Updated: Sep 10, 2021
Hi again! For the next few weeks, I thought it would be really helpful to prepare some content summaries on some of the biggest components of your study design. I’ll be working backwards from Unit 4 content through to Unit 3 topics you would have covered at the beginning of the year. In saying this, this week I’ll be covering bits of Agency and Control, specifically looking at some communication theories. This also works well because some of you may still have your final SAC on Agency and Control coming up, so this will hopefully help as a bit of short-term revision. For the rest of you, this can act as a refresher on your most recent unit.
The reason I’m choosing to focus on communication theories is because they are so important in answering your exam questions about media influence. There will normally be at least one question on the exam which asks you to mention an example of media influence and then explain it with a communication theory. With these kinds of questions, I always found that it was easiest to memorise some good examples of media influence, and then practice explaining them with a theory so I could readily use that answer in exam conditions. However, if you’re struggling to remember your practiced responses in an exam, or if the question is phrased in a way you have never seen, then having a strong understanding of a few theories is super important.
With that in mind, I’m going to provide a quick breakdown of five communication theories over the next two weeks. These are the ones I was taught in Year 12 - your class might use different ones which is completely fine, there is usually lots of variety across the state. You will most likely be comfortable using the theories your teacher has already shown you, but I wanted to present these because I think they all represent different levels of influence that the media can have over an audience. These are the ways I learnt them, so hopefully they help you too! Here are the first three:
1. The Hypodermic Needle Theory (media is super powerful)
This is one of the earliest theories used to explain media influence, and as such, it relies on some pretty old-fashioned ideas. It was created in the 1920s, at a time when media formats like radio were only just starting to become popular in households. This meant that media suddenly had the ability to enter people’s homes and send them messages, including wartime propaganda. The Hypodermic Needle Theory, which was born from this paranoia, suggests that messages enter our brains in a linear way, meaning that the messages are injected (think needles) into the brains of a passive audience, who have no power to stop them. One example would be the War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938, where author Orson Welles accidentally caused mass hysteria by reading out a story about an alien invasion on live radio - local people believed he was telling the truth. This theory isn’t really considered valid anymore, because we know that audiences aren’t passive, but instead have some control over how they interpret messages, and often contribute their thoughts back towards the media. One tip my Media teacher taught me was that the Needle theory should only be used in an exam when you’re comparing it to another theory, which I think is sound advice.
2. The Agenda Setting Function Theory (media is still quite powerful)
This theory is much different from the Needle theory because audiences are considered active and open in nature - they are able to interpret messages, and have some power to agree or disagree with what the media tells them. In saying this, the core belief of this theory is that the media does not tell you what to think, but it does tell you what to think about. This occurs through a process called ‘gatekeeping,’ where a media outlet will only report certain news in order to guide the audience to believe a certain argument or lean towards a certain perspective. We see this a lot in how modern news network television is presented - if the broadcaster wants you to believe that a suspected criminal is guilty, then they will report facts about their previous suspicious activity, and perhaps use a criminal mugshot as the main image of that person. If they wish to frame the person as innocent, then they might focus on an interview with the person’s mother, who will tell them what a wonderful person they are. Two sides of the same story, each showing a different point of view. In your exam answers, you can impress assessors by mentioning that this theory was created by Donald Shaw and Maxwell McCombs in the 1970’s - this kind of extra information can really show off your understanding.
3. Postmodern Theory (media has neural power)
When we think of postmodernism, we might associate it with postmodern artists like Andy Warhol, who would take pictures of cans of beans and present them as pieces of art. From his perspective, art could be seen in everything, and all art could mean something different to each person who saw it. This is the key to understanding the Postmodern theory - everyone draws a different meaning from the media. If we apply this type of theory to a film with, for example, a very strong political message, we would find that everyone who sees it would still come out with a different opinion. So in a postmodern view of the media, everyone will have a different interpretation, and so there’s not much of an argument to suggest that the media itself has an effect over the audience - their power is completely neutral.
I’ll return next week with the last two communication theories, plus some more content revision on other elements of Agency and Control. Until then, thanks for reading!