Academic journal article Journalism Quarterly

Real and Perceived Effects of 'Amerika'

Academic journal article Journalism Quarterly

Real and Perceived Effects of 'Amerika'

Article excerpt

Third-person effect found among those who perceive themselves as political experts.

Concern about deleterious effects of mass messages on other members of society goes back at least as far as Plato.1 In 1987, "Amerika," a seven-part miniseries broadcast by ABC-TV, drew strong protests from critics concerned about negative effects on viewers. The program depicted life in the United States a decade after a bloodless takeover by the Soviet Union.

Much of the controversy surrounding the program dealt with the question of what effect it would have on public opinion concerning such issues as the Soviet threat to the U.S., support for the U.N., and civilian preparedness for war.2 Yet, despite age-old concerns about the propagandistic effect of media messages, there is not much empirical evidence in support of such concerns.3 In particular, studies generally have found no significant changes in public opinion as a result of viewing other dramatic TV presentations with political overtones, such as "Roots" and "The Day After."4

Despite this, there persists among the general public widespread concern about such effects, as evidenced by the protests against "Amerika." Public and experts alike seem to be convinced that the mass media must have important effects on their audiences. Lang and Lang put it well: "all of us ... much as we publicly belittle what the mass media do, act most of the time as if we believed in their potency. Republican members of the faculty pay for a newspaper ad supporting their candidate; the Democrats must counter with their own."5

In 1983, sociologist W. Phillips Davison6 posited a general psychological mechanism that might account for the persistence of strong "common sense" expectations in the face of weak empirical evidence. According to Davison's "thirdperson effect" hypothesis, people often believe there to be important effects of mass communications on others but not on themselves.7

For me to believe that others will be affected by a mass media message but that I will be immune would seem to imply that I consider myself different from others in some important way(s). Davison speculated that the third person effect may be likely to occur in the case of an expert, that is, one who possesses special knowledge and skill. Experts may reason that it is this special experience that protects them from media influence while other less knowledgeable, active audience members are more susceptible to media influence.

This argument, however, is based not on the possession of expertise but the perception of expertise. While true expertise and perceived expertise are related, important differences have been noteci.8 Thus, what may drive the third-person effect is not so much one's possession of specialized knowledge and skill but merely that one perceive oneself in that regard. It may be enlightening to examine more closely the nature of expertise, especially how real and how specialized it must be before the third person effect engages.

As opposed to one who merely fancies himself a political expert, a true expert is politically more knowledgeable and acts on that knowledge effectively. Among other things, a political expert demonstrates political knowledge, is attentive to political information and is willing to talk to others, including opponents, about important political issues. Those who merely perceive themselves as political experts, on the other hand, may express a strong interest in politics and believe they can comprehend and evaluate well political messages, but they lack the special knowledge and skill associated with a true expert.

Based on the above reasoning, the following hypotheses were tested:

H^sub 1^: The program "Amerika" will result in no discernible short-term direct effects on its viewers' public opinions. (The minimal effects hypothesis).

H^sub 2^: A significant number of viewers of "Amerika" will report no substantial effects of the program on themselves but substantial effects on other viewers. …

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