Are we susceptible to the media or as resilient as we think?
Imagine this: the year is 1938, you and your loved ones gather around the family radio to tune into the one device that can keep you connected with the world around you — the world’s events, news stories, and entertainment. You begin to listen to what you believe to be a news broadcast, but something goes wrong. The reporters start to describe a frightening scene of Martians landing on earth and bringing destruction and terror. Today, we might laugh this off as a funny gag — but in 1938, this broadcast brought confusion and panic to millions of listeners. Many of them not aware this was a dramatization began to believe this was actually occurring.
In a way, Orson Wells, who directed and narrated the War of the Worlds broadcast knew what he was doing. He knew that far too many people had begun to blindly believe the information that they heard through the radio. The reaction he garnished from his broadcast illustrates the dangers of the hypodermic-needle theory. This theory pushes the idea that the media has the power to “inject” audiences with the information and ideas that they want us to believe. This linear theory relies on the audience being passive and being affected directly by the message injected into them by the media.
This got me wondering — am I as susceptible to media influence as the listeners of that 1938 radio broadcast? I doubt it. The media landscape has changed dramatically since then. The media of that time was very one-dimensional and linear. The media spoke, and we listened. That is no longer the case today.
First, distrust in the media has grown substantially. In 2020, less than half of U.S. adults saw the media as credible (mistrust was especially prevalent among registered-Republicans). Information presented by the media is no longer taken as fact — instead, audiences (myself included) scrutinize and fact-check reports or articles that seem odd or not quite logical. Verifying information is also easier because of how multi-dimensional media has become.
The way we consume media has changed. The advent of technologies such as television, the Internet, and social media has given us an array of platforms to choose from. We are no longer passively waiting to hear what the media has to say — that is to say, audiences are actively searching for the media they want to consume. We can now focus on the topics and issues that are important to us. News aggregates like Google News further personalize the media we consume. The media is no longer in control of what we consume — we are.
Lastly, some may point to believers of “fake news” as being an example of falling victim to the hypodermic needle theory in today’s modern society. I disagree. The theory proposes that media can have an immediate effect on public opinion — uniformly across audiences. That’s just not true. Instead what we are seeing is people using the media to confirm their preconceived ideas and thoughts. This has allowed fake news outlets to fill in the demand. I’ll try to visualize this idea: someone who staunchly believes a fake news article is true will not be dispelled by a credible news article or vice versa — someone who believes the credible article will not easily be swayed by fake news (I know I’m not). An example of this can be seen in the 2020 presidential election. News stories about how the election was fair or stolen flooded the Internet and airwaves. Yet, I doubt many of them convinced anyone, who held preconceived ideas about the election, to change their mind.