In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Media Effects

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Review Essays
  • Early Conceptions of Powerful Media
  • Key Moderators and Mediators

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Communication Media Effects
Yariv Tsfati
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 February 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 February 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0081


Media effects are typically defined as social or psychological responses occurring in individuals, dyads, small groups, organizations, or communities as a result of exposure to or processing of or otherwise acting on media messages. The changes caused by media can take place on several dimensions. The effects can be intended by the message source or unintended. The consequences can include not only changes, but also preservation of the status quo. If a certain social situation perpetuates because of media this is also considered a media effect. In addition, media effects can be both short-term and long-term. Dating back to the 1920s, media-effects research emerged as an academic field grounded within the young communication discipline only in the 1950s. The dominant paradigm in communication research, after an initial wave of public apprehension of massive media effects, was that media have only limited effects on the audience. In the 1970s and 1980s, with the advent of new theories stressing significant media impact, scholars called for a return to the concept of massive media impact. These new theories moved away from the notion that exposure to media can immediately and directly affect people’s attitudes and behaviors. Rather, each theory stressed more sophisticated and limited processes that may only indirectly affect decisions and actions. In recent years, research has focused less on whether media effects are “minimal” or “massive” and more on identifying moderators (the conditions under which effects are stronger or weaker) and mediators (the phenomena that lie between exposure and the changes caused by exposure). This move suggests an increasing realization that media effects are not “massive,” uniform, or direct. Scholars have examined the effects of a variety of texts, disseminated through a diversity of media, in a variety of contexts, on a range of cognitive, attitudinal, and behavioral dependent variables. This article represents the main theories and concepts, and the different generations of scholarship, research contexts, topics, and types of responses investigated. The organization of this article has a chronological-historical component: it starts with the early notions of powerful media, moves to the limited effects theories prevalent from between the 1940s and 1960s, and proceeds to more contemporary theories of more powerful effects. However, every time a theory is addressed, an effort is made to cover must-read items on this theory from different contexts, generations, and research traditions.


As a subject area, media effects are taught at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Each of the following entries organizes the literature differently. Some of the entries, such as Perse 2001, offer models integrating the different perspectives in media-effects research, whereas others, such as Jeffres 1997, merely organize and review the literature. In other cases, such as with Lowery and DeFleur 1988, the review is historical and reflective in its nature. Perry 1996 is more psychological in its orientation, and the effects are organized according to intended/unintended effects that take place at the individual-cognitive or mass-opinions or national-development levels. Finally, Bryant and Thompson 2001 contains separate sections providing a historical perspective, a conceptual and theoretical overview, and an overview of research in the different thematic contexts in which effects were studied.

  • Bryant, Jennings, and Susan Thomson. 2001. Fundamentals of media effects. New York: McGraw Hill.

    Extremely accessible and well-organized textbook geared toward undergraduate students.

  • Jeffres, Leo W. 1997. Mass media effects. 2d ed. Prospects Heights, IL: Waveland.

    A comprehensive, well-organized, and clearly written textbook, suitable for undergraduate students. This entry includes chapters on the economic and cultural effects of mass communication, which enjoy less attention in other textbooks.

  • Lowery, Sharon A., and Melvin L. DeFleur. 1988. Milestones in mass communication research. White Plains, NY: Longman.

    This textbook is a milestone in the teaching of media research. It focuses on thirteen key projects or research traditions, which are organized chronologically, and presents them elegantly and clearly, putting them in their context. In the final chapter, the authors try to deduce common generalizations.

  • Perry, David K. 1996. Theory and research in mass communication: Contexts and consequences. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

    This general communication textbook is ideal for undergraduate students with a psychological orientation. Chapters 6 through 11 provide a detailed and lucid review of the effects literature.

  • Perse, Elizabeth M. 2001. Media effects and society. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

    This is a very accessible book, offering a review of the literature on five central avenues of research on media effects. The book nicely outlines the complexities in effects research and integrates several models of media effects, detailing the differences between main lines of thought and writing about audience response to media.

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