Cognitive Psychology of Mass Communication/Gatekeeping Theory

By Johnson, Tom | Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Cognitive Psychology of Mass Communication/Gatekeeping Theory


Johnson, Tom, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator


Harris, Richard Jackson (2009). A Cognitive Psychology of Mass Communication (5th ed.). New York: Routledge, pp. 463.

Shoemaker, Pamela J. and Tim P. Vos (2009). Gatekeeping Theory. New York: Routledge. pp. 173.

Professors must engage in a constant balancing act of choosing texts, trying to find one with enough breadth to cover the needed topics but with enough depth to give students a thorough understanding of the field. Richard Jackson Harris's fifth edition of A Cognitive Psychology of Mass Communication and Pamela J. Shoemaker's and Tim P. Vos's Gatekeeping Theory both lean heavily toward depth over breadth, and both texts deserve a serious look.

While Harris's text lacks the breadth of books I have used in teaching mass communication theory, covering about a third of the theories of many books, it makes up for it by discussing the mass media effects from a clear perspective: cognitive psychology. Harris sets out his basic premise: "Our experience with the media is a major way that we acquire knowledge about the world" (p. 2). The book emphasizes a premise that goes at least back to the writings of Walter Lippmann (although strangely he doesn't cite those works) that our views on reality about the world are constructed largely through our experiences with mass media, and this mental reality becomes the basis for developing attitudes and motivating behaviors. While the book keeps its focus on individual cognitions, it also doesn't ignore discussions of mass media institutions, as well as media effects at the societal level.

From the author's perspective, the major change in the book was devoting considerably more attention to computer-mediated communication than he did four years earlier. Yet, that remains a weakness of the book. Harris does present a nice overview of what distinguishes CMC from print and broadcast mass media and presents a brief, though interesting, discussion of some major topics that online scholars have explored. Like any text that tries to discuss new media, information got dated quickly. For instance, his discussion of Facebook and MySpace claims that, while they are a growing phenomenon among teens and young adults, parents know little about these social network sites beyond their names. High school and college students mortified about what their parents write on their Facebook wall may wish these were still unknown media. But Harris's discussion of CMC is largely limited to the first chapter, making a brief appearance in the chapter on pornography and the one on news, and is strangely absent in the chapter on politics.

He doesn't consider in great degree how the Internet has affected our basic theories. For instance, agenda setting has operated under the assumption of a small number of dominant news organizers who operate under similar news values so they should produce similar agendas. However, how powerful of a role do traditional news media have in a world where the number of news outlets increases, the audience for each decreases, and the notion that news media share the same agenda becomes problematic? Similarly, cultivation assumes television is the dominant medium that presents a dominant worldview. What happens to cultivation when the Internet challenges for dominance and the online world becomes diversified so that you no longer talk about a world view but many potential world views?

But fortunately, the strengths of the previous editions remain intact. First, the book is accessible. Harris takes some difficult concepts, such as schémas and limited capacity model, and makes them understandable to an upper-level undergrad. Second, the writing is engaging. He begins each chapter with three interesting questions and answers such as, "What percentage of fictional TV characters has an identifiable religious affiliation compared to what percentage of actual Americas who claim a religious affiliation?" and liberally sprinkles interesting anecdotes throughout the book. …

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