Reality Television and Third-Person Perception

Article excerpt

Scores of third-person perception studies have demonstrated the fact that individuals believe other people are more affected by media messages than they themselves are (Perloff, 1993). From Davison's (1983) early work with persuasive media to a variety of studies incorporating material that could be seen as harmful (i.e., pornography, rap music, television violence), researchers continue to explore dimensions of third-person perceptions and effects. Researchers have looked at third-person perception and several types of media messages, including campaign messages (Salwen, 1998), negative political advertising (Cohen & Davis, 1991), product commercials and public service announcements (Gunther & Thorson, 1992), advertising (Brosius & Engel, 1996), a television miniseries (Lasorsa, 1989), rap music (Eveland, Nathanson, Detenber, & McLeod, 1999; McLeod, Eveland, & Nathanson, 1997), pornography (Gunther, 1995; Lo & Wei, 2002; Rojas, Shah, & Faber, 1996), television violence (Hoffner et al., 1999; Hoffner et al., 2001; Rojas et al., 1996; Scharrer, 2002), and news (Driscoll & Salwen, 1997; Hoffner et al., 1999; Hoffner et al., 2001; Neuwirth & Frederick, 2002; Perloff, 1989).

In their meta-analysis, Paul, Salwen, and Dupagne (2000) categorized media messages used in third-person effect studies into three groups: "socially desirable," "socially undesirable," or "neither socially desirable or undesirable" (p. 67). These three categories are of particular interest here as the current authors consider where to fit reality television into this spectrum, a genre that although enormously popular, is also popularly reviled. Although some critics argue that reality programming is a positive force, "releasing everyday voices into the public sphere" (Dovey, 2000, p. 83), this view is countered by those who point to its stereotyped representations of gender and class, its decontextualization of social problems, and its general degradation of public taste (Dovey, 2000). Yet, it lacks a clear-cut antisocial or immoral dimension like pornography, television violence, or death metal music, so that, unlike these controversial topics, reality programming has elicited no calls for censorship, escaping the scrutiny of crusaders and Congress alike. Reality shows are not meant to inform or educate (like news), not produced in order to persuade or influence (like political advertisements), and do not necessarily or instinctively evoke negative feelings in subjects when used by researchers as a stimulus as media violence, pornography, or death metal lyrics do. Because reality television is generally seen as lowbrow but innocuous, the question of what types of perceptual gaps it produces may point to the difficulty of locating entertainment media in Paul et al.'s "middle" category when conducting third-person research. For reality television viewers, where does it fall on the spectrum of social desirability (Paul et al., 2000), evidenced by the presence, or lack thereof, of a third-person perceptual gap?

Although many studies point out the array of media content that yield third-person effects, rarely is one used anymore that does not fall into one of the categories noted earlier. Reid and Hogg's (2005) recent work addresses similar issues, using self-categorization theory as the basis for three studies involving university students. Similar to the current study, they chose media content and target groups that "matched" normatively. For example, they had students judge the influence of the National Enquirer, Wall Street Journal, and Friends (Study 1) and The Jerry Springer Show, CNBC's Financial News, and MTV (Study 2) on themselves and three groups--other university students, bankers, and "trailer trash." In the two studies, respondents perceived trailer trash to be most influenced by National Enquirer and Jerry Springer, bankers most influenced by the Wall Street Journal and CNBC's Financial News, and other students most influenced by Friends and MTV. …