Direct Effects of Media on Individuals Position Paper

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There has long been debate over the level of effect that media has on individuals, and whether or not the effects that media can have are inherently positive or negative to the consumer. As technology has advanced, so has the rate of consumption of media as literacy and access to media have increased for the average individual exponentially. Computers, smartphones, increased sources of media, and social media platforms have all added to the amount of media to consume as well as the types and quality.

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Another issue in the effects of media is the historical, economic, and political factors that influence the producers of mass media which the public consumes. The agenda setting phenomenon and spiral of silence theory demonstrate ways that media can strongly affect the behavior, cognition, and psychology of the individuals consuming it, but have shortcomings that weaken their arguments. The most accurate reflection of the singular effects of media on individuals is the minimal effects model, which determines that media merely “reinforces existing behaviors and attitudes rather than changing them” (Campbell, Martin, Fabos, 2017, p. 489).

The agenda setting phenomenon in mass media suggests that “when mass media focus their attention on particular events or issues, they determine – that is to set the agenda for – the major topics of discussion for individuals… mass media do not so much tell us what to think as what to think about” (Campbell, Martin, Fabos, 2017, p. 494). Walter Lippmann was one of the founders of this contemporary media effect theory, arguing that mass media creates the cognitive link between worldly events and how it is viewed in the mind of the public (University of Twente, 2018). This assumption then logically asserts that the way that the media presents worldly events, whether it be with biases or omission of information or perfect clarity, shape the way the individuals consuming media think about the world. This theory is founded well in data and research, as well as simple logic that what people are taught to understand most often will be transformed into beliefs. For example, political parties can use mass media outlets to create fear of immigration by highlighting stories of illegal immigrants committing violent crimes and citing their entrance into the workforce as a threat of current citizens jobs. Then, they can create a platform that stands staunchly against illegal immigration and strict enforcement of immigration policies to garner more votes from those who internalized the fear propaganda produced by the media into their beliefs of the world. This can be problematic when inciting traits like nationalism and racism into individuals without creating full understanding of all the factors of immigration. Thus, agenda setting can be used negatively as a powerful form of controlling the thoughts of the individuals in a society through direct media effects. Agenda setting can also be used positively to create awareness for under-addressed issues like climate change. For example, media covered the first Earth Day extensively and subsequently ecological issues became more important to the general public, simply due to increased awareness (Campbell, Martin, Fabos, 2017, p. 494).

Agenda setting is an effective theory in assigning responsibility between how producers of media present issues to the public and the way it shapes individuals thinking, but it falters, particularly in the current climate of increasing amounts of sources and opinions, by failing to account for variance of opinions and outlets accessible to individuals. Through the usage and growth in accessibility of the internet, especially in relation to social media platforms, a great variance of opinions can be found setting different types of agendas (Karell, D. 2018). In a sense, it is correct in saying that mass media producers have the capacity to shape individual thinking, but it does not shape every individual’s thinking the same way, as people’s demographic and psychological backgrounds play a large role in determining how individual’s interpretation of media.

The spiral of silence theory is interesting in its similarities to the theory of groupthink in psychology, but on a larger scale in the form of mass media. Groupthink is the theory that individuals suppress their personal beliefs in support of a belief held commonly by the majority of a group the individual is included in, thus silencing their personal view to avoid isolation for their contrary view or belief (University of Twente, 2018). Spiral of silence theory, created by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, argues that there is a link between “mass media, social psychology, and the formation of public opinion; the theory says that people who hold minority views on controversial issues tend to keep their views silent” (Campbell, Martin, Fabos, 2017, p. Glossary G-11). This theory is especially interesting in today’s time of social media where the world is quick to condemn a person when a negative story comes out. Typically, if a large majority of public opinion sides one way, people with different beliefs keep them private so as to avoid disturbance and likely subsequent isolation from the group if the contrary beliefs are made public. This theory demonstrates direct effect on an individual’s behavior through the form of suppression of beliefs. This suppression can be positive when the views of the minority are morally negative but can be problematic when the views of the majority are poorly founded and have detrimental implications. For example, Donald Trump’s rhetoric as President has made it permissible for people who previously privatized their racist beliefs to become more outspoken in their hatred of or disrespect towards minority groups in the United States. The spiral of silence theory negatively impacts individuals in society who receive this hatred or function as a bystander without intervening and condemning this behavior.

Thankfully, there are ways in which the theory of the spiral of silence falters, including that it neglects to acknowledge that people only fear isolation in smaller social circles. In large populations like a nation, voices of minority opinions can often find reference groups who share similar views opposing the inferred majority opinion based on media coverage (Aryal, 2014). Thus, people are still comfortable to share minority views in terms of the media, within their reference groups which possess the minority view as a majority view, negating the idea that the media has the direct effect of silence on individuals with minority views (Davie, 2014).

The minimal effect model of media has the clearest, most accurate reflection of the direct effects of media on individuals as it establishes the ways in which media can have a direct effect on individuals, but also validates the role of the individual consuming, interpreting, and expanding their behavior, cognition, and psychology based on the media consumed. Joseph Klapper conducted a research study in 1960 that found “mass media only influenced individuals who did not already hold strong views on an issue and that media also had a greater impact on poor and uneducated audiences” (Campbell, Martin, Fabos, 2017, p. 489). This finding helped to solidify the argument of those in support of the minimal effects model of media by revealing through research exactly when media does possess a strong direct influence on the mind of individuals, immediately addressing a weakness in the foundation of the model. Media can have a direct effect on the behavior, cognition, and psychology of uneducated and poorer individuals because they have not been exposed to other resources of information like books, scientific studies, or mentors, and rely solely on mass media for their formulation of opinions. Klapper also found in his study that effects of media occur more strongly at the individual level, but lack large scale direct effects on society as a whole (Campbell, Martin, Fabos, 2017, p. 489). Another flaw with this model is the ability for it to be effectively measured. For example, in the context of a voter experiencing media messages, “While the media may not change a voter’s decision, it can still influence the voter’s support. If, after consuming the media messages, a voter is more convinced than ever, that in itself is still an effect. Sometimes, a voter’s confidence in a candidate may be weakened but not to the point of voting for the candidate’s rival and this effect (of weakened conviction) will not show up in the data” (, 2014). This shortcoming of the minimal effects model is not too drastic because while it may fail to measure the media effect on cognition or psychology, it still manages to grasp the arguably more important data of behavior. The media effect wasn’t directly strong enough to change the individual’s behavior, which indicates the effect is a weak influence.

Due to the inclusion of education as an important factor in the ability of media effects influencing individuals, the United States’ increase in high school graduates, up from roughly 57% of individuals aged 25 or older in 1965 to 88% in 2015, as well as the amount of college graduates increasing from about 10% to 33% in that same time span, demonstrates the population as a whole is more educated and therefore less influenced by direct media effects (Ryan & Bauman, 2016). The most important factor of the minimal effects model asserts that an individual’s involvement in different social groups have a greater influence over the behavior, cognition, and psychology of the individual rather than the information consumed from the media (Postelnicu, 2016). The background of the individual directly effects the way the information is interpreted, valued, used, and transformed, contrary to the media controlling and determining the individual’s behavior, cognition, or psychology. This places responsibility on the individual, their pre-existing behaviors, cognitive habits, and psychology, as major pieces of understanding the effect of media, rather than media alone simply prompting behavior, cognition, or psychology of individuals (Postelnicu, 2016).

The largest takeaway from studying direct media effects on individuals is the acceptance that media can, and often does, have an effect on individuals and subsequently society. The level of the effect of media depends and varies on a number of factors for individuals, especially including demographic information and involvement in social groups. A large responsibility of the individuals who make up society is to do as much as possible to attain education which fosters the creation of critical thinking patterns, ultimately facilitating an individual’s capability to create original thoughts and exhibit informed decision making. The progression of education weakens the strength of the effects of media in relation to controlling the thoughts of society. Public schooling should include media literacy to aid those of lower educational standing the opportunity to at least benefit from learning how to construct meaning from media messages through “description, analysis, interpretation, evaluation, and engagement” (Campbell, Martin, Fabos, 2017, p. 27). These steps allow for the minimal effects model to accurately depict the true singular effects of media on individuals in society, which is minor, and should be analyzed in combination with detailed assessment of the individuals consuming the media effects.


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Direct Effects of Media on Individuals Position Paper. (2021, Oct 20). Retrieved from