Media research has a long history. Critics since the mid nineteenth century have worried about the effects of mass media on political discourse and individual behavior. Pundits at the dawn of the mass media age feared news and entertainment media might appeal to the lowest common denominator of human desire, peddling scandal and spectacle to a gullible and uncritical mass audience. Those fears have not diminished with time. Indeed every innovation in communications technology, from the printing press and the telegraph to the Internet and the cell phone, seems to spawn a new discourse on the decline and fall of civilization. Paradoxically those same technologies simultaneously provoke a parallel discourse on the wonders of technology.
Peters points out communications and media studies were not among the “social sciences” conceptualized by nineteenth-century thinkers, and though communications and media studies leaned heavily on the assumptions of nineteenth-century social science, they were “example[s] of a newer, nascent way of organizing inquiry” (1994: 374). Specifically, communications and media studies are not disciplinary fields; they are topical areas of study that can be approached from a variety of theoretical and methodological perspectives. Peters identifies three main traditions in communications research, each of which has its origins in the intellectual and social ferment of the 1930s: (1) the empirical “effects” tradition of Paul Lazersfeld, (2) the “humanistic” tradition of John Dewey and (3) the “critical” tradition pioneered by the Frankfurt School and more recently carried on by practitioners of critical cultural studies (e.g., Hall, 1977; 1980; 1985). The effects tradition and the critical tradition have been most influential in media research. As the name implies, the effects tradition strives to measure the effects of media consumption on audiences. Research from this perspective has produced some interesting findings. However, it is limited by the assumption that media directly cause particular behaviors and attitudes. For example, it is the lingering influence of the effects tradition that leads many people, including some media researchers, to suspect that playing video games with violent themes and content causes users to become inured to violence and, potentially, more apt to act violently.