Major Theories of Media Effects

Analysis and Evaluation

by W. James Potter (Author)
©2019 Textbook XVIII, 306 Pages


In Major Theories of Media Effects, six major theories of media effects are thoroughly analyzed and then evaluated to construct a picture of the current state of knowledge in the scholarly field of media effects. These six theories are cultivation, agenda setting, framing, uses and gratifications, social learning, and third person effect. Each of these six theories is examined in detail using fourteen analytical dimensions organized into four categories: how the theory was originally conceptualized, its original components, patterns of empirical testing of its claims, and how the theory has developed over time. The theories are then compared and contrasted along five evaluation dimensions (scope, precision, heuristic value, empirical validity, and openness), plus one summary evaluative dimension that compares their overall utility to generating knowledge about media effects. The insights generated through these analyses and evaluations are used to address questions such as: "What is a theory?"; "Who qualifies as a theoretician?"; and, "Within the scholarly field of media effects, why are there so many theories yet so little theory usage as foundations for empirical studies?"
Concise and accessible analyses of major media effects theories—alongside helpful reference lists that handily index important literature in the field—make Major Theories of Media Effects both a vital reference for scholars and a valuable textbook for graduate and advanced undergraduate courses in media studies.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Table of Contents
  • Tables
  • Preface
  • I Foundations
  • CHAPTER ONE The Role of Theory in Scholarly Fields
  • CHAPTER TWO The Field of Media Effects
  • II Analysis of Core Theories
  • CHAPTER THREE The Analysis Strategy
  • CHAPTER FOUR Cultivation Theory
  • CHAPTER FIVE Agenda-Setting Theory
  • CHAPTER SIX Framing Theory
  • CHAPTER SEVEN Uses and Gratifications Theory
  • CHAPTER EIGHT Social Cognitive Theory
  • CHAPTER NINE Third-Person Theory
  • III Evaluation of the Set of Core Theories
  • CHAPTER TEN The Evaluation Strategy
  • CHAPTER ELEVEN Comparative Analyses
  • IV Big Picture
  • CHAPTER TWELVE Patterns, Questions, and Challenges
  • Index


The field of media effects has exhibited enormous growth in terms of empirical studies and theories. More than a decade ago, it was estimated that there were over 6,000 published empirical studies (Potter & Riddle, 2007) as well as at least 150 media effects theories (Potter, 2009), and the number of existing theories at that time might have been as high as 600 (Bryant & Miron, 2004).

Despite the great number of theories identified as being useful to guide media effects research, the empirical literature has always been—and continues to be—largely atheoretical, that is, only a small proportion of the vast literature of empirical tests of all kinds of media effects has been guided by any theory. Content analyses of the growing media effects literature typically find that only about one third of all studies designed to examine media effects even mention a theory and that less than 10 % of those empirical tests acknowledge the use of a theory to formulate hypotheses or guide their operational decisions (Bryant & Miron, 2004; Kamhawi & Weaver, 2003; Potter, 2018; Potter & Riddle, 2007; Potter, Cooper, & Dupagne, 1993; Shoemaker & Reese, 1990; So, 1988; Stevenson, 1992; Trumbo, 2004). Furthermore, only a handful of media effects theories are mentioned in more than several studies (Potter, 2009), which means that there are a few core theories that account for most of the mentions and the rest of the theories stretch out on a very long tail of only a few mentions each.

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These patterns indicate that programmatic research is rare as a way of extending knowledge about media effects, that is, a very small percentage of the empirical work tests a claim in a theory or builds to general theoretical statements. Furthermore when programmatic research is undertaken, those lines of research are fairly short—only a few studies—with the exception of a handful of well-known theories. This fragmentation of research efforts across a wide range of exploratory topics provides the field with enormous breadth. But the cost for developing this breadth has been a limitation on depth. Thus the field has been much slower in developing depth where particular explanations are tested over a course of dozens of empirical studies and thereby progressively refined into confidently elaborated knowledge structures about the effects of the media.

In the scholarly field of media effects, which is now almost a century old, why are theories used at such a low rate in the development of the field? This is the central question of this book. In order to generate a good answer to such an important question, I present a strategy composed of a sequence of four steps. In the first step, the potential role of theory in guiding the design of individual empirical tests is clarified. I will show that theories offer the potential for high value in guiding the design of research studies that will make a difference to the development of a scholarly field.

In the second step, the most prominent media effects theories are analyzed. This step emphasizes depth over breadth so the scope of the analysis is limited to the six most cited theories of media effects. Each of these six core theories is carefully examined along 14 analytical dimensions in order to identify their essential characteristics. The analyses are presented in enough detail so that readers who want to apply it to any of the other hundreds of theories of media effects will learn how to do so.

In the third step, the six theories are evaluated by comparing and contrasting the theories along five basic evaluative dimensions (scope, precision, heuristic value, empirical validity, and openness) and one summary evaluative dimension (overall utility). This process results in a display of the relative value of each of the six theories arrayed on each of the five base evaluative dimensions as well as the summary dimension of overall utility.

In the fourth and final step, the results of the analyses and evaluations are used to construct a “big picture” pattern about how the major theories of media effects have helped—and failed to help—generate knowledge. These “big picture” patterns are then used to address questions about the value of this knowledge to various publics as well as to media effects researchers themselves.

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Organization of the Book

Following from the structure of four steps outlined above, this book presents 12 chapters arranged in four parts. The first part lays the foundation for the book with two chapters. Chapter 1 shows how scholarly fields in general develop over time and the role that theory can play in that development. Chapter 2 applies the ideas in the first chapter to the development of the field of media effects.

The second part of the book focuses on analysis with seven chapters. Chapter 3 lays out the analytical dimensions that structure the examination of the six major theories—each of which is analyzed in Chapters 4 through 9. The six theories are Cultivation, Agenda Setting, Framing, Uses & Gratifications, Social Cognitive Learning, and Third Person.

In the third part of the book, the theories are evaluated by comparing and contrasting them along six dimensions. Chapter 10 describes the evaluation structure in detail, then the evaluation itself is displayed in Chapter 11.

The book concludes with a chapter that moves your attention away from the details of the theories and onto big picture issues. Chapter 12 uses the findings from the analysis and evaluation to reveal broad patterns about how knowledge is generated in the field of media effects. This chapter concludes with a discussion of the most pressing challenges facing these six theories—as well as all theories of media effects—in order to overcome problems that have arisen in the past and especially because of the enormous changes that have been taking place with the field’s focal phenomenon.

Axioms and Stipulations

Scholarship is never an objective, mechanical presentation of facts. Instead, it is a series of arguments that are shaped by the author’s axiomatic beliefs. By “axiomatic beliefs,” I mean that authors work from a foundation of beliefs that guide their choice of topics, the way they construct arguments, how they use evidence to support those arguments, and even what they consider as evidence. When readers share the same beliefs as an author, then readers can more efficiently follow those arguments, that is, there are fewer barriers to understanding. However, where there is a difference in beliefs between readers and an author, readers will find themselves frequently lost or confused at best, and more typically they will find themselves arguing against the author whose work they will judge as trivial, wrongheaded, or out of bounds.

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Because I want to make the reading experience as transparent as possible, I begin by laying out a series of seven foundational beliefs that guided me when writing this book. The more you—the reader—understand what these beliefs are, the more efficiently you will be able to read this book. I present these seven beliefs in two categories: beliefs about scholarship and philosophical beliefs. It is not my purpose here to convince you to hold these beliefs yourself. Instead I present them so that you have a better context for understanding the arguments I present throughout this book.

Beliefs About Scholarship

While writing this book, I came to realize that I have four strongly held beliefs about scholarly fields. I want to explain what these beliefs are up front so that you can understand the foundation for the thinking I present in this book.

The first of these beliefs is: The primary function of a scholarly field is to generate and communicate knowledge about its focal phenomenon. There are, of course, other important functions of scholarly fields; however, I argue that all other functions are secondary to this primary function. For example, one function of scholarly fields is to provide a community of like-minded scholars. If our scholarly field were a social club, then this function could reasonably be regarded as its primary one. But if we believe that the purpose of scholarly fields is to generate and communicate knowledge, then the scholarly community has more value as a tool that enables scholars to learn from one another rather than simply as a means of interacting with people who share one’s interests. Also, if a research field attracts an increasing number of scholars, this growth could serve as an indicator of an increasingly valuable scholarly field. But it might not. If the growing number of researchers and greater number of research studies do not translate into a widespread sharing of lessons learned about methodologies and an integration of research findings, then the field devolves into fragmentation and moves away from—rather than toward—achieving its primary function. Therefore the growth in the size of a scholarly field can serve as a contributing factor to—but not evidence of—a field’s evolution as it strives toward its primary function.

The second belief is: The key indicator of the growth of a scholarly field is its progression in generating and communicating knowledge that is useful. Usefulness has a slightly different meaning depending on who is consuming the knowledge. We need to consider two different kinds of consumers of this knowledge—researchers who want to contribute to the generation of knowledge and publics (such as teachers, students, parents, policy makers) who want information about ←xii | xiii→the media so they can make better decisions about media use for themselves and others.

The third belief is: Theory is potentially the most valuable tool in helping scholarly fields achieve their primary function. Thus, theories are useful to the extent that they guide the generating and communicating of knowledge about the field’s focal phenomenon. Theories guide the generation of knowledge by focusing scholars’ attention on particular ideas and the theorized relationship among those ideas. Theories delineate the cutting edge of knowledge and provide a perspective on what the most important next steps are. Good theories document the evolution of their key concepts from an initial fuzziness toward increasing clarity. And good theories provide a more efficient context to structure reviews of the literature so that readers can more easily keep up to date with the growth of knowledge and thus avoid getting lost in trying to process thousands of micro findings from hundreds of individual exploratory studies.

The fourth belief is: Scholarship progresses through a hermeneutic process. This is the process whereby scholars make sense of an individual empirical finding in the context of broader patterns in the literature. And broader patterns cannot be constructed without individual findings. Thus the hermeneutic process is composed of two cycles: (1) downward movement generating more narrowly designed reductionistic research studies that dig deeper into each narrow topic; and (2) upward movement where the findings from individual studies are evaluated and synthesized into broader and broader patterns at higher and higher levels of generality. Thus, reductionistic research should not be regarded as having low utility; this is an essential step in the hermeneutic process. However, if a field produces only reductionistic studies while ignoring the need to continually collate, evaluate, and synthesize those findings into larger knowledge structures, the field stays in an exploratory phase where the scattered findings from thousands of individual studies have little stand-alone value. Both cycles of the hermeneutic process are required for a scholarly field to generate useful knowledge about its focal phenomenon.

This hermeneutic process illuminates why it is so difficult for a scholarly field to make progress when it is new. Scholars have no guidance as to where the cutting edge is because there are no big picture patterns. Scholars expend almost all their effort in attempting to identify key concepts, trying out different definitions for those concepts, and exploring which concepts are related to one another. Scholars must rely on speculation and be comfortable with designing reductionistic studies with little guidance. This is the nature of the exploratory phase.

Over time as the results from individual exploratory studies accumulate, patterns begin to emerge. Scholars develop a better sense about which concepts are ←xiii | xiv→most important, which definitions are more clear and valid, and how those concepts are related to one another in an overall system of explanation. Scholars see a clearer big picture pattern to their focal phenomenon, and this knowledge helps them design studies that focus on more important topics, employ more valid measures, and conduct the kinds of analyses that can better explain the nature of the phenomenon.

Big picture patterns are important to social sciences. “Science is about mapmaking. It’s about taking a complicated world and reducing it to some sparse set of markings on a map that provides new guidance across an otherwise incomprehensible, and potentially hostile, landscape. A good map eliminates as much spurious information as possible, so that what remains is just enough to guide our way” (Miller, 2015, p. 1). “Science has proceeded by developing increasingly detailed maps of decreasingly small phenomena. At the heart of this reductionistic strategy is a hope that once we have detailed maps of the smallest of parts, we can paste the mosaic together and have a useful map” of everything (p. 2). However, reductionistic research alone is not enough because even if we know everything possible about the individual pieces that compose a system, we know very little about how those pieces interact with one another as they form the system as a whole. Detailed knowledge of a single piece of glass does not help us see, and appreciate, the image that emerges from a stained-glass window.

The hermeneutic process requires the continual sorting through the results from empirical studies to find the most valid pieces, then to use those pieces to construct a vision of broad patterns displaying a field’s findings as knowledge.

Philosophical Beliefs

This book is based on three philosophical beliefs: ontology about human beings, ontology about the media, and epistemology about scholarship.

The first philosophical belief is: Humans are interpretive beings who are also governed by mechanisms. In the 1980s there was a prominent debate in communication about what scholars referred to as paradigms, which referred to fundamental beliefs about humans. Social scientists were characterized as positivists, which typically meant that they had a mechanistic view of human beings. In contrast humanists were characterized as actionalists or interpretists, which usually meant that they believed that humans exhibited important differences in the way they encountered experiences and interpreted their meanings. While the rhetoric has subsided somewhat, there is reason to believe that this perception of a difference between two forms of scholarship still exists.

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My position is that it is useful to regard human beings as both interpretive beings and also governed by mechanisms. While humans are alike in many ways (e.g., as organic physical systems), humans are also unique from one another in other ways. And most typically, humans are a mix of the two where they exhibit profound differences from other humans while at the same time sharing some characteristics with other humans (e.g., inborn trait differences and broad-scale socializing influences). Stage theories of human development are evidence of this mix of differences and similarities. For example, Piaget’s stage theory of cognitive development regards all children at age 3 as having the same cognitive capabilities but that there are also important differences across children by each age cohort. The research in all social sciences exhibits a belief about a mix of differences and similarities. For example, when researchers test for the influence of demographic characteristics (sex, age cohort, socioeconomic status, educational level, income level, etc.), they are acknowledging that important differences exist. Thus testing for biological sex indicates that a researcher believes that males are different from females in some important way but that all males are relatively the same and that all females are relatively the same.

The rhetoric in the paradigm debates is useful only if it continually reminds us that humans are both biological machines and creative interpretive beings. The key to making scholarly contributions does not lie in taking the “right” path; instead, the key challenge is in recognizing the ways that humans are uniformly hard-wired and using appropriate methods to generate data and analyses to increase our understanding of that part of the human experience while also recognizing the ways in which humans are different—from the subtle to the profound—and using very different methods to observe and document the nature of those differences.


XVIII, 306
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. XVIII, 306 pp., 30 tables

Biographical notes

W. James Potter (Author)

W. James Potter is a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Since earning his two Ph.D.s (Indiana University and Florida State University), he has published over two dozen books in the areas of media effects and media literacy.


Title: Major Theories of Media Effects
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326 pages