roles. This chapter explores the messages of MTV's videos and commercials and their impact on young viewers as revealed by numerous studies.

    How do we develop our impressions about certain groups, such as the aging? African Americans? AIDS patients? Gay people? Physicians? Arabs? One of the major images that mass media create for us involves stereotypical images of various groups of people. For many of these groups, it is only through TV and other media that we meet, learn about, and virtually “encounter” them. Chapter 9 looks at the part played by the media in the social reconstruction of several social groups. We examine here a sample of these portrayals, such as those of ethnic groups, race groups, professions, and other social categories.

    In Chapter 10, we examine the images of the United States as portrayed in various countries and various media contents. We also look at the impact of these mediated images on various audiences all over the world. The choice of American images was guided by the dominance of the American media in the international flow of news and entertainment, the impact of U.S.-made media on world media, and the studies of the impact of American media on various societies. Chapter 11 focuses on another dramatic form of media's reconstruction of reality: the case of war, especially the mediated Gulf War of 1991. Finally, Chapter 12 takes us into the recent innovations in communication technologies, from the Internet and the information superhighway to Virtual Reality, and looks at the potential cultivation impact of these media: Are they virtual or real? The concluding chapter attempts to list all the factors and actors involved in the process of “communicating unreality” and to suggest a dynamic and transactional model of cultivation (DTC model) to combine all these factors and actors into one conceptual framework of analysis.


    This book summarizes research that extended over 5 years and was hosted by five universities, supported by several foundations and grants, and assisted by many colleagues and friends. It reviews over 4,000 studies in this area including some of my own. Traversing various domains of mass-mediated realities, from war to sexuality, from death to gender, from international images to Virtual Reality technology or MTV's depiction of the world, Communicating Unreality provides a true journey through the reconstructed worlds of the mass media.

    The research reported here could not have been done without the contributions of many individuals and institutions all over the world. Five universities hosted me and provided the required research facilities: the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, United States; the University of Mainz, Germany; Hofstra University, Long Island, United States; the National University of Singapore; and Haifa University, Israel. Several foundations contributed directly and indirectly to this project: the American Fulbright Foundation, the German Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the Berman Center's research grant, the German National Research Foundation (DFG), and the Japanese Sasakawa Fellowship.

    Many of my colleagues and friends are to be thanked for their support, advice, and contributions. I will name only a few: Mark Levy, Sheizaf Rafaeli, Tamar Katriel, Jonathan Cohen, Helga Weissbecker, Hans-Bernd Brosius, March Lim, Wu Wei, Baruch Nevo, Sondra Rubenstein, Nancy Kaplan, Clowi, Sandra Ball-Rokeach, Josephine Heth, and many others. I wish to express my appreciation and gratitude to three anonymous reviewers for their excellent suggestions and comments and to Sara Miller McCune, Margaret Seawell, and the rest of the editorial staff at Sage Publications for their resolute efforts. Finally, to my family, Nava, Oren, and Dana, who provided encouragement and support to a husband and parent who was at times more attentive to his research than to them.

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    Author Index

    About the Author

    Gabriel Weimann is a full professor of communication at Haifa University, Israel. His research interests include the study of media effects, personal influence, modern terrorism and the media, and public opinion. He has published three books: The Influentials: People Who Influence People (1995), The Theater of Terror (1994), and Hate on Trial (1986). His numerous research reports have been published in journals such as Journal of Communication, Public Opinion Quarterly, Communication Research, Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, American Sociological Review, and others. He has received numerous grants and awards from international foundations, including the Fulbright Foundation, the Canadian-Israel Foundation, Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung, the German National Research Foundation (DFG), and the Sasakawa Foundation.

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