The idea that the media have direct effects on people implies that audiences and individuals lack the judgement required to negotiate media messages. Decades of research have failed to identify any clear impact, yet the theory remains influential. As each new medium—film, radio, television, the internet and social media—comes along, it raises new fears that this time it really will change both the people who consume it and society as a whole. One indication of this was the 2009–10 debate around mandating an Australian national filter for the internet, in addition to existing regulation of content, such as the prohibition of materials promoting extremist and violent politics. When people express concern about media effects, however, they usually believe that consuming certain kinds of media products has an impact on (other) people’s behaviour, perhaps by influencing them to think or vote in a certain way, or making them more violent.
In a liberal democracy, the media play a political role in creating an informed electorate. Jones and Pusey (2010) argue that Australia’s compulsory election system means that Australian media engage their audiences differently from countries where one role of the media is to interest the public in the political process. They suggest that there is political involvement in regulatory processes, and that powerful Australian media organisations have a direct impact on the framing of legislation regulating their activities. Inquiries such as that following the 1999 ‘cash for comment’ commercial radio scandal also indicate alliances between commercial interests and media organisations that are unusual in Western democracies. Yet the impacts of both the politicisation of Australian media and commercial alliances are as uncertain as other media effects. Young (2002) notes that opinion polls and televised leader-style debates are particularly relevant to Australian electoral practices, but points to the public funding of much political advertising (since 1984) as indicating the importance of such communication in the view of the dominant political parties. She comments that there is no established correlation between the ‘spend’ on political advertising and electoral success.
The theory of media effects underpins all censorship and classification systems. A major review of Australia’s National Classification Scheme in 2012, undertaken by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC), included a recap of the evidence for and against the ‘media effects model’, noting that two disciplinary fields have taken a particular interest in this research area: psychological research, which often takes place in the laboratory; and cultural research, which focuses on everyday experiences. Neither field has made much attempt at longitudinal work, while cultural researchers argue that controlled laboratory settings are not a good predictor of real-life behaviour. Research results remain inconclusive, but classification systems remain, with regulators continuing to worry more about (for example) the portrayal of consensual sex than depictions of domestic violence.
It is notable that media effects research has paid almost no attention the negative effects of high culture—for example, the impact of violence and depictions of under-age sex in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Similarly, there has been little research into any possible positive effects of exposure to different genres of media content. It might be expected that some studies would investigate people in challenging situations, such as prison populations, to see whether positive media affects them beneficially. This has not happened. Even so, some Australian research indicates the positive value of media. Alan McKee’s (2007) work with same sex-attracted young people indicates that some ‘adult content’ serves a valuable educative role in validating young people’s experience of queer and alternative sexualities.
Since Tim Rowse’s discussion of Australian children’s television (see Boehringer et al., 1980), minors increasingly have become the focus of concerns about media effects. This is because they are seen as impressionable, vulnerable and less capable of making informed judgements. Certainly, issues arise when children see—accidentally or otherwise—age-inappropriate materials. In one recent study by Green et al. (2011), nine out of 10 Australian 9- to 10-year-olds were bothered by seeing sexual images online. In contrast, 15- to 16-year-olds were five times more likely to see sexual images online, but only one in eight had been bothered by them. Schrock and boyd’s literature review for Enhancing Child Safety (2008) argues that young people at risk online are also at risk in other contexts, and that there is no clear causal relationship between media exposure and subsequent behaviour.
Most research in this area fails to distinguish between the effects of portrayals of real violence and fictional violence. Australian Broadcasting Tribunal research in the early 1990s indicated that viewers could readily tell the difference between the real and the fictional, and were more troubled by news and documentary footage of actual occurrences. Yet such materials are generally excluded from classification systems on the grounds that the benefits of full reporting outweigh the possibility of viewer distress. The ALRC’s 2012 National Classification Scheme Review concludes that the available research does not point to the media having no effects, arguing instead that ‘there are many and varied results from these studies, and … this evidence base has not generated clearer findings over time’.
REFs: K. Boehringer et al. (eds), The Media in Crisis (1980); L. Green et al., ‘AU Kids Online: Risks and Safety for Australian Children on the Internet’, Cultural Science, 4(1) (2011); P.K. Jones and M. Pusey, ‘Political Communication and “Media System”: The Australian canary’, Media, Culture and Society, 32(3) (2010); A. McKee, ‘“Saying You’ve Been at Dad’s Porn Book is Part of Growing Up”: Youth, Pornography and Education’, Metro Magazine, 155 (2007); A. Shrock and d.m. boyd, ‘Online Threats to Youth: Solicitation, Harassment and Problematic Content’, in Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies, (2008); S. Young, ‘Spot On: The Role of Political Advertising in Australia’, Australian Jnl of Political Science, 37(1) (2002).