AUDIENCE THEORY. AS LEVEL MEDIA STUDIES. NOV 09.
One of the main issues within any study of the media is a consideration of the
extent of influence that the media commands over the audience. Central
questions such as ‘to what extent does the media influence behaviour?’ and
‘is the audience passive or active?’ are considered by AUDIENCE THEORY.
Mass Audience Theory:
One theory connected to a consideration of the audience as a ‘mass’
audience is the hypodermic model. This theory was developed in Germany
in the 1930s and was a reaction to Hitler’s use of propaganda to influence a
nation. The group associated with this theory are often referred to as ‘The
The hypodermic theory views the media like a syringe that injects ideas,
attitudes and beliefs into the audience and the powerless mass have little
choice but to be influenced by the media being presented to them. This theory
views the audience as passive and the media as a source of incredible
power and influence. This theory offers the view that if a viewer is presented
with violent material, the viewer will become violent, or if you are presented
with an advertisement promoting garden furniture, you will form a desire to
acquire garden furniture. This theory is often applied when blaming violent
films such as ‘A Clockwork Orange’ for violent behaviour. This film was
accused of motivating the imitation of violent behaviour depicted within the
film. Recently, Play Station Three/ X-Box games such as ‘Manhunter/ Grand
Theft Auto have been accused of influencing human behaviour in a negative
manner. When two eleven year old boys murdered a two year old boy in
Liverpool in the 1990s, the film ‘Child’s Play’ was said to have influenced the
actions of one of the young murderers. A heinous crime is often linked to the
influence of a media text.
However, this theory has been criticised for being too simplistic and not
recognising the reality that all viewers are individual and cannot be lumped
together as a mass audience. The American serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer
stated that before he stalked a victim, he would watch the film ‘Star Wars’ in
an attempt to ‘excite’ himself. Dahmer’s remark seems to provide evidence
that each individual interprets a media text in a unique manner. Star Wars has
rarely been considered an inappropriate text.
A more refined version of the hypodermic model is the culmination/
cultivation theory. According to this theory, years and years of exposure to
media texts that contain violent scenes will make the viewer less sensitive to
violence that occurs in and around their own life. We refer to this process as
The theory of desensitisation states that the more violence or anti-social
behaviour a viewer experiences through the media the less shocking this
behaviour becomes in real life.
Another strand of this theory suggests that inhibitions relating to sexual or
violent behaviour are eroded if a viewer is constantly exposed to such images
through the media. The argument is that the media erodes the fundamental
moral codes and values of a society.
THESE THEORIES ARE VERY DIFFICULT TO SUBSTANTIATE AND A
MASS OF RESEARCH HAS BEEN UNDERTAKEN TO PROVE/DISPROVE
THESE THEORIES. THE RESULTS ARE INCONCLUSIVE.
Other MASS AUDIENCE THEORIES include the theories of identification
The IDENTIFICATION theory believes that violence in the media releases
tension and desires through the viewer’s identification with fictional characters
and events. Again, results of research remain inconclusive but some
psychiatrists claim to have used pornographic texts to help convicted sex
offenders release and control their sexual urges.
The SENSITISATION theory takes the view that violent media texts can
sensitise people to the true nature of violence and the effects of violent
behaviour. The viewer develops a more sensitive sense of empathy and a
heightened sense of moral responsibility. Obviously, this theory views the
influence of the media as a very positive influence.
CRITICISM OF MASS AUDIENCE THEORY:
Critics have argued that these theories not only fail to explain the extent of
media influence but they generate huge assumptions about audience. Some
critics have offered the view that ‘mass audience theory’ is based upon a
groundless value judgement that suggests that the researchers are somehow
culturally superior to the group that they are attempting to investigate. Critics
believe that it is impossible to group a ‘mass’ of people together as ‘one’
audience as the audience consists of so many differing personalities and
Mass Audience theory follows two assumptions:
An individual often experiences the media when they are alone.
All viewers receive the same information from a media text.
The idea that the viewer experiences media independently is flawed as it is
possible to experience a media text in the company of other people. For
example a family may watch a soap opera and comment upon the action as it
unfolds before them. The idea that the viewer is ‘atomised’ [independent]
and digest the content of media in isolation is a questionable assumption as
often a media text is discussed with others and this discussion may influence
the opinion of an individual.
The two-step flow theory questions the relationship between audience and
text. This theory suggests that information does not flow directly from the text
into the human mind but is mediated by ‘opinion leaders’ who influence the
people around them. Opinion leaders are people who are seen as intelligent
or perceptive and they may influence the views of less confident viewers. This
diminishes the power of the media and concludes that social factors are
important when interpreting the meaning of a text.
MASS AUDIENCE THEORY WOULD ASSUME THAT EVERY PERSON IN A
CINEMA WOULD INTERPRET THE FILM IN AN IDENTICAL MANNER. THIS
IS CLEARLY NONSENSE!
THE AUDIENCE AS PEOPLE…..
Uses and Gratifications Theory:
This is still a very relevant theory and asserts the belief that different people
have different uses for the media and the viewer has a choice of media text
that they wish to digest. This theory does not view the viewer as a mindless
recipient of media content but an active viewer expecting some form of
gratification from the media text. The choice of media text is an attempt to
satisfy some form of need and is closely associated with the psychological
model identified by Maslow in his ‘HIERARCHY OF NEEDS’.
Researchers refer to four main types of media gratification:
Information: The viewer wants to discover information about the world. For
example, news and documentary give the viewer a sense that they are
learning about the world.
Personal Identity: The viewer chooses media that provide models for our
behaviour. For example, the viewer may identify with a character in a soap
opera. These characters help the viewer to decide how they feel about
themselves. This view follows the idea that we use the media to identify and
follow role models.
Integration and Social Interaction: A media text helps the viewer develop
empathy and sympathy for the lives of others. The viewer is also able to
discuss media with their own peer group thus the media allows them to use
the content of the text to interact with their own social community.
Entertainment: The viewer simply uses the media for enjoyment or
Criticism of this theory revolves around the idea that there are moments in the
life of the viewer when they do not choose the media text that they have to
digest. For example, a billboard poster that the viewer believes to be in some
way offensive. Some groups also argue that their experience as a community
is not reflected in the media that is available to them.
RECEPTION ANALYSIS VIEWS THE AUDIENCE AS INDIVIDUAL
Reception theory concentrates upon the audience and the individual reading
of a text. This theory acknowledges that each viewer will decode a media text
in an individual manner. Variables that may affect a reading could include
personal history, mood, gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, education etc.
Mode of address: This refers to way that a text may be aimed at a specific
audience. For example, ‘Friends’ is intended for a young audience as the
energy of the opening credits and age of the central characters, dialogue and
thematic content all suggest that the perceived audience is a young audience.
This does not mean that other groups are excluded but the dominant mode of
address is aimed at a young audience. Newspapers construct their
presentation to reflect what they imagine is their typical reader. For example,
compare the mode of address within ‘The Sun’ and ‘The Guardian’.