Investigation into the Mass Media: Then and Then Again

I love finding old papers I wrote. They help me understand where I came from and show the process of becoming a scholar — or whatever I want to call myself these days. I think we need more established scholars sharing these types of reflections on their processes, so finding old papers is a way to show that we all start somewhere and that we shouldn’t be ashamed of it.

Mainly what I learned here is how much I was still learning the academic way to speak and how desperately I was trying to fit into it. Learning to speak academic would then be something I’d have to work for years to undo.

This paper comes from my second quarter in graduate school at Ohio State University (March 2004), where we learned about the history of communication research and media studies. This paper contains my reflections on what I learned about this history from an examination of old publications.

“New knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Part 1: Mass Media Research, a work in progress

The best way to learn is either empirically about the present or historically from examples set in the past.  Mass media research would appear to require only the former, but one should not forget the work that has been done since the field’s inception.  The pursuit of knowledge is best accomplished by standing on the shoulders of those who came before, to further see to the horizon.  Such is the purpose of this paper; to provide an examination into how the work has been done, the foundations upon which that work stood, and the implications of those findings to the future of the field.  This investigation was conducted by examining random articles drawn from the first three decades of publication for the Journal of Broadcasting.  The first decade to discuss represents a period of aspiring to understand the effects of the mass media, the 1950s.

The first year of publication of the Journal of Broadcasting was at the end of 1956 and the beginning of 1957.  The first article was written by Richard M. Mall, an assistant professor at the Ohio State University, who obtained his Ph.D. from OSU in 1952 in speech and theater.  Entitled “The Place of Programming Philosophy in Competitive Radio Today,” the article attempted to address how radio broadcasters were handling the advent of the television age by adjusting their stations’ content.  By reviewing anecdotal evidence supplied from interviewed broadcasters, Mall described the various strategies broadcasters are employing to handle this new competitive marketplace, which range from specializing for various audiences to standard music and news format.  The fact that he used only anecdotal evidence underlies the article’s tone as a qualitative essay to explore a new phenomenon, without offering any theories or hypotheses as explanation.

The next article, written in 1957, is similar to Mall’s as it offers no attempt to theorize the situation of television’s influence on radio listening habits.  However, the article written by Rolf B. Meyersohn, of the University of Chicago’s Center for the Study of Leisure, took a decidedly more emotional tone in discussing the situation.  Entitled “What We Know About Audiences,” the article took a different route by examining how the audience has changed as it switched from listening to radio to watching television.  Using past research to prove his point, he detailed four changes, concluding with how television’s need to appeal to the mass audience made its programming cater to the lowest common denominator.  Set up in essay format, Meyersohn essentially created a persuasive argument with an atmosphere of degrading television, positioning radio into a savior role because it no longer has to cater to the masses. 

While it provides an interesting supplement to the research conducted by Mall, the argument would have been strengthened had Meyersohn not written in a somewhat unprofessional tone, such as using first-person point of view, injecting his presence into the article.  Also, Meyersohn approached the field with a sociology background, having received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1965.  His background influenced his approach to the study of mass media as he focused on how television is altering society.  While the article was an example of basic media effects research, it lacked the theorizing and hypothesizing as well.  This trend would continue for some time, as authors were more interested in exploring or philosophizing the field than explaining it.

Even the next article, written in 1958, while reporting the results of a demographic survey, lacked what would be considered the basic requirements for a modern research article.  While no information about the awarding of a Ph.D. could be found for Paul H. Wagner, a faculty member of the School of Journalism at OSU, he had previously published Radio Journalism in 1949, which gave him a credible background on the topic.  The article “The Broadcaster as a Communicator” discussed how various professionals, defined either as communicators or engineers, differed on several personality characteristics.  However, there were no inferential statistics tests performed to refute his conclusions, so the article could only be classified as another exploratory study, lacking any attempt at theorizing or hypothesizing.  However, in the first paragraph, a basic research question was addressed as the basis for the entire study.  This differed from the Mall and Meyersohn articles, where the interview results were more treated as support for a thesis statement.  In this sense, perhaps Wagner’s article can then be seen as the first true predecessor to modern research articles in this scholarly publication.  So going through the 1950s, what was considered to be research articles would not pass as research articles under the present requirements. 

According to the history of the field, the 1960s saw researchers dissatisfied with the poor results from media effects research.  Indeed, the two studies included herein share many similarities with their predecessors of the 1950s, being both quantitative surveys with the purpose of exploring some media phenomenon but not their effect on the audience.

In 1955, Huber W. Ellingsworth received his Ph.D. from Florida State University in the subject of speech and theater, like Mall.  When he wrote the article, “Broadcast Use by a Latin American Professional and Technical Group”, he worked at Michigan State University for the Agency for International Development, where he helped to train Latin American professionals in American communication systems.  With this convenient sample, he conducted a survey to examine the different uses they have of the media, with the hope that it would send some insight into their mindset.  However, the article never attempted to answer this research question, and used descriptive statistics to describe observations, such as how different professionals used the media for different reasons.  While there was no theorizing or hypothesizing, the article was delineated into certain sections, and even included tables of results.  A step above Wagner, but still falling short of modern research by not discussing repercussions or implications of the study. 

One step further finds Karl J. Nestvold, who wrote an article in 1964 about the media coverage of the John F. Kennedy assassination.  At the time Nestvold was a general manager for the Oregon Association of Broadcasters and an assistant professor at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism.  Nestvold was also the first writer found whose 1964 Ph.D. in Journalism can be said to have directly prepared him for studying this field.  The article, “Oregon Radio-TV Response to the Kennedy Assassination,” shared similarities with Mall and Ellingsworth in that he surveyed broadcasters to ascertain how they handled broadcasting commercials following the tragedy.  However, while the conclusions were based only on descriptive evidence and not inferential statistics, Nestvold ventured forth a deductive hypothesis based on the information gathered.  No theories were brought up to support this hypothesis.  But this is not altogether dire.  Shoulders to stand on, after all.

And the shoulders only got stronger going into the 1970s, wherein the strongest link to modern research articles were located, save for one discrepancy in tune with the Meyersohn divergence.  First is a prime example of modern-style media effects research. 

Michael Kuan Tsai wrote the 1970 article while working on his masters at Michigan State University, under the supervision of Thomas Baldwin, a faculty member of the Department of Communication, Television and Radio.  No information could be found on any subsequent Ph.D., but the article “Some Effects of American Television Programs on Children in Formosa” was written in modern style, complete with theoretical basis, hypotheses and t-test statistics.  The purpose was to examine the influence the American television on the Chinese cultural attitudes held by the children of Taiwan, with the need and purpose of the study clearly detailed by referring to past research.  The selection process was described, as well as the measurement procedures.  In the conclusion of the article, the implications of the results were discussed.  Thus, the Tsai article represented the closest example of modern research article requirements. 

This step-forward was followed by Rosemarie Rogers, who shared similarity to Meyersohn in that her specialty lies not in the field of mass communication, but in political science, for which she received her Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1968 and for whom she served as a research associate at the time of her article’s publication in 1971.  “The Soviet Mass Media in the Sixties: Patterns of access and consumption” was also similar to Meyersohn’s in that she employed previous research conducted by others to support her description of the media audience of the Soviet Union.  However, she remained objective in the essay, retaining third person point of view as she proved her thesis.  There was no discussion of theory or hypothesis.  However, like Meyersohn, she approached the field from a non-communication background, and in this way shaped knowledge for future communication researchers to draw upon. 

The last article returned almost entirely to the strengths of the Tsai article.  John Doolittle and Richard Pepper were classmates at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  In 1975, when the article was published, Pepper had just completed his dissertation with Ordean Nass in the Mass Communication department, while Doolittle was working on his with Charles Sherman in the same department.  Their article, “Children’s TV Ad Content,” reported the results of a quantitative content analysis of commercials that aired on Saturday morning on network television.  Being a descriptive content analysis, no hypothesis was surmised and no theories were drawn on to support the study; however, like the Tsai article, past research was cited as a guide for their research.  Different variables were compared within certain categories, and significant findings, based on an unidentified statistics test, were reported in regards to stereotyped portrayals of women and minority.  Numerous content analyses have been conducted since, with many following the same pattern as this study. 

Thus, by the mid-1970s, the research articles in the Journal of Broadcasting became more representative of research articles in their present form.  They became less essays to describe some element of the mass media based on philosophical observations and more empirically-driven articles meant to test theories about the mass media and scientifically represent the general population.  But that is not to deny the importance of the articles from the 1950s and 1960s.  True, the 1970s saw the most similarity to modern research styles and viewpoints, but style alone is not all that research articles confer to modern researchers.  By examining where these articles came from, and what they revealed, can the foundations of future research be built.

Part II: From the Past to the Future

In examining the philosophy contiguous to these scholarly articles, one can examine the academic atmosphere that existed before or while the articles were written.  Even if the particular researchers have not read the material to be discussed below, the existence of such material highlights the environment in which research was being conducted, and the type of thought introduced for research from then on, either for acceptance or modification.  With this concept in mind, the first set of articles to be discussed can be seen in the field of leisure studies as they dealt in some way with a mass medium and its intended audience.

Radio as a leisure activity received much philosophizing.  In 1935, Cantril and Allport wrote about the audience of radio, in a time prior to the vast assimilation of television.  However, they attempted to compare radio with television, predicting that television would require undivided attention, a claim Meyersohn in 1957 would reiterate.  Without the ability to see the impact on the marketplace that television would have, Cantril and Allport described how radio would need to modify its content to satisfy the preferences from all its listeners at once (p. 268).  This is a philosophy Mall found contrary evidence to, as radio broadcasters were catering less to the entire audience but instead were focusing on specific subsets.  While Cantril and Allport may have theorized the function of radio in the pre-television marketplace, both Meyersohn and Mall, twenty years later, found evidence to the contrary.  The work of Riley, Cantwell and Ruttiger in 1949 showed how radio listening was being impacted by television’s arrival.  Their description of how watching television decreased listening to radio could have proved fertile ground for Meyersohn and Mall to base their need to examine this relationship. 

Additionally, Riley et al’s focus on children and television viewing would have added to the concern over how the media can impact children (p. 230), a concern as old as the moving picture.  Such a concern fueled Tsai to study how Taiwanese children are impacted by television, and not just Chinese-based programming but American, with its foreign norms.  The writtings by Adorno in 1959 might be seen as fuel to the fire when he theorized the existence of “hidden messages” in the content of television programming (p. 601).  Psychically, Tsai’s thoughts could have been: What would have been the result of Taiwanese children being exposed to such covert American norms?  Of real interest is the fact that Tsai’s research turned up negative.  But still this belief persists, as evidenced by the research of Doolittle and Pepper.  Along with the concerns of Adorno, the concerns of Mead in 1949 about the effects of advertising were only one example of the attitude towards this media practice that has fueled numerous studies into the effects of advertising. 

One of the focuses in studying advertising is to understand the powers behind the messages, the second set of articles to be discussed.  This concern of Mead and Adorno can be seen in the works of Ellingsworth and Rogers as well.  There are two other scholars to note in this influence of ideology in mass communication systems.

Lasswell in 1949 wrote extensively on the elites use of communication systems as another type of institution through which to pass down preferred ideologies (p. 123).  These systems are controlled by said elites so as to produce only favorable responses from the community at large.  Without explicitly stating it, this concern of control was brought up in Ellingsworth’s research when he examined the use of short wave radio to listen to Communist broadcasts, and is essentially the main thesis behind Roger’s examination of the Soviet Union audience at the mercy of Communist-controlled broadcasts. 

The concern of how consuming Communist broadcast might impact the audience can also be fueled by the theorizing of Wirth in 1949 on the mass communication’s impact on democratic consensus.  Both Ellingsworth and Rogers were writing during the Cold War, when the democratic principles of the United States were the preferred ideology.  Understanding how non-democratic governments may use mass communication to propagate their ideology would have been tantamount to creating methods for subverting them – to create counter-ideologies.  While this was not the stated reason for the Ellingsworth and Rogers articles, one cannot help but wonder if there was a covert message to the articles, one that would make Adorno proud.  Even if there was not such a subvert rationale behind the studies, they could be interpreted that way by future researcher.

This statement brings up the last point in discussing these eight articles.  In one way or another, they are not representative of modern research style.  However, this is not the most important facet to take from the studies.  Even if they do not help the modern researcher understand how to write articles or conduct research, they can provide fuel for thought and present theorizing.  In fact, most of the studies can relate to current research theories.

In examining how audience members use television for their own needs, Ellingsworth, Tsai and Rogers touched upon elements that would later coalesce into the uses and gratifications perspective.  Related to this perspective could be the modern economic model of niche-marketing, where the mass media specializes its product to reach a certain segment of the audience that has particular needs.  Such a model was forming in the programming philosophy outlined in Mall’s and Roger’s articles, without explicitly calling it such.  The concept of niche-marketing may only become more important when all broadcast becomes digital, yet still competes with the Internet and cable.  Thus, the works of Mall, Meyersohn and Rogers can be seen to form the base of a theory discussing how mass media adjusts to an increasing complex and competitive marketplace.

Besides uses and gratifications research, the studies of Ellingsworth, Tsai, and Doolittle and Pepper can be related to the current studies of cultivation, with its relationship to globalization fears.  Ellingsworth was concerned with how watching American television would create certain images of America to be propagated within Latin America; hence, how it could cultivate an image of America when no other source of information is available.  Tsai was concerned with a related fear of how American programming could subvert traditional norms, a fear that is constantly discussed under the terms of globalization and cultural imperialism.  Doolittle and Pepper’s concern about the propagation of stereotypes closely mirrors much cultivation research, particularly because they employed content analysis, which is one of the foundations for Cultivation Analysis.  Their work occurred just as this type of analysis was beginning, and many subsequent studies have conducted very similar explorations.

Conclusion

The field of media research, like other communication research, is new, perhaps best described as being in its adolescent phase.  For the past fifty years, numerous studies and researchers have come and gone, leaving behind works of theory or works of empirical data.  Examining only eight articles from a three-decade span of the Journal of Broadcasting has illuminated how these works have interacted with each other to strengthen the overall field.  When reading articles from the past, it is not to comment on how poor their empirical methods were to make those of today feel superior, nor is it to wonder at why the author has taken such a subjective tone in describing some particular phenomenon of the field.  If that is all one is looking for, then the true knowledge will be lost.  Reading past articles should be an examination of how the authors were influenced by the philosophers, theorists and researchers of their time, so as to understand how they generated new ideas from this atmosphere.  If the student can understand how previous scholars have generated ideas to further the field, then perhaps they can feel empowered to do the same.  A researcher must always keep her eye on the horizon, on the future of her research, but she should never forget the past from whence the present arose, lest she slip off those shoulders and lose sight of the horizon all together.   

References

Adorno, T. (1959).  Television and the Patterns of Mass Culture. (pp. 304-320). In W. Schramm (ed.) Mass Communication. University of Illinois Press: Urbana.

Cantril, H. & Allport, G. (1935).  Extending the Social Environment.  In The Psychology of Radio, pp. 259-272.  New York: Harper & Brothers.

Dissertation Abstracts (online). http://wwwlib.umi.com/dissertations/gateway

Doolittle, J. & Pepper, R. (1975).  Children’s TV Ad Content: 1974, Journal of Broadcasting, 19(2), p. 131-142.

Ellingsworth, H.W. (1963).  Broadcast Use By a Latin American Professional and Technical Group, Journal of Broadcasting, 7(2), p. 173-181.

Lasswell, H. (1949).  The Structure and Function of Communication in Society. (pp. 102-118).  In W. Schramm (ed.) Mass Communication. University of Illinois Press: Urbana.

Mall, R.M. (1956/1957).  The Place of Programming Philosophy in Competitive Radio Today, Journal of Broadcasting, 1(1), p.21-32.

Mead, M. (1949).  Some Cultural Approaches to Communication Problems. (pp. 304-320).  In W. Schramm (ed.) Mass Communication. University of Illinois Press: Urbana.

Meyersohn, R.B. (1957).  What We Know About Audiences, Journal of Broadcasting, 1(3), p. 229-231.

Nestvold, K.J. (1964).  Oregon Radio-TV Response to the Kennedy Assassination, Journal of Broadcasting, 8(2), p. 141-146.

Riley, J., Cantwell, F. & Ruttiger, K. (1949).  Some observations on the social effects of television, Public Opinion Quarterly, 13(2), p. 223-234.

Rogers, R. (1971).  The Soviet Mass Media in the Sixties: Patterns of access and consumption, Journal of Broadcasting, 15(2), p. 127-146.

Tsai, M.K. (1970).  Some Effects of American Television Programs on Children in Formosa, Journal of Broadcasting, 14(2), p. 229-238.

Wagner, P.H. (1958).  The Broadcaster as a Communicator.  Journal of Broadcasting, 2(2), p. 137-141.

 Wirth, L. (1949).  Consensus and Mass Communication. (pp. 561-582).  In W. Schramm (ed.) Mass Communication. University of Illinois Press: Urbana.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.