In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Perceived Realism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Communication Perceived Realism
Alice Hall
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0046


Perceived realism has been conceptualized in a variety of ways within the mass communication literature. In general, audiences are thought to perceive media content as realistic if they judge it to be like real life in some meaningful way or if they respond to it as though it were real. Although these perceptions are informed by attributes of the content, such as its style or apparent genre, they are not entirely determined by them. Audiences vary in their perceptions of the same material. Within the literature, conceptualizations of realism perceptions differ both in terms of the criteria used to evaluate realism and in the point in the interpretive process when the judgment is made. Common forms of perceived realism include factual realism (whether what is portrayed really happened), social realism (whether what is portrayed is like what one would expect to find in the real world), and narrative realism or narrative coherence (whether the events within a story are well explained and consistent). Furthermore, audiences may begin interpreting a specific media text with an initial understanding of its realism level that has been determined by its format or ostensible genre; make “online” judgments of realism as they read or view the content; or come to retrospective, memory-based judgments. How media realism is perceived has been found to relate to the age of the audience members, their motives, and their beliefs regarding the material’s genre. Communication researchers are often interested in media realism, because they see it as a potential contributor to media effects. However, the research findings are inconsistent. This suggests that although there are situations in which perceived realism can be consequential, its effects are not uniform and are likely to be subtle and indirect. Recent research has considered the antecedents and implications of perceptions of the realism of video games. In the realm of social media, researchers have considered how a communicator might convey that their self-presentation is real or authentic.

General Overviews

Although communication scholars have considered realism frequently, it is often a secondary concern within a research program that focuses on other variables or on a larger theoretical model. This means that the literature is something of a patchwork. Work on perceived realism appears intermittently in most of the major communication and media studies journals as well as in journals of related or allied fields. The primary general overviews of research on perceived realism include Potter 1988, Busselle and Greenberg 2000, and Hall 2009. Each of these overviews devotes considerable attention to identifying and categorizing types or dimensions of perceived realism. Although some of the information that is presented is relevant to other media, all three focus on perceptions of television.

  • Busselle, Rick W., and Bradley S. Greenberg. 2000. The nature of television realism judgments: A reevaluation of their conceptualization and measurement. Mass Communication and Society 3:249–268.

    DOI: 10.1207/S15327825MCS0323_05

    This article is a thoughtful review of previous work on perceived realism with a focus on the various ways the concept has been defined and operationalized.

  • Hall, Alice. 2009. Realism and reality TV. In The SAGE handbook of media processes and effects. Edited by Robin L. Nabi and Mary Beth Oliver, 423–438. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    This chapter presents a typology of conceptualizations of realism, describes the processes through which realism judgments are thought to be made, and synthesizes research findings regarding perceived realism’s contributions to media effects. It includes a special section on reality TV.

  • Potter, W. James. 1988. Perceived reality in television effects research. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 32:23–41.

    DOI: 10.1080/08838158809386682

    This review of previous literature includes an influential typology of realism dimensions as well as a synthesis of previous literature dealing with the antecedents and effects of realism perceptions.

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