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Reinforcement theory

Media influence

The story so far

For the first half of the 20th century media research swung
between two extremes:

That audiences were

That the media caused a
unaffected by the media and
passive hypodermic-style
actively used it for their
reaction in audiences
personal gratification

The 1960s

A turning point for communication research

Up to this point, researched focused on what effects

media had on audiences

As TV became popular, theorists began to think

differently and a focus on interpretative and social
responses to media began to emerge

Reinforcement theory

Joseph Klapper, a sociologist, proposed in his 1960 book

The Effects of Mass Communication that the media has
very little power to shape or influence public opinion
because audiences are active and texts are open to

He argued that media texts work to reinforce (not

change) existing attitudes and behaviours.

His theory states that media rarely have any direct effects
and are relatively powerless when compared to other
social and psychological factors.

"Whatever it is to be called, it is in essence a

shift away from from the tendency to regard
mass communication as a necessary and
sufficient cause of audience effects, towards a
view of the media as influences, working amid
other influences, in a total situation."
-Joseph Klapper in The Effects of Mass Communication

Where do people get their beliefs from?

Klapper proposed that other things were more influential than the
media, such as the following socializing agents:


peer group




social class

Reinforcing existing beliefs

The media, therefore, only reinforce what the consumer

already believes about the world and society.

He argued that for the media to influence an audience,

the audience must be presented with an issue that its
socializing agents have yet to be exposed to.

e.g. when a new issue arises and exposure to the media

is the first time a consumer has been exposed to it, then
the media may have some influence

Studies supporting the theory

In The Effects of Mass Communication, Klapper cites a number

of studies that support his theory, including a 1948 study by
Larzarsfeld, Berelson and Gaudet which revealed that voters
were predisposed to opinions andbeliefs held by their families.

As Klapper notes: For persons such as the young man who

reported his intention to vote Democratic because my
Grandfather will skin me if I dont or for his opposite number
who explained that I will vote Republican because my family are
all Republicans so therefore I would have to vote that way
exposure to months of campaign propaganda was found
particularly likely to be reinforcing, and particularly unlikely to
effect conversion.

Strengths and weaknesses


Highlights role of mediating

variables in the communication

Saying the media reinforces
attitudes and behaviours is hardly
the same as saying they have no

Relies heavily on studies from

Lazarsfeld, Hovland etc. of a media
environment that did not include
mediums like TV and Internet


Some Tweet this: A uses and gratifications perspective on how

active Twitter use gratifies a need to connect with others research

A study by Gina Masullo Chen (2011)

The core of the U&G approach is that it asks what

people do with media, not what the media does to

This aspect of U&G is particularly salient for Twitter use

because it explains how people first select this medium
and then use it to meet their psychological or social


Some Tweet this: A uses and gratifications perspective on how

active Twitter use gratifies a need to connect with others research

Use of Twitter functions also positively correlates with

gratification of this need for connection, with frequency of
tweet- ing showing the strongest relationship (r = .63, p
< .01). This shows support for the hypothesised
contention that use of Twitter functions mediates the focal
relationship between active Twitter use and gratification of
the need to connect with others on Twitter.

Twitter is not just virtual noise of people talking at each

other, as some critics contend, but that it is a medium
that people actively seek out to gratify a need to connect
with others.