Media systems dependency theory

Media systems dependency theory
Media systems dependency theory (MSDT), or simply "media dependency," was developed by Sandra Ball-Rokeach and Melvin DeFleur in 1976. The theory ties together the interrelations of broad social systems, mass media, and the individual into a comprehensive explanation of media effects. At its core, the basic dependency hypothesis states that the more a person depends on media to meet needs, the more important media will be in a person's life, and therefore the more effects media will have on a person.
Three Types of Needs. According to Ball-Rokeach and DeFleur, three media needs determine how important media is to a person at any given moment:

  • The need to understand one's social world (surveillance)
  • The need to act meaningfully and effectively in that world (social utility)
  • The need to escape from that world when tensions are high (fantasy-escape)

When these needs for media are high, the more people turn to media to meet these needs, and therefore the media have a greater opportunity to effect them. That said, none of these media needs are constant over long periods of time. They change based on aspects of our social environment. In fact, media dependency theory states two specific conditions under which people's media needs, and consequently people's dependency on media and the potential for media effects, are heightened.

Two Conditions of Heightened Needs. The first condition of heightened media needs occurs when the number of media and centrality of media functions in a society are high. For instance, in modernized countries like the United States, there are many media outlets and they serve highly centralized social functions. In the United States alone, the media act as a "fourth branch" of government, an alarm system during national emergencies, and as a tool for entertainment and escape, whereas in the underdeveloped world the media are not as numerous and serve far fewer functions. As such, the media have a greater opportunity to serve needs and exert effects in contemporary America than in a third world country. The second condition of heightened media needs occurs when a society is undergoing social change and conflict. When there is a war or large-scale public protests like during Vietnam or the Arab Spring, a national emergency like the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, or a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina, people turn to media to help understand these important events. Consequently, the media have a greater opportunity to exert effects during these times of social change and conflict.


Ball-Rokeach and DeFleur suggest that media have various cognitive, affective, and behavioral effects.

There are five types of cognitive effects that will be exerted on audiences, the first of which is the creation and resolution of ambiguity. Ambiguity occurs when audiences receive inadequate or incomplete information about their social world. When there is high ambiguity, stress is created, and audiences are more likely to turn to mass media to resolve ambiguity. Ambiguity might be especially prevalent during times of social change or conflict. The second effect is agenda-setting. This is another reason why we might call dependency a “comprehensive” theory of media effects - it incorporates the entire theory of agenda-setting within its theoretical framework. Like any other effect, media agenda-setting effects should be heightened during times when the audience’s needs and therefore dependency on media are high. So, for instance, if our informational needs and dependency on media was high during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, we would have been more susceptible to agenda-setting effects, and we would have therefore perceived the Iraq War as the most important problem (MIP) facing the United States. Third is attitude formation. Media exposes us to completely new people, such as political figures and celebrities, not to mention physical objects like birth control pills or car safety mechanisms that we come to form attitudes about. Dependency does not suggest media are monolithic in their ability to influence attitudes, but the theory does suggest that media play a role in selecting objects and people for which people form attitudes about. If a person is experiencing greater media dependency, we would therefore expect that the person will form more (or more complex) attitudes about these attitude-objects than people with low media dependency. Media also have the potential cognitive effect of expanding people's belief systems. Media can create a kind of "enlargement" of citizen's beliefs by disseminating information about other people, places, and things. Expansion of people’s belief systems refers to a broadening or enlarging of beliefs in a certain category. For example, a constant flow of information about global warming will expand people’s beliefs about pollution affecting the earth’s atmosphere, about cap and trade and other policies, and about personal contributions to global warming. These beliefs meet with and are incorporated into an existing value system regarding religion, free enterprise, work, ecology, patriotism, recreation, and the family. Last is value clarification and conflict. Media help citizens clarify values (equality, freedom, honesty, forgiveness) often by precipitating information about value conflicts. For instance, during the 1960s the mass media regularly reported on the activities of the Civil Rights movement, presenting conflicts between individual freedoms (e.g., a businessman’s property rights to deny blacks entrance) and equality (e.g., human rights). When such conflicts play out in the mass media, the value conflicts are identified, resulting in audiences forming their own value positions. Such a position can be painful to articulate because it can force a choice between mutually incompatible goals and the means for obtaining them. However, in the process of trying to decide which is more important in a particular case, general value priorities can become clarified.
Ball-Rokeach and DeFleur mentions several possible affective media effects that are more likely to occur during times of heightened dependency. First is desensitization, which states that prolonged exposure to violent content can have a "numbing" effect on audiences, promoting insensitivity or the lack of desire toward helping others when violent encounters happen in real life. Second, exposure to news messages or TV dramas that portray crime-ridden cities can increase people's fear or anxiety about living in or even traveling to a city. Media can also have effects on morale and feelings of alienation. The degree of positive or negative mass media depictions of social groups can cause fluctuations in people's sense of morale in belonging to that group or in their sense of alienation from that group.
There are two broad categories of behavioral effects that Ball-Rokeach and DeFleur identify. The first broad category is called "activation" effects, which refer to instances in which media audiences do something they would not otherwise have done as a consequence of receiving media messages. Behavioral effects are largely thought to work through cognitive and affective effects. For instance, a woman reading a news story about sexism in the workplace might form an attitude toward sexism that creates a negative emotional state, the culmination of which is joining a women’s rights march in her local community. The second broad category of behavioral effects is called "deactivation," and refers to instances in which audiences would have otherwise done something, but don't do as a consequence of media messages. For example, the primary presidential campaign has become longer and increasingly use more media to target audiences. As such, primary campaigns might elicit negative attitudes toward the electoral process and negative affective states such as boredom or disgust that in turn might make a person not turn out to vote.


The Macrolevel of Dependency
Every country's media system is interdependent on the country's other social systems (e.g., its economy, its government) for resources, and vice-versa. At the macrolevel, dependency theory states these interrelationships influence what kinds of media products are disseminated to the public for consumption, and the range of possible uses people have for media.

Media and Economic System
The media depend on a society's economic system for 1) inculcation and reinforcement of free enterprise values, 2) establishing and maintaining linkages between producers and sellers, and 3) controlling and winning internal conflicts, such as between management and unions. In turn, the media is dependent on a society's economic system for 1) profit from advertising revenue, 2) technological developments that reduce costs and compete effectively with other media outlets, and 3) expansion via access to banking and finance services, as well as international trade.
Media and Political System
A society's media and political system are also heavily interdependent. Political system rely on the media to 1) inculcate and reinforce political values and norm such as freedom, voting, or obedience to the law, 2) maintain order and social integration, 3) organize and mobile the citizenry to carry out essential activities like waging war, and 4) controlling and winning conflicts that develop within political domains (e.g., Watergate). Conversely, the media rely on a country's political system for judicial, executive, and legislative protection, formal and informal resources required to cover the news, and revenue that comes from political advertising and subsidies.
Media and Secondary Systems
To a lesser extent, media has established interdependencies with several other social systems. The family is dependent on media for inculcation and reinforcement of family values, recreation and leisure, coping with everyday problems of child rearing, marriage, and financial crises. On the other hand, the media is dependent on the family for consuming their media products. The same is true of media and religious systems. Religious systems rely on media for inculcation and reinforcement of religious values, transmitting religious messages to the masses, and successfully competing with other religious or nonreligious philosophies. In turn, the media relies on the religious system to attain profits from religious organizations who purchase space or air time. The educational system in a society relies on media for value inculcation and reinforcement, waging successful conflicts or struggles for scarce resources, and knowledge transmission such as in educational media programming. Media depends on the educational system for access to expert information and being able to hire personnel trained in the educational system. Finally, the military system depends on the media for value inculcation and reinforcement, waging and winning conflicts, and specific organizational goals such as recruitment and mobilization. The media, in turn, depends on the military for access to insider or expert information. The consequences of all of these interdependencies, again, are alterations in media products that audiences consume. In this way, the system-level interdependencies control media products, the range of possible social uses for media, the extent to which audiences depend on the media to fulfill needs, and ultimately media effects on audiences. Individual differences due to demographics or personality traits might change what people actually do with media messages or how they interpret media messages, but the messages always begin as the result of interdependent social systems.
Baran and Davis identify four primary criticisms of dependency theory: 

  • Variability in microlevel and macrolevel measurement makes between-study comparability problematic.
  • The theory is often difficult to empirically verify.
  • The meaning and power of dependency is sometimes unclear.
  • Dependency theory lacks power in explaining long-term effects.

The echo chamber effect.
The echo chamber effect refers to any situation in which information, ideas or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission inside an "enclosed" space. Observers of journalism in the mass media describe an echo chamber effect in media discourse. One purveyor of information will make a claim, which many like-minded people then repeat, overhear, and repeat again (often in an exaggerated or otherwise distorted form) until most people assume that some extreme variation of the story is true. A media conglomerate that owns multiple media outlets can produce the same story among "different" outlets, creating an illusion that a media consumer is getting information from different sources. Similarly, the term also refers to the media effect whereby an incorrect story (often a "smear" that first appears in a new-media domain) is reported through a biased channel, creating a media controversy that is subsequently reported in more reputable mainstream media outlets. These mainstream reports often use intermediary sources or commentary for reference and emphasize the controversy surrounding the original story rather than its factual merits. The overall effect often is to legitimize false claims in the public eye through sheer volume of reporting and media references, even if the majority of these reports acknowledges the factual inaccuracy of the original story.
Participants in online communities may find their own opinions constantly echoed back to them, which reinforces their individual belief systems. This can create significant barriers to critical discourse within an online medium. The echo chamber effect may also impact a lack of recognition to large demographic changes in language and culture on the Internet if individuals only create, experience and navigate those online spaces that reinforce their world view. Another emerging term used to describe this echoing and homogenizing effect on the Internet within social communities is cultural tribalism. The Internet may also be seen as a complex system (e.g., emergent, dynamic, evolutionary), and as such, will at times eliminate the effects of positive feedback loops (i.e., the echo chamber effect) to that system, where a lack of perturbation to dimensions of the network, prohibits a sense of equilibrium to the system. Complex systems that are characterized by negative feedback loops will create more stability and balance during emergent and dynamic behavior.
The Narcotizing dysfunction.
The term narcotizing dysfunction was first identified in the article Mass Communication, Popular Taste and Organized Social Action, by Paul F. Lazarsfeld, and Robert K. Merton. The term refers to a social consequence of mass media. The theory claims that as news about an issue inundates people, they become apathetic to it, substituting knowing about that issue for action on it.Because the individual is assailed with information of issues and problems and they are knowledgeable about or discuss these issues, they believe they are helping in the solution. Society has confused knowing about an issue with doing something about it. Society’s conscience is clear as they think they have done something to remediate the issue. However, being informed and concerned is not a replacement for action. Even though there are increasing numbers of political messages, information, and advertisements, political participation continues to decline. People pay close attention to the media, but there is an overexposure of messages that can get confusing and contradictory so people don’t get involved in the political process.Research on understanding media effects have gone through 3 phases during the 20th century. From the 1920s to 1940s researchers believed the media had a powerful effect on its audience. This assumes the audience is passive and uncritical of the media’s messages. This phase is characterized by the Hypodermic needle model or Bullet Theory. This theory was used to explain how WWII propaganda changed behavior – convincing men to join the service, housewives to change food habits, and improving the morale of new soldiers. From the 1940s through the 1960s, researchers believed that people were more influenced by their friends and family than the media. The minimalist effects theory includes narcotizing dysfunction because the audience withdraws from real issues and becomes passive. In this phase instead of the media telling people what to think, it tells the audience what to think about (sets the agenda). From the 1960s to today, researchers believe that the media can have both powerful and limited effects on society, depending on situational factors. The media may impact the development of attitudes, beliefs, and values, and it may be more influential on some personalities than others.