Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Media Dependency and Perceived Reality of Fiction and News

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Media Dependency and Perceived Reality of Fiction and News

Article excerpt

Two studies examined whether familiar and unfamiliar contexts influenced the relationship between the typicality of a news or entertainment story and the perceived realism of that story. For shopping mall patrons in the United States, typicality had a significantly weaker effect when news events were presented as coming from Brazil rather than from the United States. Entertainment stories presented as coming from Brazil were seen as more real than identical stories presented as coming from the United States. However, the familiarity of the setting did not influence the story typicality and perceived reality relationship for entertainment stories.


To understand the people and events portrayed in media stories, audience members must make a variety of judgments as events unfold and people interact. Understanding audience responses to media people and events requires understanding the mental processes involved in processing stories in news, fiction, and advertising (Escalas & Stern, 2003; Gerrig, 1993; Sarbin, 1986; Schank & Abelson, 1995; Strange & Leung, 1999). One judgment that may be important in the mental processing of media stories is that of the perceived reality of the events, people, and settings portrayed on television.

Recent studies found that the more typical the people and events described or portrayed in media stories, the more realistic those people and events were judged to be (Shapiro & Chock, 2003). It seems unlikely that this is always true. One possibility is that this is only true when the context of the story is familiar. People tend to be more influenced by media when they have few other sources of information available to them (Ball-Rokeach, 1998; Ball-Rokeach & DeFleur, 1976). When we process stories about unfamiliar settings we have fewer sources of information than when we process stories about familiar settings (Perry, 1987; Prentice, Gerrig, & Bailis, 1997; Slater, 1990). The studies reported on here test the possibility that, compared to a familiar setting, people are more likely to accept atypical people and atypical events from an unfamiliar setting and therefore see them as more real.

Media Dependency and Perceived Reality

Media dependency theory predicts that mass media influence on a person's conception of social reality will decrease when a person has personal experience with a phenomenon (Ball-Rokeach & DeFleur, 1976). Although much of the research in media dependency focuses on how the interdependencies between the media and other social systems shape audience relationships with the media (De Fleur & Ball-Rokeach, 1982), the theory also suggests that during individual mental processing people often lack information, which creates ambiguity (Ball-Rokeach & DeFleur, 1976; DeFleur & Ball-Rokeach, 1989). The mass media are influential to the extent that they are able to provide information that resolves this ambiguity.

Perry (1987) argues that a person is less likely to be media dependent when he or she is presented with information about familiar situations than with information about unfamiliar ones because the person lacks experience with the unfamiliar. Perry presented participants with identical unrepresentative news stories (Perry, 1987). Half of the participants were told that the stories were about familiar European countries, and half were told the stories concerned unfamiliar African countries. Stories about unfamiliar African countries had a greater influence on participants' judgments than stories concerning more familiar locales. The same type of processing may apply to fictional stories. Prentice and colleagues (1997) found students were more persuaded by false information embedded in a fictional story set on an unfamiliar campus than by a fictional story set on a familiar campus.

Slater (1990) found a similar effect for fiction. However, his nonfiction messages about familiar social group members had a greater effect than did nonfiction messages about unfamiliar social group members. …

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