Mass Communication Research : An introduction
Dr. Zafar Iqbal Ansari**
Tracing the importance of anachronism and plagiarism in research, the article answers two questions: What is research, and why is it done, in the context of mass communication?. There are three kinds of research historical, descriptive and experimental. The first two are mostly relevant to the humanities and the social sociences; the last one is relevant to the pure sciences (physics, chemistry, Mathematics and Biology). Mass communication research (MCR) as well as all other kinds of research must be socially relevant, that is, the results must be of use to society. MCR started in the thirties of the last century. The bulk of it was historical and descriptive, although some experimental research was also conducted. The author, like well-known researchers in the field, has divided the entire MCR into four phases: i. 1901-1939; ii. 1940-1960; iii. 1960-1970 and iv. the 1970s to the present. The character and content of each phase are detailed.
What is research and why should we do it?
Most of research is re-search. Going through past literature relating to an issue of importance is essential because knowledge is not static. It is dynamic. We have already revised our views about many findings by past researchers, philosophers and thinkers in the light of new findings. Recent findings are also liable to be revised by future researchers. This is in the nature of research—re-iteration, re-inforcement and re-vision. What is accepted as truth today may be revised by new researchers and their findings. But this process is to be supported by hard evidences.
For a long, long time human beings believed in the teachings of ancient philosophers and accepted their wisdom unquestioningly, perhaps almost blindly. The Earth, inhabited by God’s creature and made by God in His own image could not be so unimportant as to be relegated to the status of an insignificant planet moving round the sun and other objects in the sky, whatever the degree of their brightness. The Earth had to be at the centre of God’s universe. The heavenly objects had to revolve round the Earth.
Anyone who questioned this concept was depicted by the powerful in society as either mad or blasphemous. Questioning ancient wisdom was a dangerous thing. Questioners and doubters were burnt at the stake or incarcerated in dungeons! Questioning accepted wisdom is the essence of research. Ask one question, then another and then a series of questions.
People without a questioning mind cannot be researchers. And research need not always end up in new knowledge. Research can throw light on previous research. In fact, no research is possible without reviewing past literature and answering unanswered questions raised by past researchers. But researchers cannot always be safe from the economic, social and political forces prevailing at any given time, if they are honest. Whatever a researcher does is influenced by the nature of society around him or her and hard evidence is a sine qua non of serious research. Research must be socially relevant. It’s of no use to go on the premise that angels can dance on the head of a pin and spend years of hard work to find out how many thousand angels can dance on one pin- head at a given time. Researchers have to ask relevant questions about society, about physical, physiological, spiritual and psychological phenomena in the universe.
Research must be meaningful to mankind (and womankind) because basically, all human beings are subject to the same conditions of climate, food habits, and natural environment and the difference between man and woman is only marginal, say in outer shape.
But inside they are all the same: in the important systems of cardiovascular, respiratory and other mechanisms of the body. The differences are marginal except in the reproductive system. The differences in food habits and climatic or weather conditions are also superficial because no human being can abandon food altogether, although there may be certain differences in preference in normal conditions. In exceptional circumstances humans differ in their behaviour depending on extremes of heat or cold and such other physical conditions and also under the influence of intoxicating drinks and hallucinating drugs. Otherwise all humans respond to demands of life in more or less an equal manner.
Research becomes essential for assessing human (and animal) behavioural differences in the past (historical studies); differences in behaviour are also studied in a descriptive manner, in questionnaire surveys and systemic differences, depending on how far conditions of living affect humans; and sometimes humans and their characteristics are studied in the lab using experimental and control subjects. The differences in behaviour are observed in varying conditions. All research can be thus divided into three major areas: historical, descriptive and experimental.
Coming to mass communication research, existing literature shows that it started in the thirties of the past century. And what was the essence of research in those days? The bulk of mass communication research in the first three or four decades of the 20th century (remember in those days, the print media—newspapers and magazines—were the main media.)
Television’s early beginnings were in the third and fourth decades but those were also the World War years and not much attention could be paid to the development of radio and television. However, there were some attempts at research in the electronic media, but the print media occupied major attention of mass media researchers and sociologists in this period.
But even in those early years of media development and media research, the researchers were deeply interested in the effects of the media on readers and listeners. Viewers became important only after the film became an important medium. But again, researchers were impressed by the magic of the medium. Many of them were concerned that the film was going to affect morality and they began to study the effects of the film on the morality of human beings.
The values of life began to be questioned by the new medium and its users. Orthodox thinkers, particularly those of religious institutions were wary of the effects of the mass media. Media and morality became hot topics of study and research.
Effects of research
According to McQuail, ‘‘the entire study of mass communication is based on the premise that the mass media have significant effects and yet there is little agreement on the nature and extent of their assumed effect”. He has divided media effects research and theory into four phases:
Phase 1 – 1901 to 1939: Media effect is simply the consequence of what the mass media can do intentionally or unintentionally—to the audience-the readers, the listeners or viewers. It is different from ‘media effectiveness’, which is the efficiency of the media in achieving a planned communication goal; for example, the effectiveness of an advertisement message or a PR campaign or a cartoon in selling a product, selling an idea or bringing about behavioural changes in the receiver of the message.
Again, one cannot be absolutely sure about the change in behaviour. Take the case of the hundreds of messages coming through various channels about safety of pedestrians at unguarded railway level crossings, about environmental hygiene, safety of the working and living environment of citizens, behaviour of government functionaries, the necessity of queuing up at transport bus stations, the spitting and smoking habits of many citizens, particularly in public places, and the need for curbing over-speed and consequent accidents in all parts of the country.
In order to study the effectiveness of ‘ad’ or PR campaigns, one has to do a survey of the public to ascertain their views and assess the effectiveness of the campaigns. If the results of such surveys do not show any remarkable change in behaviour, one may reasonably doubt the effectiveness of those campaigns.
One has to look also for extra-media indicators after assessing how many were exposed to the campaign.
Perhaps a door-to-door campaigning, personal meetings with the citizens, distribution of pamphlets, etc., may be necessary. Perhaps imposing a fine on non-compliant citizens may be in order as it is done in some countries such as Singapore, However, in Phase 1, the media were considered “almighty”, having power to shape opinion and belief, change habits of life and mould behaviour. But one cannot base one’s conclusions on impressionistic opinions; one has to have firm proof.
Phase 2 – 1930-1960 (Testing the might of the media): The prominent development during this period was empirical research based on experiments and observations. The effects of different types of media content and media units were studied. Prominent researchers during this period were Harold Lasswell, Carl Hovland, Paul Lazarsfeld, Elihu Katz, Bernard Berelson and Joseph Klapper. They were all outstanding professors and their main interests were in political communication, presidential elections, flow of public opinion, content analysis of the media (particularly newspapers, magazines and films). The outstanding research results of this period related to the Two-Step Flow of Communication: from the media not directly to the media users, but first to the opinion leaders in society and then from the leaders to the citizens. The leaders could influence the citizens’ behaviour (particularly voting behaviour) in this two-step flow, asserted Katz and Lazarsfeld. Lasswell stressed the WHO part of the model of communication he evolved, namely, WHO SAYS WHAT BY WHAT
CHANNEL TO WHOM WITH WHAT EFFECT?
This was the major question for researchers during this period. Berelson popularized a method of descriptive study, namely, CONTENT ANALYSIS (which flourished for the next three decades in a big way, and is still popular especially when combined with Survey of media consumers. In fact, Berelson’s content analysis could bring about a real change in the attitude to media effects which were found to be impressionistic and not based on the actual contents of the media.
Phase 3 – Early 1960s – early 1970s (Back to the ‘Almighty’ Era) : Kurt Lang and Gladys Lang argued in favour of the theory that TV had important social effects and that it could be an instrument for exercising social and political power. In their later works and in the works of others, the power of the media was upheld. The two-step flow of the previous era was at a discount during this period.The sudden ascendancy of TV in the US, the Mecca of the Media of Mass Communication in the 1950s and 1960s led many researchers to believe that the medium had more power of attraction than any other medium. Therefore, the third phase of ‘effects research’ was begun with renewed vigour, whereas earlier research had depended heavily on the psychological model of STIMULUS-RESPONSE (SR) OR ‘HYPODERMIC NEEDLE’ [also called ‘magic model’]. The third phase saw research efforts based on attitudinal change, opinion changes and behavioural changes brought about by the media. Long-term effects were studied with attention on the variables such as contexts, disposition and motivation. Also studied were questions of how media organizations processed and shaped content before it was delivered to audiences.
The work of James D. Halloran, Phillip Elliott and others was of considerable importance in this Phase. Some other prominent researchers during this Phase were : George Gerbner with his 30-year-long cultivation studies and theory, Larry Gross and Elizabeth-Noelle Newman of Germany with her “Spiral of Silence” theory.
Phase 4: Late 1970s—2010: During this phase, the media have been credited with significant effects based on the construction of meanings, offering them to audiences in a systematic way. More attention was paid to the audiences than the organizers of media, especially ownership, which has influenced the media and the audiences through different styles—chain ownership, cross media ownership, conglomeration and vertical integration. Effects of ownership were studied during this period but not enough attention was paid to the conglomeration and merger of the media.
The number of independent newspapers, radio and television stations and film studios dwindled. Ownership became concentrated with the result that diversity of views became a stranger to the media world. Several media came under one umbrella and repeated the same voice throughout—day in and day out through 24×7 channels in the TV world and “paid news syndrome” in the newspaper world. The ill effects of ownership concentration and vertical integration are not fully revealed yet through research because of the monetary influence on researchers and independent thinkers. (A rare exception was the meeting of hundreds of journalists in Strasbourg in Austria in March-April 2002 resulting in the Strasbourg Declaration).
Further research is essential; independence in media research is as important as freedom of the media.
What the citizens of the world need is a multiplicity of independent voices both in media and media research.
Let us hope that the media world in India will encourage the advent of independent media units and free-thinking media researchers.
- Halloran, J.D. et aI., Communication and Demonstrations, Hammondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1970.
- Lent, J. A., Global Guide to Media and Communication, London : George Kurian Reference Books, 1986.
- Smith, A., The Age of Behemoths : The Globalization of Mass Media Firms, New York: 20th Century Fund,1991.
- Vilanilam, J.V., Mass Communication : Theory and Practice, Bhopal : Makhanlal Chaturvedi National University of Journalism and Communication, 2002.